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As a German translator and product planner for Volkswagen, Mary Paulson attended her fair share of North American International Auto Show Charity Previews during her 33-year career and spent a lot of time hunting for elegant gowns.

Now a sales associate for The Clothing Cove in Milford, she scours racks to help other women find the dress that makes them look and feel spectacular all evening.

“I tell all the women, ‘I used to do color and trim on cars. You’re just a different body for me now, ’ ” she laughs in the dressing room as she assists Grosse Ile neighbors Karen Wright and Marcia Pflum, two of the 20 women searching for Charity Preview dresses at the shop Saturday.

Wright, 46, and Pflum, 47, had backups in their closets, but they drove an hour from home to browse the family owned store’s 2,000 one-of-a-kind gowns.

“You never know, you might find something that knocks your socks off,” Wright says, eyeing a red beaded dress.

Pflum also wanted to avoid what happened two years ago.

“I bought a dress from Macy’s, and about 20 other people had the same dress on, so I’m trying to find something unique,” she says.

As the neighbors tried on a colorful stack of dresses, Enza Sleva, a Ford Motor Co. global consumer experience manager, settled on a dress with pewter brocade fabric.

An hour later, Wright and Pflum both said yes to a dress.

Attedees of the Charity Preview, one of the most exclusive and high-profile social events in Detroit, spend $400 per ticket (the money goes to Michigan children’s charities) and much more to get dolled up for the black-tie event at Cobo Center.

Sales manager Kelly Achino, who’s helped women find gowns and accessories for the Charity Preview the past eight years, takes pride in completing a look.

“It’s fun when someone comes in the door, and they leave with shoes, a purse, necklaces and bracelets, and the little Spanx underneath to keep everything tucked,” Achino says, adding that their prices fit every woman’s budget.

Gowns, jewels and hairdos

A few dozen women shop at The Clothing Clove for auto prom each year, Achino says, and about half opt for the classic black dress that they jazz up with glitzy jewelry. But she’s spotted a new fad this year.

“We’ve seen a little bit of a trend in shorter dresses, which really surprised me,” Achino says. “Traditionally, they have always been long gowns, but I’ve had a handful do cocktails this year. That means they go crazy with their jewelry and really fun shoes.”

Long, one-shoulder dresses and strapless jumpsuits also are in style, says Surae Johnson, a My Stylist personal shopper at the Macy’s in Somerset Collection in Troy.

“Cold shoulder dresses — (with) cut outs by the shoulders — are very popular, especially in the velour fabric,” she says.

If you are wearing a long dress, Johnny Nikollaj, co-owner of Salon 6 in Royal Oak and Birmingham, advises to go easy on the hair — perhaps by styling it in loose waves or curls.

“You don’t want to take away too much from the dress,” he says.

There’s good news for the ladies who can’t stand bobby pins poking into the scalp: The fancy up-dos aren’t in vogue this year.

“A lot of people are getting down-dos,” or sexy curls, “kind of like runway hair,” Nikollaj says.

His two salons booked about 75 appointments for the Charity Preview, which is more than previous years.

“It’s a big day for us because a lot of people — guys and girls — want to get their hair done and look good for it,” he says.

Since opening three years ago a few blocks from Cobo, Salon Detroit is booked up Friday.

Stylist Maisha Fleming says blunt cuts — similar to bobs, but straight instead of round — are popular right now. But for women in evening gowns, she recommends putting hair up.

“I like a traditional ponytail,” she says, “but very sleek and polished.”

Meagan Mitchell, owner of Meagan Mitchell Salon in Ferndale, has styled hair for the event the past 15 years. This year, she has a handful of business women opting for their usual style “with a twist.”

“They might add a little rhinestone barrette to a side bang or take their hair off their face if they wear it on their face,” she says.

Yet some won’t know what they want until they sit in her chair. “(One client is) still trying to decide which dress she’s going to wear,” Mitchell laughs.

Suits and tuxedos

Lauren Stovall, operations manager of Hot Sam’s in Detroit, is used to seeing men walk through their door at the last minute looking for a snazzy suit or tuxedo. For that reason, the men’s shop prepares for the 11th-hour rush and promises to turn around alterations within 24 hours.

“We’re willing to do that for this type of event,” Stovall says. “Throughout the year, there’s not too many events to get dressed up for in Detroit. We love that Charity Preview. It’s the night of who’s who. Who’s coming out. Who are you going to see? It’s really fun.”

Black or silver tuxes are always staples, Stovall says, but this year, she’s sold a lot of navy and royal blue tuxes to men who aren’t afraid to stand out.

“The royal blue tuxedo suit with a black lapel — that is like the new thing,” she says. “You don’t have to go traditional with just the black tux. Be a little more bold and daring.”

Men’s Wearhouse in Grosse Pointe Woods is projecting to rent more tuxedos for the benefit than last year, says tuxedo manager Emily Schmidt.

“We get most of our business the week before the event,” she says.

The tuxedo powerhouse is offering a special $40 auto show discount on full package rentals until Thursday, and alterations on rentals can be done until 5 p.m. that day.

Prices depend on if it’s a classic house brand or high-end Calvin Klein. This year, Schmidt says the trend is “very modern,” and the slim-fit Vera Wang and Joseph Abboud selections are the most in demand. With the discount, the tuxes cost about $179.

And European is in.

“The more fitted European look is more popular right now than your more traditional classic fit tuxedo,” Schmidt says.

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Fashion tips

Men

Do

Leave the bottom button undone on a two-button coat. “It’s just a more professional look, and it’s easier when you’re doing a lot of moving, standing up and sitting down. You don’t have to fiddle with your jacket so much,” Men’s Wearhouse’s Emily Schmidt says. The same advice applies if you’re wearing a two-button vest.

Wear a bowtie. “They’re more in this year than your more traditional Euro ties,” Schmidt says.

Don’t

Wear a boring bowtie. “Get eccentric with your bowtie,” Lauren Stovall of Hot Sam’s says. “There’s so many different designs out there.” If eccentric isn’t your style, she suggests a solid black slim tie as an alternate.

Be bashful about dressing to the nines. “Ladies, we love to dress up, but men should be doing the same thing — getting as enthused and excited to step out and dress up,” Stovall says.

Skip the alterations. You’ll risk looking frumpy or awkward. “Just make sure the suit or tuxedo fits you,” Stovall warns.

Women

Do

Sparkle. “The auto show is all about glam, so the more sparkle the better,” Kelly Achino of The Clothing Cove says. And it’s OK to stand out. “The evening is all about standing out and looking phenomenal.”

Step out of your little-black-dress comfort zone. “Don’t be afraid to go with a bold color, such as reds and blues,” Macy’s Surae Johnson says. Metallics are popular, too.

Accessorize. “A pop of color or even prints are always fun,” Johnson says. “You don’t have to match the exact color of your dress.” That goes for your hair, too. “Accessories add sparkle,” hair stylist Meagan Mitchell says.

Treat your hair with products. Apply a smoothing serum. “It’ll prevent flyaways and static because the air is so dry in the winter,” says Maisha Fleming of Salon Detroit.

Don’t

Be afraid to get a second opinion. Johnson offers free personal shopping assistance. Clothing discounts are given to guests who book their first My Stylist appointment. Call (800) 343-0121 or email mystylist@macys.com. (Friends give helpful honest opinions, too!)

■Go crazy with your hair style. “You just want to keep it classic,” says Johnny Nikollaj of Salon 6 . “A lot of people get these really tight up-dos or waterfall up-dos. ... I think that’s a little overpowering and too much. It’s auto show preview. It’s not prom.”

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