Evening star

Shopping for evening wear can be daunting. Don't let fear foil your search for that special something.

By Sharon Fink
Published April 14, 2007

Experience the ultimate fashion freak-out: Shop for evening wear.

Strapless gowns that bind so tight, we feel like candidates for the Muffin Top Hall of Fame. Plunging V-necks that have us longing for Dolly Parton's cleavage. Skirt slits so high that legs aren't the only body part we worry about flashing. Dresses so form-fitting that we would sell our souls - and those of our friends and family - for literal buns of steel.

"With evening wear, a woman is not only exposing her ego but exposing her body in a sense that she normally wouldn't in everyday attire," says Carmen Marc Valvo, an evening wear designer whose name is uttered frequently in answer to the red carpet question "Who are you wearing?"

But the freak-out isn't about only our bodies. There's the amount of money we expect to pay for a dress for a special evening, a wedding, a prom or dress-up night on a cruise. Unless you luck into finding something on sale, you'll be paying at least three figures for an outfit you're happy with. That's a significant investment for clothes you might not be sure you'll wear more than once.

And then there's the pressure of the "specialness" of the occasion and our desire to look flawless for it - like all those celebrities on the red carpet.

It almost makes buying a bathing suit seem as enjoyable as a massage from Hugh Jackman.

Valvo, who has been designing evening wear for the famous and nonfamous for 18 years, has experienced the process from creation to explaining the right way to wear a stole. He understands the freak-out factor and knows how to reduce it.

The voluble, down-to-earth designer passed along his tips during a runway show of his spring and fall lines for an audience of about 70 one day last month at Neiman Marcus at Tampa's International Plaza and in an interview afterward.

DON'T USE THE RED CARPET AS YOUR STANDARD OF PERFECTION: It's not practical if you're buying off the rack, as most people do. The red carpet design process "is crazy," Valvo says. "(It) is sometimes very, very complicated with celebrities, and sometimes it's very simple." For major events, dresses are usually custom-made or fitted. And the longer a designer has worked with a celeb, the better a dress can look. "You understand their body . . . their personality . . . what they're not comfortable with, because none of us are comfortable 100 percent with who we are."

This experience isn't out of your reach. If the event means a lot to you, and you have time and money, you can have a tailor or local designer make something for you. But do research; don't hire the first name that comes up on an Internet search.

DON'T RULE OUT ANYTHING UNTIL YOU TRY IT ON: You don't know if a dress or skirt really will or won't work until you wear it. "It's the woman who gives life to the dress," Valvo says. "It's how she fits in it and how she walks in it and how it twirls."

CHECK THE INSIDE, TOO: Figure out up front what kind of undergarments you'll have to wear with a dress, like shapewear or a strapless bra. If the dress is very form fitting, see if it has support built in so you don't have to worry about bra and panty lines. If it does, be confident you'll have all the support you need. If it doesn't, or if there's no support at all, move on.

TRUST THE CAMERA LENS: If you've found more than one outfit you like and can't decide which one to buy, take a picture of yourself in each. "What we think we see is not what the camera sees," Valvo says. "The picture will speak so much clearer than what you thought you looked like in the dress. Then make your decision. . . . I do it all the time with the celebrities. It really, really works."

And this isn't just a gimmicky designer thing. Think of all the pictures that will be taken at your event. How you look in them will be how you are preserved for posterity.

Sharon Fink can be reached at (727) 893-8525 and fink@sptimes.com.

How to be at ease in evening wear

Evening wear comes with two particularly vexing challenges: how to walk in a long skirt, especially if it has a train, and how to wear a stole. Carmen Marc Valvo knows how to do both.

SKIRT: It's easier to maneuver if you walk so air gets under it. As you step, give a little kick first, then walk. "The dress will move with you because it picks up the air," Valvo says. For trains, he has this analogy: "You know how when you're learning to drive, they said if the front of the car makes the bend, the rear will follow? It's the same thing with the train. Don't step on it. Walk around it, the rear of the car will follow."

STOLE: Don't wear it wrapped around your neck with the ends flowing down your back. "You will be decapitated," Valvo says. And, he says, in pictures you'll look 20 pounds heavier, a foot shorter and several years older. Wrap the stole around your shoulders, and to keep it from constantly falling off, take one end and wrap it twice around one arm. If you wear a stole this way, Valvo says, "in a photograph . . . you will lose 20 pounds and grow 6 inches. . . . It also gives you stability, with your hands for cocktails, hugging, all those fabulous things."On the WebTo see more of what Carmen Marc Valvo presented at his Neiman Marcus show, go to www.links.tampabay.com.


More from the runwayTo see more of the outfits Carmen Marc Valvo presented at his Neiman Marcus show, go to www.links.tampabay.com.

Turn evening wear into daytime wear

Carmen Marc Valvo thinks that one way to get the most for your evening wear money is to be able to mix pieces into wardrobes for daytime and informal occasions. Before buying, think about other uses for an outfit.For example, if you're looking at a long skirt with a halter top or twin set, you can pair either top with jeans. If you're considering a cocktail dress with a long coat, the coat can go with jeans, shown above, or a casual shift, and you can dress down the dress with sporty sandals and a cardigan for lunch or shopping.Also, find out how many total pieces an outfit comes with and consider getting all of them. Maybe that cocktail dress and long coat have matching pants. Or a short skirt goes with that long skirt and halter top. Getting every piece may mean spending more money than you had planned for an already expensive purchase, but it could save you money, and time and hassle, in the long run."I always tell the ladies, when they say, 'I have this one event, and I'm looking for this one piece,' get the pant, get the short skirt," Valvo says. "They say, 'But I don't really need it.' Maybe not that minute. But in three months, in six months, you will, and you'll be coming to the store saying, 'Do you have anything to go with this?'"Plan ahead. . . . Get those extra pieces for those events that will eventually arrive for you."

- Sharon Fink