Saying goodbye to the discount emporium where I learned how to shop, among other things
Loehmann’s is closed. Last week, the famous discount designer clothing store, shuttered the last of its remaining 39 shops, including one in Los Angeles where I live and four in New York City, where it first opened its doors in a former automobile showroom in 1921.
Like legions of other Jewish girls over the decades, I first went to Loehmann’s with my grandmother in what was a generational rite of passage. From her I learned how to navigate mountains of surplus couture, avoid the sharp elbows of fellow shoppers ravenous for a deal and withstand the sea of uncompromising eyes in the communal dressing room, where everyone was more than happy to answer the age-old question: “Does that make my tush look big?”
That first time I went to Loehmann’s with my Grandma Fran, and most every time thereafter, my Grandpa Mitch was in tow. No sooner did we walk in then she deposited him like a sack of potatoes with all the other Jewish men sitting against the wall with their wives’ purses perched neatly on their laps.
My grandma then took me under her wing as she expertly combed through the endless racks of clothing, cherry-picking this and ruthlessly discarding that. Finally, she held up an Yves Saint Laurent peasant blouse against my chest, grinning in approval at finding such a gem.
After the hunt, we headed to the dressing room with dozens of garments to try on. There, countless ladies young and old, in various stages of dress and undress—with their waist-high panties, bullet bras and girdles—were trying on their finds, bragging about nabbing the last Armani skirt in their size. And at 40% off, no less!
For the next few hours, we tried on various outfits: me, flat-chested, hiding in a corner; my buxom grandmother easily exchanging opinions with other shoppers about what looked good and what did not.
Loehmann’s was not for the faint of heart. There were no saleswomen here trying to persuade you that something was flattering when it wasn’t. Instead, an army of yentas occupied the dressing room, eager to deliver their unvarnished opinions.
Indeed, it was in a Loehmann’s dressing room that I first heard the disparaging term “Bar Mitzvah back” to describe the flab that rolls over and around a heavy or older woman’s bra, spilling out from her underarms and shoulders: “You can’t wear that dress, honey. Everyone’ll see your Bar-Mitzvah back!” Of course, any one of these yentas could be quick with a compliment, as well, telling a total stranger, “You look absolutely gorgeous in that outfit, darling,” causing dozens of heads to turn and nod in agreement.
My mother, no amateur when it comes to bargain shopping, would take me to Loehmann’s, too. These were not your usual back-to-school shopping expeditions. No, with my mom it was straight to Loehmann’s legendary Back Room, where experienced saleswomen stood guard, saving items from Paris and Milan for their favorite customers. With patience, an expert eye and the moves of an NFL running back, you could unearth one-of-a-kind designer clothing here—a dress for a special occasion, a cashmere winter coat, a really great bag.
Skilled as my mom was, however, there were certain Loehmann’s shoppers in our circle who could put her to shame. One friend—who “could afford to shop anywhere,” as my mother liked to note—would choose Loehmann’s every time. Mom would tell stories about what a “great Loehmann’s shopper” she was. And make no mistake: Being a “great Loenhmann’s shopper” was in a class of its own, setting the bar for never paying retail.
But while the thrill of the deal was certainly part of the allure, quality also mattered. My mom and these other mavens were after authentic high-end clothing from Seventh Avenue, and with a touch of the hand across the fabric and close scrutiny of linings, hemlines, zippers and buttons, they could quickly tell a Chanel from a shmata.
My mom was the first person to take my daughter, Emma, to Loehmann’s. Whenever she came to visit us in L.A., a mother-daughter-granddaughter excursion was always on her agenda.
But by the time we started to take Emma there, Loehmann’s just wasn’t the same. Sure, it was still a destination for middle-class shoppers looking for a bargain on designer goods. And there were still a few bubbies here and there, ready to run you down if you got between them and the Gucci bag they had their eye on. But it was no longer—God forgive me—a secular version of going to temple, where everyone was in the tribe and the thing you prayed for was the perfect dress in your size.
There was no long bench anymore for husbands to wile away the time, reading newspapers and impatiently glancing at their watches. In an effort to keep up with the times, private stalls had been added to the dressing rooms—a change that made Emma happy since she always thought the let’s-get-naked-together thing was kind of creepy.
But in the end, Emma and her generation—and me and mine, too—were never going to be dedicated Loehmann’s shoppers. The truth is it’s probably customers like me who hastened its demise; I haven’t been a regular there in years. These days, there are simply too many good alternatives tugging for our attention: a mix of edgier knock-off stores like Zara, upscale boutiques and online retailers.
Then again, Loehmann’s was never just another clothing store. It was a family tradition, handed down across four generations.
When the last store closed earlier this year in Miami, where my mother lives and where I grew up, she visited her closet and reminisced about all of her fantastic finds—the time, for example, she bagged a great Valentino jacket (and spent three hours unsuccessfully looking for the skirt).
“An era is gone, and I’m in mourning,” she said. “But at least I’m wearing my black crepe Prada dress—the one I got for half off.”