|Getting married in my Loehmann's dress.|
Loehmann’s flagship store stood on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sterling Place, a mecca that drew true believers in high fashion at discount prices from all five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester County and, likely, the ends of the earth. It was ruled by a former department store buyer, Frieda Loehmann who was probably a very sweet lady. But with cheeks rouged scarlet, in her mourning get-up, with a boney finger waggling at shoppers who were sloppy at re-hanging, she made for a formidable figure. A little scary. (Okay, a lot.) And then there was a place called The Back Room. How’s that for nightmare material? In fact, The Back Room was the repository of the store's most exquisite merchandise, couture clothes at everywoman prices.
Loehmann’s—which didn’t carry menswear—was no place for the hairy gender. Yes, they were allowed in, but then immediately sequestered. Husbands mostly, having driven their wives to the store, they took their rightful places in chairs clustered at the door or on the landings where they dutifully read their newspapers and tried mightily not to look at the aisles where bizarre rituals were taking place. Here, between rows of racked garments, women of all ages, sizes and shapes did quick asexual stripteases. Back then, Loehmann's provided no dressing rooms. Perhaps their absence had to do with the Judeo-Christian ethic—waste not (on curtained, mirrored cubicles), want not (room for more racks). So, right there in the aisles, in full view of each other and anyone who dared peek above the pages of his New York Post, women stripped down to their slips (full and half), or panties and bra or (oy!) girdles, before stepping into whatever dress or skirt looked promising.
At age five, I sat cross-legged on the floor coloring in the book my mother brought along to occupy me, only occasionally glancing up at the show above. At eleven, when I was becoming a stranger to my own body, I found the process fascinating as I wondered which permutation of infinite variety of female I’d soon grow into. By thirteen, after a Loehmann's location, one with dressing rooms, opened on nearby Flatbush Avenue, I was beyond observing, eager to get started riffling through racks for myself. Not so fast, my mother declared. First, a few lessons. And so I was instructed in the art of good tailoring, taught to look for covered buttons, smoothly stitched seams, well placed darts. And drilled in the science of the discount. Twenty percent off? Feh! Seventy? Sold! Thus schooled, was I allowed to shop. And oh, did I shop.
At Loehmann’s I found the dress I wore on my prom date with my first boyfriend. Kelly green peu de soie, full skirt, spaghetti straps. Also, the Malcolm Starr one-shouldered floor length I slithered into for my Cousin Eddie’s wedding, and the chiffon and lace mini I danced in at my Cousin Steven’s reception. Loehmann’s produced the quintessential black dress—an Albert Nippon design—for the dream job I snagged when I returned to Manhattan after college. It was my go-to garb when I hit the town as a restaurant and theater reviewer for a New York entertainment magazine. Enshrined in my memory, it remains the most flattering piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. I met Robert Kennedy in that dress and fruged in it with Mayor John Lindsey. I was wearing it at the Rainbow Room where I’d been assigned to review the supper club’s act. Later, on the dance floor, spinning away from my date, I tripped and was caught before hitting bottom by two strong arms, attached to… a smiling Rock Hudson.
Stunning, faithful, always appropriate, it was perfection I couldn’t bear to part with, even as it came apart. I had it dressmaker-repaired twice. Finally my boss said, “Listen, kid, I’m giving you a raise if you promise to spend some of it on a new dress. Enough already with the Albert Nippon.”
I bought my wedding dress at Loehmann’s. Not the one for my first, an elopement. For that whirlwind ceremony, I dug out of my closet a pretty, but not well made, not Loehmann's, frock. But my second, country club, wedding demanded a show stopper. After coming up empty at Baltimore’s high-end boutiques, I landed at... where else? Loehmann’s, with my daughter. Only eight years old, Amanda had an eye for quality and style. She was a natural and she spotted a white satin sheath with a triangular rhinestone-studded accent. Simple but striking. It was a dazzler.
My most recent Loehmann’s experiences took place in a store ten minutes from my Maryland home. But they didn’t begin to approach the old heart-stopping excitement of the Brooklyn phenomenon. Good, but not fabulous stuff in The Back Room. No super bargains in the rest of the store that stood in the suburban shadow of its former glory. And then, a month ago, the news came flying in from my school friends, women long out of childhood and Flatbush, but only a phone call, an email, a Facebook posting away. “OMG, Loehmann’s has filed for bankruptcy. For the third time, but now it’s for real. Stores are closing; they’re definitely going out of business.”
What a shock, what a shame, what a loss, we all lamented. The end of an era. Well, maybe for them, but not quite for me. Because in my closet still hangs a rose colored swirl of a cocktail dress I bought at Loehmann’s two decades ago. Timeless. I wore it to a wedding last year. Empress Loehmann would have approved. The label? Designer, of course. And I just checked the smooth seams and the covered buttons. Unlike its source, it’s going to last forever.
Do you have Loehmann's memories to share? Or, like my black go-everywhere dress, favorite garments you want to celebrate? We'd love to hear from you.