May 27, 1999
The Meaning of Loehmann’s RIP
Whatever the rest of America made of last week's news that Loehmann's discount department store is declaring bankruptcy, for American Jewish women, it is very, very sad.
Loehmann's, the home of designer leftovers, moved from shopping mecca to Borscht Belt-style punch line in two generations. The store, for years located on Third Street, east of Fairfax Avenue, and now on La Cienega Boulevard, is as much a monument to L.A. Jewish life as the Farmer's Market. An era will close.
Frieda Loehmann's Bronx discount center, which started in 1920 with the goods procured from her garment-center friends, once symbolized a certain wildly prized kind of shopping seckhel that must be counted among Jewry's gifts to America. Long before Donald Trump wrote "The Art of the Deal," we were practicing it here, in Loehmann's Back Room, where designer labels were obliterated but not quite cut off, indicating to the discerning buyer that standards were being maintained.
Before its decline, the Loehmann's ethic had traveled far into the American psyche only to be run over by T.J. Maxx and Marshall's; at its prime, Loehmann's had 69 outlets in the 14 states most likely to have a vital Jewish life.
Deconstructing Loehmann's influence on American women this week, my friends and I couldn't help but reflect on the beauty of the concept.
Loehmann's seckhel, after all, was not merely about offering its clientele a chance to emulate the tastes of the upper American classes by wearing recognizable name brands. It was about going those classes one better by the inside joke of getting the same items at a better price.
It was not only about helping children of immigrants adapt to the tastes of America, but helping them do so by maintaining the best Old World values as well. In the days when Loehmann's was growing, every Jewish home still had a sewing machine, and the desire for a homemade dress or suit meant something that was wool and had lining. This is no small thing, as anyone looking at a $300 pair of unlined DKNY pants made of who-knows-what will attest.
Loehmann's, after all, helped publicize and broadcast the values of new European designers, who, at that time (but not now), used better fabrics and made suits with bound button holes -- the same standards of tailoring we tried to maintain at home. I feel ridiculously old-fashioned bringing up clothing details such as bound button holes in the days of Velcro, but any assessment of Loehmann's has to acknowledge that its tastes, for its time, were elevated.
Finally, Loehmann's was not only about wanting a deal but about developing the persistence to get one -- the sweat and toil of digging through row upon row of blouses, slacks and skirts to find a gem, and seeing the moral relevance not in the purchase but in the search itself.
My mother and I spent many hours there, planning and dreaming of the weddings, bar mitzvahs and dates to come, happy even (sometimes happier) when we came home empty-handed. (A day without a purchase, after all, was a day without mistakes -- clothing that would sit unworn for years in our closet, still with the tag showing the great buy it had been.)
Did we have some of the materialistic nouveau riche illusions that soon became associated with the name Loehmann's and were even then being mocked by Philip Roth? Well, probably. But we were savvy shoppers, or so we regarded ourselves, and as such we were critical, even cynical, about the merchandise we bought, discerning that if we were going to make an impact in this society, we had to look the part.
My mother and I usually made a day of our trek to Loehmann's, even when one was built only a mile or two from home. From Mom, I learned to examine hemlines and twisted zippers and armholes that were often part of the "seconds" which slipped into the store. Mom was never fooled by a cut-out label or a price tag that seemed to be marked down. Value is not in the price but in the product.
I've tried to pass along this moral compass to my daughter, but for Loehmann's, it was only too late. I thrilled to take my daughter into the Stalinist-style open-mirror dressing rooms, where I learned too much about what women's bodies looked like. She tried on outfits and had complete strangers voice their opinion of a skirt that was too short, just as had happened to me long ago. But most of the aura of the place was gone. There were no huge mobs of women clamoring on long lines. There were no Hungarian refugees standing watch in the Back Room, catering to their special customers and giving them access to the rare secret lots of new Italian or French imports. The heyday of the designer was over long ago. Loehmann's would still be good for a prom dress, but not much more.
Loehmann's brought the romance of high-quality shopping to the American suburbs, but Wal-Mart, like The Gap, won the day. When it comes to style, who needs more now than jeans and a gray or white T. But if you have spent even a single afternoon at Loehmann's, you will, like Hermione Gingold in "Gigi," eternally "remember it well."
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press).
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.