LDS missionaries flock to Utah clothing stores

In this Jan. 8, 2013 photo, Mormon missionaries walk through the halls at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. The Mormon church’s recent decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries has been greeted with  enthusiasm from many young members of the LDS church -- but especially young women. About half of all new applications to go on missions since the announcement have been from women, the church says. Prior to that, only 15 percent of missionaries were women. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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David Steed favors eye-catching neck ties and strives to always plan in advance.

Both came in handy for the 18-year-old Steed on a Friday afternoon at Mr. Mac, a Utah store specializing in clothing for missionaries.

Steed is one of a growing number of young men and women contributing to a boom among Utah stores catering to young missionaries after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the minimum age for missionaries in October from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.

Steed and his parents spent the afternoon at the downtown Salt Lake City store picking out clothing for his two-year stint as a missionary in Tacoma, Wash.

“I feel like I just want to go right now,” he said, eyeing a red silk paisley tie.

Applications for new missions are up two-fold since the announcement, with older missionaries and new, younger missionaries planning to go out at the same time. About half of all new applications to go on missions have been from women, the church says. Previously, only 15 percent of missionaries were women.

That change has hiked demand for conservative, knee-length dresses and skirts for young women missionaries, known as “sister missionaries.” Sales remain brisk for the customary kit for men, too: two suits, a few pairs of slacks, a dozen shirts.

Since the church’s October announcement about the lowered age for missionaries, sales at Mr. Mac’s downtown store have risen by a quarter, said store owner Stuart Christensen. Online sales have hiked 40 percent. Sales for women’s clothing have risen exponentially, he said, but constitute a small sliver of the store’s total business.

He plans to bulk up the women’s section to include more dresses, skirts and shoes, and has remodeled his stores with more women’s fitting rooms.

Salespeople at The Limited and Anne Taylor stores in a downtown Salt Lake City mall said they have also seen a boost in the number of women shopping for missionary clothing.

Sales are at pre-recession levels at the Sister Missionary store in Orem, said owner Jenni Theobald. At the Missionary Mall, a store with men’s missionary clothes she co-owns with her husband, business is up by nearly a third.

However, there is a downside to all these young Mormons heading out on missions: Three of Theobald’s favorite employees are young women who will leave in March to serve missions in California, Texas and the Philippines.

Stores are altering their inventory, too, to accommodate younger men and more women. Brad Prebble, a salesman at the Mr. Mac in downtown Salt Lake City, said the store has placed more orders for smaller sized suits since the announcement in October.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Some of those 18-year-olds are just little lads.”

Mr. Mac stocks clothing for all climates year-round: wool jackets in summer, shorts in winter. Prebble said he expects sister missionaries will flood the store in spring. The women’s section now includes a few dozen calf-length skirts and dresses, some tiered with hot-pink piping, others in earthier reds and browns.

In anticipation of a wave of women going on missions, Theobald said she will incorporate current trends like collar styles, pastels and floral patterns into the skirts and dresses Sister Missionary is producing for the spring.

“You can still be fashionable and be a missionary,” she said.

Theobald said she would like to open more Sister Missionary stores in Utah and other states including Arizona and California, but will wait to determine if the influx in female shoppers will stay constant.

Steed, the 18-year-old shopper, opted for a few yellow ties instead of the red paisley one.

“I love paisley, but I’ve got to go with a more conservative tie,” he said. “Of course, a mission’s not about the fashion. A mission isn’t about how good you look. It’s the spirit that you bring to the hearts of the people.”

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