Finding One’s Place in a World Without Loehmann’s

January 16, 2014
BY Simone Ellin

simone_ellin_squareWhen I first heard that Loehmann’s was closing, I refused to believe it. After all, I reasoned, hadn’t Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and countless other stores survived bankruptcy? Surely my favorite shopping spot would triumph over its financial woes so that future generations of women could benefit from the retail therapy that had helped me through every milestone of my adult life.

Alas, I was forced to face the sad reality. Loehmann’s, the store that has, for almost a century, dressed style-conscious women who wanted designer clothes, shoes and accessories for a reasonable price, would soon be only a blessed memory.

It’s not that Loehmann’s is the only place I shop. Like most women who enjoy shopping, I’m happy to browse anywhere. Yet, I usually come away from other stores empty-handed. I know I can “do better” at Loehmann’s. Besides, there is something about walking into Loehmann’s that feels as comforting as a grandmother’s embrace. Maybe that’s because my grandmother and all her friends once shopped there.

When I told my Aunt Joan that Loehmann’s was closing, she reminisced about the original Loehmann’s in Brooklyn, N.Y. “There was a spiral staircase, and clothes were draped all over the place. Mrs. Loehmann was actually there!” My grandmother and her friends used to shop at the Loehmann’s store in the Bronx. “Grandma wasn’t so much into fashion,” said Aunt Joan, “but some of her friends were. They got close to the saleswomen at Loehmann’s, and the saleswomen would call them up when something special came in. They would hide it in the back for them.”

While women of all religious backgrounds shop at Loehmann’s, since it was founded by Frieda Loehman — a Jewish fashion buyer who started the shop in her Crown Heights neighborhood in 1921 — Jewish women have always felt a certain ownership of the place. Maybe it’s because so many of the customers who shopped there in the early days were Jewish immigrants or the daughters of Jewish immigrants who were trying to become stylish American women despite their meager incomes.

My first memory of going to Loehmann’s was when I was 13 and growing up in New York. My father took me to the Bronx location to get a dress for my middle school graduation. A 1970s child born 10 years too late, I was a hippie wannabe and chose a long red wraparound skirt with an Indian pattern. I wore it to eighth-grade recognition night with a black leotard. I felt pretty — as pretty as one can feel at 13.

When my daughter turned 13, I began bringing her along on my trips to the local store in Timonium. At first, she couldn’t see the beauty in Loehmann’s. The communal fitting rooms, where all the women — regardless of age or body type — tried on clothes right out in the open and shared their opinions on outfits with total strangers, made her cringe. Now 17, my daughter no longer asks for a private fitting room. As is her birthright, she bares it all, along with the other (mostly) Jewish women in the fitting room. While she still skips the sale rack, choosing instead to focus on the most expensive pieces at Loehmann’s, she now understands its magic. When I broke the news to her, she was beyond disappointed.

“Where are we supposed to shop now?” she said. “Damned if I know,” I said, holding back my tears.

sellin@jewishtimes.com

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