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Northeast Minnesota duo open free prom dress garage

The nonprofit offers prom dress fittings through mid-April for teens in financial need.

At If the Dress Fits
Ashleigh, left, and Amy Arntson pose among the hundreds of dresses at their nonprofit If the Dress Fits on March 13. If the Dress Fits provides free prom dresses to teens in financial need.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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CARLTON, Minn. — Gowns in baby blue, blush and black line the walls of the Arntson family garage. A dressing room boasts a cream-colored rug with confetti accents and a full-length mirror adorned with string lights.

If the Dress Fits is a Carlton-based nonprofit that offers free prom dresses, sizes 0-24, to teens in financial need. Proof of need is not required.

It’s the brainchild of Ashleigh Franz, who, with the help of her mom, Amy Arntson, launched this organization in 2016 when she was a senior. “I went to seven formals in high school and each time it came around to finding a dress: ‘How much we want to spend?" she recalled.

It’s a rite of passage and to create equal access and opportunity for people is really important, Franz continued.

Through mid-April, Arntson and Franz are opening up the dress garage for 45-minute appointments during the day Saturday and Sunday and on Monday evenings. The dresses are free. Appointments are $10 to help heat the facility.

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At If the Dress Fits
If the Dress Fits' stock of dresses fills a one-car garage.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Their efforts hit close to Arntson’s high school experiences.

Following family illness and divorce, Arntson and her mother couldn’t afford a new dress for her junior prom, so they went to a thrift store. What she found was outdated. It was peach-colored with white lace, and she “felt like Lil Bo Peep.”

“I felt bad for my date, but I had a dress,” she said.

Cut to the next year.

She and her cousin — same size, different schools — split the cost of a stunning, white, form-fitting piece. “I felt so confident,” she said. “It was all about the dress.”

At If the Dress Fits
A dressing room at If the Dress Fits.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Decades later, Arntson recalled “sticker shock” at times shopping for her daughter’s dresses. “We’re a middle class family. … Some dresses run as much as a car payment.

“You don’t want to tell your girl for prom you can’t afford a dress. You can’t break the bank, either,” Arntson said.

When Franz brought her this idea, she thought, “‘This is going to be work, and I get it because I’ve been there.’”

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Arntson wants to ensure teens feel beautiful and confident in what they wear to prom. Date or not, they’ll have a quality dress if they want it.

They started collecting donations from friends, students from other high schools. Franz’s goal was 50 dresses, which they quickly exceeded. They received goods from individuals, dress shops and Duluth’s Bella Rose Bridal, which became a donation drop-off and later a spot for teens to try on dresses.

Donated prom dresses fill the bedroom of Ashleigh Franz in 2018.
Donated prom dresses fill Ashleigh Franz's bedroom in 2018.
Contributed / Ashleigh Franz
Misty Matson headshot
Misty Matson
Contributed / Misty Matson

“Ashleigh had a big vision and was bold to take the steps to make this vision a reality. I was excited to be a small part of her project,” Bella Rose Bridal owner Misty Matson said, adding: “Ashleigh and Amy have left a positive impact on my life.”

Franz began setting up events across two states. The dresses stayed in a storage unit in between getting transported to Barnum, Little Forks, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota.

At early events, they had lines running out the door. Franz described some as “mass chaos” similar to black Friday. Seeing the amount of dresses coming in and going out, the need for this was reinforced for the mother-daughter duo.

People look through racks of prom dresses during a free prom dress giveaway event at Duluth's Bella Rose Bridal in 2017.
People look through racks of prom dresses during a giveaway at Duluth's Bella Rose Bridal in 2017.
Contributed / Ashleigh Franz

Their 400-plus dress inventory came out of storage for good in August 2021, when the family moved to Carlton and updated a garage with fresh paint and new flooring creating a more intimate and calming environment, Arntson said.

They’ve had teens from Warroad, Minnesota, to Ashland, Wisconsin, to St. Paul book appointments so far this year. Only one person this season hasn’t found a dress that worked.

The dresses take some work. They can end up with deodorant marks after a few try-ons, and they hand-wash them before returning them to the rack.

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When a teen picks a dress, it’s theirs to keep. Some pay it forward, lending it to others or even returning it to the nonprofit.

The dresses Franz and Arntson no longer wish to use, due to quality or outdated styles, are donated. In the past, they’ve given about 200 to the Shriners Hospitals for Children in the Twin Cities and Life House in Duluth.

Ashleigh Franz and Amy Arntson stand on either side of a family car over-packed with prom dresses.
Ashleigh Franz and Amy Arntson stand next to a family car over-packed with prom dresses.
Contributed / Ashleigh Franz

After the two-year hiatus, their stock isn’t as updated as Arntson would like. In high demand are plus-size dresses and petite, short dresses in current styles. But, they expect their inventory will expand again now that more things are opening up after COVID-19-related shutdowns.

Up next, Arntson hopes to continue updating the dress space..

As for working together, Franz said it’s been gratifying partnering with her mom on this project.

It’s been a significant experience for Arntson.

“I’ve seen a different side of a child who is now an adult — her entrepreneurial drive, her kind heart and her innovation," she said. "It’s amazing to see how much she wants to give back.”

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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