About a year ago, I made a final attempt to bargain hunt at the Loehmann’s in my Upper West Side neighborhood. “Maybe I’ll find something fabulous. Nana would find something fabulous,” I gave myself a pep talk as I walked in to the generic-looking discount department store. I flipped through rack upon rack of glittery cocktail dresses and tried on a few James Perse tee shirts. I usually loved this brand but these seemed abnormally stretched and faded. Overheated in my bulky coat, I tried to conjure up my late grandmother, Nana, coolly peering at the cut-off labels for a recognizable designer, her fire-engine red magnifiers perched at the end of her nose, “Look at the shmattas they’re trying to push here,” she would have muttered at the pickings of modern-day Loehmann’s, shaking her head, her gold earrings swinging under her teased silvery-gold curls.
So, it came as no surprise to me that Loehmann’s has finally, officially gone bankrupt, 93 years since Frieda Loehmann and her son opened the first store in 1921—the same year my Nana, Goldie Block, emigrated to the United States from Lutsk, Ukraine. I doubt my late Nana would shed a tear, as the store became barely recognizable from the two Brooklyn Loehmanns’ she spent much of her adulthood and savings on, searching through their racks of marked-down designer duds.
Nana passed away in 2001 at the age of 90, shortly after Loehmann’s first rescue from Chapter 11. Her move to Manhattan in the ‘80s effectively ended her Loehmann’s shopping, but her Upper East Side closets overflowed with her finds — everything from cashmere sweaters to silk blouses and Glenn plaid blazers. She mostly favored Manhattan colors, like black, ivory, grey, and earth tones, with an occasional emerald green or leopard pattern tossed in for fun.
Nana honed her flair for fashion as a dress buyer for a Manhattan clothing boutique after dropping out of school at 13 to help her family of eight stay afloat. Although by 19 she made more money than my CPA grandfather ($15 a week to his $12) when they wed, she quit working to be supported by her husband and to raise their two children.
With her marriage cutting short her career as a dress buyer, but her interest in fashion never waning, Nana made a part-time vocation of trips to Loehmann’s several times a month, often coming home empty-handed but energized. Loehmann’s was about the hunt, not necessarily the kill, and Nana was a bounty hunter. “You have to hit it on the right day,” my Mom, who spent much of her teenage years in Loehmann’s with Nana, explained, emphasizing the rules of luck. “And you can’t be looking for something in particular.”
Nana apparently hit it on many right days. While my quiet, understated Grandfather had a few suits, shirts, pants, and neckties, often stained with chicken soup or Sanka, relegated to the guest bedroom closet, Nana’s closets were filled with meticulously-kept garments from Loehmann’s with the label almost—but not fully—cut off, so an expert shopper like herself could detect who the couturier was. If you looked closely at the labels, you would see the “Geo” of Geoffrey Beene inside the waistline of her wool skirt, a DK indicating Donna Karan on the necks of flouncy silk blouses. Even more thrilling, a confident cursive “Osc” on a shredded label meant Oscar de La Renta!
Nana would model some of her Loehmann’s trove decades after her purchases. “See this camel hair coat, doll,” she’d say, pulling it on, checking her reflection in the mirror, expertly wrapping a cashmere scarf around her neck, then wrapping one around mine as a gift, as we headed out for lunch at a deli, smiling, still thrilled. “I got this at Loehmann’s twenty years ago. Forty dollars! It’s a Calvin Klein!” she’d shake her hips from side to side.
“Wow,” I’d marvel, glancing at my pretty hand-me-down scarf. Then she would stuff a handful of Nips coffee parfait hard candies into my pocket, which, when cracked open, oozed out soft chocolate and invariably stuck to my teeth for the next several hours. “It’s good for you,” Nana laughed. “Gives you energy!”
Nana’s Loehmann’s hunting expeditions began long before Calvin Klein was even Calvin Klein. My mother remembered taking the subway with Nana from their Midwood home to Crown Heights where they would head over to the original Loehmann’s on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sterling Place. Despite the bargain prices, the store attempted to make customers feel like society ladies, with marble floors and crystal chandeliers and a grand staircase with golden railings where Frieda Loehmann often presided on a gilded red velvet chair on the landing between the two floors. “Mrs. Loehmann looked like a ghost with a bun,” my mother said, “She’d sit there and observe the women coming to shop.” Occasionally, my grandfather would get dragged along and sit in an arm chair on the same landing, dozing or reading the paper with the other husbands waiting for the hunt to end, far enough away from the women who, lacking the communal dressing rooms of future Loehmanns’, would undress and try things on out in the open of the store’s aisles.
My mother continued the mother-daughter tradition of shopping at Loehmann’s with my older sister and me. The Crown Heights store closed before I was born, but Mom drove us over to the newer shop on Flatbush Avenue and Duryea Place, which was not nearly as grand as the original. Most of the action was on the first floor, which was sprawling and brightly lit with fluorescent lights. The items were organized by size, although a seasoned shopper knew to check out sections out of her size category for mismarked items.
While the store lacked the antiques that Frieda had gold-leafed on Duryea Place, it did boast a bare bones, (pun intended), communal dressing room. The room had one curtained entry guarding the shoppers from the outside, a ratty carpet on the floor with the occasional open safety pin to stab your foot, and hooks and mirrors surrounding the space. I learned about the wide variety of female forms, and was forced to overcome any adolescent shyness about my own, from Loehmanns’ dressing room where women of all ages and sizes “let it all hang out,” in (or out) of their bras, girdles and panty hose, sometimes grabbing discarded clothing from other womens hooks. At first I tried modestly sneaking pants I hoped would fit, say, under my skirt and carefully removed my top while at the same time twisting my way into a blouse. “We’re all girls in here, Susie,” my mother pointed out, too loudly. Women I had never met would wander over in their underwear to view my finds and comment on them, “That sweatah makes you look, um, a little flat.” One woman lingered as I tried on a pale blue seersucker jacket for my summer job in Manhattan, waiting to pounce if I left it behind. “I’m taking that,” I said, grabbing the jacket, as Mom and I speed walked to the cashier.
Mom, my sister and I spent most of our time on the first floor unless we had a wedding or Bar Mitzvah to shop for in the fancy “Back Room,” upstairs. Some of my favorite finds included Anne Klein linen tees, a flowing Ralph Lauren chintz sundress in black, gold and forest green, and a pale blue denim jean jacket with ‘80s shoulder pads that my husband finally convinced me to purge, long after the decade had ended. I modeled the jean jacket one more time. “What? I look like a member of Duran Duran?” He nodded, holding open the empty bag for Goodwill.
Difficulty getting rid of items from Loehmann’s was just one neurosis from years of shopping there. I wanted to be like Nana and keep my “classic” items for decades, to save myself the expense and hassle of shopping for new things later on. “The style might come back,” I’d protest. “It’s a Perry Ellis,” I’d sniff. My other hang-up was an inability to shop retail at all. For years after Loehmann’s was geographically inaccessible, I would skip over new items in stores from Banana Republic to Bloomingdale’s. Paying full price felt shameful. Nana would not approve. Frantically sifting through the 50 to 75 percent off rack even in years when I could afford more, I would return home with oddly-sized or colored items that did not necessarily fit. In my mind, I had scored!
These shopping shticks became firmly entrenched after years of hunting at Loehmann’s with Mom who, although skilled, did not have Nana’s innate “eye” for style. Occasionally, my mother turned the pressure up if she felt there was something that I “must” buy. She talked me into a purple rabbit fur coat with harlequin diamonds sewn into the fur and huge shoulder pads that I wore in college on cold days. I looked like a cross between a linebacker and a pimp.
In spite of her sometimes questionable style choices, most of my memories of shopping at Loehmann’s with my mother were happy. And the store connected me to my grandmother in a way that I had felt left out of as a little girl. Nana had four sisters—Gertrude, Millicent, Diane and Mildred–and being with them was like hanging out with the Gabor sisters—Brooklyn style. Each sister was glamorous and opinionated, particularly about clothing and looks. It was quite difficult to get a word in edgewise—“all chiefs and no Indians,” was how Mildred, the youngest, described them.
“Mildred, that red bathing suit makes you look like a tomato,” Nana opined at one family gathering-cum-fashion show, taking a long drag on her cigarette, as Diane, the “working girl,” of the sisters, nodded in agreement. Mildred’s cheeks reddened to the suit’s color.
“I don’t think it makes me look like a tomato at all, Goldie. It’s a Norma Kamali,” Mildred stomped away to change.
Nana shrugged, smoke pouring out of her nose. “Norma Kamali… Looks more like a Norma Ka-naidlach.”
Loehmann’s was so much a part of the dialogue of the women in my family, that at 10 years old, I mistakenly told Nana and her sisters that I bought my party dress for my grandfather’s 80th Birthday dinner, at Loehmann’s.
“Where did you say you got that, Susie?” Mildred asked, feigning innocence but grinning.
“Um, Loehmann’s?” I answered, feeling my neck getting hot, and glancing at my mother, busy eating her steak.
I immediately realized my mistake at Nana, Mildred and Diane’s riotous laughter. I had mixed up the name with another (full retail) department store that began with an L, Lord and Taylor.
Now the closest I come to continuing the mother-daughter tradition with my nine year-old daughter, Lily, is the occasional trip to Century 21, another clothing discounter. I am thankful that I can still share the fruits of Nana’s expertise and my own Loehmann’s hunts. My daughter, who enjoys fashion as much as her great grandma, recently admired a 1990s shiny, black satin Bill Blass coat that I sometimes wear on special occasions. “Oooh,” Lily said, running her hand over its shiny fabric. Oddly enough, the coat still has its label intact. The inside of the coat is made of informal, soft blue fleece, but the quilty outside reminds me of glamorous boudoir robes women used to wear over lingerie. I’m protected from the elements, but clearly dressed up.
I have very little left of Nana’s trove, other than a dramatic black woolen wrap for chilly evenings, as she was about four inches shorter and had a completely different body type—Nana was short-limbed where I am long and curvy where I am straight. But I do have some of her accessories: 1960s Pucci sunglasses in their round, swirling glory call to mind Lady Gaga and a bottle of Alfred Sung cologne that I spritz on when I miss her.
Genetics are funny, though, and some of my daughter’s characteristics do remind me of Nana. Lily is spunky, strong-willed, and showed an intense interest in clothing from an early age. While I vowed, before motherhood, never to dress a daughter in pink, Lily insisted on wearing nothing but every shade of pink from age 2 to about 5, and demanded to wear one rosy dress so often that it was nearly in shreds by the time she outgrew it. On one recent day off from school, she asked to go to Century 21 to shop. I was not looking forward to it as, sometimes, our shopping trips turn into battles over how much to buy or what is appropriate for a nine year-old girl to wear.
After Lily picked out a few items to try on, I sat on a small stool in the dressing room, longing for a comfy armchair like the one my grandfather dozed in at Loehmann’s.
Lily stepped out of her dressing room every few minutes to twirl and model the dresses she was considering. “I don’t know about this one, Mommy,” she said about one dress, “It’s a little, well, too stripey.” A few other shoppers had stepped out of their dressing rooms to look in the larger, full-length mirror near my seat. “How old is she? She’s adorable,” one older woman commented. Lily hammed it up, twirling some more. I half-expected her to stuff some Nips candies in the lady’s pockets. We ended up deciding on two dressy dresses for Lily to wear out to dinners or parties, one with polka dots in a lace overlay on a teal background, and another funkier dress with punk, silver zippers on the short sleeves.
I was ready to pay when Lily grabbed my hand. “No, Mommy. You said you might get a dress too. You MUST. Let’s go back and look at the black lace one you saw before. That one was beautiful.”
“I’m tired, Lil,” I protested. “I’m just glad that you found two things that you like.”
Lily would not be dissuaded. She pulled me over to the rack with the black lace dress. There was one left in my size and when I glanced at the label, which said Isaac Mizrahi, (also from Brooklyn, must be fate), I felt a rush of adrenaline. When I looked at the price tag, $55, I yanked it off the rack. The dress, a straight, black sheath, with lace in the front over an ivory background, was pretty, although the arm-holes were slightly large. It was flattering, and with one trip to a tailor, would be great. I smiled at Lily, my personal shopper, and we paid for the three dresses which added up to less than $100 altogether. We did Nana proud. Loehmann’s or not, the hunt goes on.