Get a £600 prom dress for under £70 at this Suffolk shop
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
“Now you’re asking,” Jean Beecroft, owner of Simply Splendid in Needham Market laughs. I’ve prompted her to pick out favourite dresses from the collection of more than 1,000 arranged in a shimmering rainbow around the shop.
“We sometimes ask each other what our top 10 would be. Really...I could do a top 50. Or more! There are so many I love. A fabulous black and silver dress - that’s quite art deco. There’s a new lavender-coloured one with a full skirt that’s so sparkly and pretty. And I’ve got an amazing gold-coloured sequinned dress with draped sleeves, a bit like what the Duchess of Cornwall wore for the Bond premiere. That’s just fabulous. I can't stop myself. Shall I go on?”
It’s the middle of ‘prom season’ and Jean, who’s run Simply Splendid, a designer dress hire agency at Station Yard, for 30 years, says she’s delighted to hear the sound of chatter and coos of delight from the changing rooms after two years of relative silence due to Covid restrictions.
She works long days, but says there’s nothing more precious to her than making girls’ and women’s dreams come true, while being one of the frontrunners for ethical fashion in the region, attracting customers not just from East Anglia, but as far afield as Cornwall and Newcastle.
Jean opened the shop in 1991. “I was up in London and everyone there hired dresses to go out,” she says. “Then I moved to Suffolk to live with my boyfriend (now husband) and there was nothing like it here. I could just see a gap in the market. We’ve been through two recessions and a pandemic and we’re still here, so we must be doing something right!”
Simply Splendid started with just 17 dresses – the last count being 1,218, and with more flooding in over the coming week. Any older dresses are sold off from £50 or donated to charity.
Although lockdowns have been very difficult, things are certainly back in the swing at the shop, with Jean saying they’re busier than ever as teens pop in to choose prom dresses, and ladies visit to select outfits for cruises, gala dinners, charity events and special occasions. There’s been a boom, Jean adds, in women getting ‘glammed up’ for big birthdays missed in lockdown. “They want to celebrate their 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th in a fabulous dress. Why not?”
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Jean’s always been stunned by the amount of money parents are prepared to pay out for prom dresses. Often upwards of £300. “It’s staggering. It feels crazy to me. Why spend so much on a dress they’re only going to wear once when you can hire one?”
She’s very passionate on the topic of fast fashion, and breaking the cycle of constantly buying new. “It’s horrible to think there are rivers in China where coloured dyes flow and pollute the water. And did you know there’s a mountain of fast fashion waste in Chile. It just doesn’t need to happen.”
Businesses hiring and selling designer fashion, and sites dedicated to selling pre-loved clothing are growing rapidly, and it’s a world Jean has been at the cutting edge of for three decades.
Her dresses, which average around £600 retail, are hired out for £69. All-in. That’s including having them tailored to you, the hire period, cleaning – everything. Jean’s dressed thousands of women says she knows what will suit them almost as soon as they come in the door. It’s her job to make every customer feel special, leaving with a smile on their face.
“Many ladies come in and want something black and safe. But I do try to edge them towards colour if I can. I’ll always guide them to what will suit them. Quite often they’ll say ‘oh, I’d never have chosen that, why don’t I wear that colour more often?’”
After finding out their dress size, asking questions about their event, their personality, likes and dislikes, Jean guides customers around the shop, giving pointers towards what could work for them – from a slinky, silky black cocktail dresses, to Cinderella-style ballgowns, in every colour under the sun. Importantly, no two dresses of the same design go to the same event – the shop has a bookings log and system kept to almost military precision. Jean knows all the big galas coming up, and when and where all the school proms are (she even knows what the last exams are at most of the local high schools).
A fear for many, she says, is finding something to fit a tricky body shape or size. That’s no problem here, with options for tall, short, busty, and hippy customers.
“If someone has large hips, we can go for a floatier dress. We have dresses with sleeves for covering arms, which quite a few people want to do. We’ve got dresses to fit bigger busts and hide bra straps. Some have high necks to hide cleavage. We’re all about covering the bits customers want to hide, and showing off all their best bits.”
Designers in stock include the multi award-winning Ellie Wilde, Lyman by Frank Lyman, Nicole Bakti and Scala. All known for the quality and feel of their gowns.
“When I’m buying,” says Jean, I look for the style to start, but also the quality of the fabric. I never pick anything that’s going to look or feel cheap. I’m dreadful! I want to know how the dresses are made, how they’re putting zips in, the seams. I’d rather pay more for quality. After all, when my customers are out at events wearing my dresses, they’re advertising them – they’re a reflection of my business.”
The dress hire period depends on each event, usually with an arrangement to collect the day before and return the day after.
“But for cruises, sometimes they go out for a couple of weeks and it’s the same price. I had one lady hire a dress for a cruise and she was away for six months – so that was great value for her. She actually sent us postcards saying something like ‘it’s 42C here, your dress is having a lovely time. We’re dancing with the captain at the Panama Canal’.”
Jean says she can’t help but feel invested in her customers, and often finds herself tearing up in the shop when they find ‘the one’, or pop in after to show her pictures.
“A few years ago someone hired a dress for New Year’s Eve. She came back in to say her partner had proposed to her while she was wearing it. I feel emotional just thinking about that. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve cried in the shop.
“I love my job. I adore it. At the end of a busy day we’re exhausted, but always have smiles on our faces. What’s nice is now we’re out of the lockdowns we can get people booked in with appointments. Often we’ll have two or three girls in the changing area laughing and I’ve missed that so much over the last two years. This is a happy place.”
Simply Splendid is open Monday, and Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and by appointment only on Tuesdays.