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Dress-up heaven

Young women try on gowns outside the dressing rooms at The Ultimate in Peabody.

John Blanding/Globe Staff

Young women try on gowns outside the dressing rooms at The Ultimate in Peabody.

PEABODY —In the midst of more than 100 teenage girls, just as many frenzied mothers, and nearly 8,000 dresses, sisters Heather Siegel and Fawn Merlino stand ready, co-owners of the Ultimate prom dress boutique in Peabody.

As prom season approaches and the weekend crowds swell, the wait for a

John Blanding/ Globe Staff

Accessories include purses and shoes

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dressing room can be as long as two hours. Siegel and Merlino call it “organized chaos,” but that annual quest for sequins and chiffon has made the shop into a local success story.

Their late mother, Frances Merlino, started the business in 1969 out of the basement of their Revere home with only three racks of clothing. Now, as one of the leading prom apparel stores in New England, the Ultimate recently moved to its grandest location yet.

“From the basement to a 10,000-square-foot building, this is a dream come true,” said Fawn Merlino, who was just 5 years old when her mother first established the boutique. “I used to play in the racks of dresses,” she said.

John Blanding/ Globe Staff

Heather Siegewl with dresses at The Ultimate, a women's apparel store on Rt. 1 in Peabody, Mass.that she owns with her sister Fawn Merlino.

Forty-five years later, she works alongside her older sister, who started working for her mother in 1971, when she was 21, and the main selling items were sportswear and bathing suits. After a few lines of evening wear were added, the business started gaining popularity. At that point, Siegel knew it was time for change.

“When we were in the basement 19 years ago we outgrew it,” she said. “It became really crowded. We knew we had to make a move. We knew if we continued to outgrow our space, we would lose business.”

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In 1995, they moved to a storefront in Saugus, shifting the store’s focus primarily to prom attire. Business continued to escalate, so in 2005, the company moved again, to Route 1 in Peabody, just about a half-mile away from the current location.

John Blanding/ Globe Staff

The store specializes in clothes for proms, social occasions, and evening wear.

In addition to prom dresses, the store also sells wedding attire, such as bridesmaid and mother-of-the-bride dresses, and other special-occasion apparel, and offers tuxedos for sale or rent.

Siegel said she has been told by dress manufacturers that the Ultimate is the largest prom store in New England, and ranks in the top five nationally. The new building, also on Route 1, is the first piece of property the company has owned. Roomy enough to accommodate more customers, it also has 150 parking spaces and 10 additional dressing rooms.

“There’s just a lot more space; you don’t feel claustrophobic,” said customer Teresa Owens, who has shopped at both the new and old locations with her high school-aged daughters.

John Blanding/ Globe Staff

Sisters Deirdre Somerville (left) and Melanie Somerville, of Tewksbury check out prom dresses at The Ultimate.

The new Ultimate, which is almost five times the size of the previous store, boasts bright white walls lined with feather boas and scores of racks that hold nearly every style of evening dress imaginable, ranging in price from $150 to $800.

“It’s beautiful,” Siegel said. “It’s so spacious and bright. People who come here are shopping for a happy occasion, so we created an upbeat feeling in the store.”

While the decor and space may be upgrades, Siegel said customer service is something her family has always strived to keep at the top level.

“We’re a large boutique with a small-store feel,” she said. “We have wonderful people who work for us. Everyone gets the same service, whether they’re going to a wedding, a prom, or to the Oscars. We’re in the business of making all women look and feel beautiful.”

John Blanding/ Globe Staff

Fawn Merlino at The Ultimate, a women's apparel store on Rt. 1 in Peabody, which she owns with her sister Heather Siegel.

Extra sales staff is usually added during prom season to handle the crush of customers.

Rachel Goodreau, a senior at North Reading High School, has shopped at the Ultimate for both junior and senior prom dresses. She said the one-on-one service was one of the qualities that made her want to come back.

“We had a sales associate [Denise] help us who was really nice, and I actually had her last year too, so I think the people here are really nice and helpful,” said Goodreau.

The Ultimate sells about 6,000 dresses to high school prom-goers each season. Sales associates even keep track of dress sales by school, so the same style dress isn’t sold to more than one girl per dance.

John Blanding/ Globe Staff

The Ultimate, a women's apparel store on route 1 in Peabody

Those high sales earned the store elite status among distributers, the owners said, giving them access to exclusive styles and designs sold at only a select number of stores nationwide.

“When women come in, the issue isn’t about finding the right dress, but deciding which one,” said Merlino.

The sisters are also getting some help carrying on the family business. Niece Krystal Siegel began working in the store five years ago, after graduating from Hofstra University with a degree in business.

Krystal said she knows her grandmother, Frances Merlino, would be proud of the new store and all the success her daughters have had.

“This was her dream,” she said. “This is something that she’s looking down and smiling on right now.”

“My mother was a fabulous business person,” added Heather Siegel. “I learned so much from her. She was very proud of our store, and she was very proud of us. I know that she’s still with us.”

Lauren Spencer can be reached at lauren.spencer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenspencer6.
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