Though the discount department store Loehmann’s long ago sprawled into chaindom, with 47 stores over 17 states, most New Yorkers still think of it as their quintessential alter kocker bargain mecca, just as blowzy Filene’s Basement belongs to Boston and Sears is the broad-shouldered, slow-witted son of Chicago. But-and it does feel like a betrayal to report this-the Los Angeles Loehmann’s is vastly superior to its storied counterpart in Riverdale (not to mention the shiny, newish “flagship” on Seventh Avenue, which may be forever cursed by the chic ghost of the Barneys that preceded it).
There are plenty of off-price outlets in the L.A. area-Saks “Off Fifth,” Nordstrom’s “Rack” and Neiman Marcus’ “Last Call”-not to mention the Cabazon Outlets near Palm Springs, a counterpart to Woodbury Common in the Hudson Valley. But they lack the unpredictable, serendipitous quality of a Daffy’s or Century 21. The absence of competition from stores of that ilk has infused the L.A. Loehmann’s with a special magic. Ladies, we are talking suede Balenciaga bags for $79.99, certificates of authenticity dangling insouciantly from the side; Chloé eyeglasses in green or blue for $49.99; and a black Valentino skirt with complicated lace insets for $499.99, down from $2,000.
Perhaps the man in your life would fancy a tan, gray or orange cashmere Helmut Lang turtleneck for $199.99 (down from $520); or a Gucci leather blazer for $369.99?
The second-floor shoe department is, quite simply, a revelation. Miu Miu’s distressed-leather cowboy boots from a couple of seasons ago were $250, down from $550; Versace back-zip boots in café au lait were $261.99, down from $500. Nearby, a table spilled over with Costume National and Coach booties in the $149 range (and in 60-degree November weather on the West Side of L.A., a “bootie” almost starts to make sense). It gets better: sensible-sexy Sergio Rossi pumps with buckles, $279.99. Red Dolce and Gabbana ankle breakers, $119.99. (“I’m looking at your shoes and getting spasms,” remarked a denim-jumpsuit-clad grandma in what could only be a ringing endorsement.) Marc Jacobs mod boots in glossy Hershey milk chocolate, a ludicrous $69.99!
On a recent weekend afternoon, the place was lightly trafficked by shoppers pawing intently through racks of Katayone Adeli and Theory and-here’s the key-picking out all the wrong things. For L.A. women have different (some might say “no”) taste, so all the good stuff is left to languish, awaiting even more delicious markdowns.
“I don’t think anyone here even knows what Chloé is-they’re just walking around in their Juicy sweatsuits,” said Ellen Rapoport, 30, a TV and movie writer (she just sold a reality show called Wannabe , about striving actresses) and devotee of the store. “I feel that, for some reason, Loehmann’s doesn’t register on anyone’s radar in L.A., so there’s never anyone there and consequently no chance of any awkward run-in with someone you know in the gross community dressing room.” (She used to live in New York, right near the Seventh Avenue branch-”Totally crowded and annoying, just kind of horrible”-and still shudders at the memory of being confronted with the sight of her then boyfriend’s mother naked.)
Like the décolletage of so many female residents, the L.A. Loehmann’s begins with an essentially false premise: that it is located in Beverly Hills. At 333 South La Cienega Boulevard, it is, in fact, geographically east and socioeconomically well south of that hyper-manicured rich person’s burgh, and just down the street from one of the town’s most loathed architectural structures, a hideous yellow mall called the Beverly Center. (Picture the Pompidou in Paris if, instead of art, it housed a Bloomingdale’s, a Macy’s and scores of depressing boutiques carrying items available anywhere in the U.S.)
The bad vibe of the Beverly Center, which suffered a major earthquake on Sept. 9, 2001, has dissuaded Toluca Lake resident Mo Driscoll, 40, from stopping at 333 South La Cienega, though she’s haunted by frequent mail solicitations and the memory of a great red formal dress that she got for cheap back east.
“I avoid that place like the plague-I just can’t go near it,” said Ms. Driscoll, until recently a consulting producer for the show Shop ‘Til You Drop. Another deterrent: the enclosed, fume-choked Loehmann’s concrete parking structure ($1-or if you don’t mind striding across a grassy knoll, there are also a couple of “secret” meters on San Vicente Boulevard behind the store.)
And yet the mass reticence of such savvy shoppers is just what makes the location so great.
“It’s just a matter of being less ‘picked over’-in New York, there’s more foot traffic, and New Yorkers have more energy to go scouring,” said Dany Levy, 31, the bicoastal founder of the shopping newsletter DailyCandy.com, who recently vroomed straight to La Cienega from the airport and found two scarves and a black cardigan. “I was impressed.”
She had another thought. “In New York, it’s always acceptable to be looking for the bargain. It’s so expensive to live there, you become hyper-aware of money-any way you can save, cut corners. L.A. is just catching up with the idea of discounts; it’s much more of a ‘Look how much I spent’ town.”
Black Friday news flash: If you’re a New Yorker in the market for a “serious” coat, it might actually make sense to nab a cheap JetBlue round-trip ticket (about $200) and make a pilgrimage to the L.A. Loehmann’s, where a charcoal-gray Michael Kors model is $259.99, down from $1,200; belted wool-cashmere Calvin Klein with covered buttons is $499, down from $2,200; and a nice soft brown Dolce and Gabbana llama number is $449, down from $1,800. There are also some pretty frisky D&G bikinis for $39.99 apiece.