How Loehmann's Transformed Shopping Forever — and Gave Me a Million Memories

The Changing Room That Made Me a Woman

kurt hoffman

By Elissa Strauss

Published January 17, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
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So long, Loehmann’s. After a series of store closings and bankruptcies over the past 15 years, the retailer has decided to call it quits, citing a sluggish economy and a failure to implement an effective e-commerce strategy as the causes of its demise.

This marks the end of not just deep discounts on designer clothes, but also of a moment in American history when shopping morphed into an act of class warfare and female bonding like never before.

Through Loehmann’s, women had access to designer clothing they never could have afforded otherwise. Suddenly, one no longer needed to be a member of the leisure class in order to look like one. Not with Loehmann’s prices!

These women might not have realized it, but with every 70% Ralph Lauren or heavily slashed Chanel bag, they were participating in the democratization of conspicuous consumption. Gone were the days when only the wealthy could raise their social status through the acquisition of luxury goods. This was nothing short of a revolution.

Among these pocketbook-toting insurgents were my grandmother Esther and her four sisters: Shirley, Mitzi, Irene and Edna. In the late 1970s, shortly before I was born, these Bronx-raised gals migrated to Los Angeles and to an outdoor lifestyle to which they never adjusted. Forget tennis, or swimming, or walks on the beach, these women preferred to punctuate their days with trips to department stores.

Some of my earliest memories involve caravanning with my mom and these women to Loehmann’s on hot summer days. After stopping for a lunch special at a nearby Chinese restaurant, we would make our way across the burning pavement to the dark, cool sanctuary of their favorite discount retailer. Their entrance into the store had an urgency that can be described only as biblical: They had made it to the Promised Land.

Once inside, my family would quickly disappear into seemingly infinite rows of clothes and the noise of hundreds of hangers moving quickly along the racks. One great aunt would be off in search of a sweater, another to find a dress for an upcoming bar mitzvah. Only when their arms were capable of carrying no more would they make their way to the famous communal dressing room.

These dressing rooms might very well be my Proustian madeleine. I remember the commingling of strong perfumes, the polyester undergarments in dozens of shades of nude, the immodesty, the shimmying flesh and the strong voices proffering advice to those who had asked and to those who hadn’t.

This is what it’s like to be a woman among women, I thought. This is how it is when the men are away.


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