Loehmann’s Love Lost, No Returns

At noon on Saturday, April 4, the handsome all-male cast of Gross Indecency , the Off-Broadway hit play about the trial of Oscar Wilde, gathered in the men’s department of Loehmann’s on Seventh Avenue at 16th Street, where Barneys used to be. A small crowd of shoppers leaned on racks of Donna Karan pants, Perry Ellis suits and Calvin Klein underwear as they listened to the actors discuss their roles in the witty play, which deals with sodomy, semantics and the meaning of art. People asked questions. People chuckled. The actors signed posters. Everyone looked pleased. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.

For born-and-bred New Yorkers like myself, this thoroughly modern scene, with its arch, mannered consumers and the tittering applause of the culturally current, has absolutely nothing to do with the Loehmann’s we grew up with. The fact that Loehmann’s has a store in Manhattan is bizarre enough. It’s as if when Loehmann’s moved into its Manhattan space in October 1996, the ghost of Barneys did battle with the legacy of Loehmann’s, and has finally won. The rough beast is no more.

Part of the ritual of Loehmann’s, of course, was getting there: It was no short hop on the No. 1 train, with coffee and croissants afterwards in some Chelsea tea boutique. No, the trip from my parents’ West Village apartment to the Fordham Road store in the Bronx, or the newer Riverdale store in the Bronx, was a pilgrimage. The trip-which sometimes took an hour-was insane, with tension and excitement mounting the whole way. Your mind raced-what will they will have in stock? What designers will they have in the Back Room? (That was the special “Mom” area, with expensive designer clothes and Miss America-like sequined dresses.)

Those happy thoughts were lined, however, with dread, as in “communal dressing rooms.” What hell they were! Behind the heavy velvet curtains, in those large, mirrored, no-nonsense rooms, lurked other people’s grandmothers, stuffed into monstrous girdles. Those mountains of old flesh would speak, commenting on your budding figure (the horror!), offering unwanted advice about the clothes you were trying on and asking your mother embarrassing questions in loud whispers. Even worse? The women from Scarsdale or Larchmont who, hoping for a future daughter-in-law, wanted to play Jewish geography. Did you know their cute son? He’s so smart! Surely you went to camp with their next-door neighbor’s niece? But you endured in the name of good, cheap fashion.

Entering the Riverdale store, the first thing you saw was the Loehmann’s Man. He’s the poor schmuck who measures his life in the hours he spends waiting on those hard chairs. That is what he does, he waits. Depressed, morose, half asleep. Usually without even a newspaper to read. Staring into space. Waiting, emasculated and dethroned, to carry the mountains of bags and packages his bossy wife will inevitably force on him when she finishes her bargain spree. Gaggles of girls pass every moment. But the Loehmann’s Man does not see them. He drifts. His wife’s purse sits on his lap, a heavy reminder of life’s duty. Occasionally, his wife sticks her head out the door and yells at him, pretending to ask his opinion on a skirt. Contrast him with the muscled, coifed Chelsea boys who peek out from under a loose forelock in the ads for Loehmann’s new men’s department.

Maybe there is poetic justice in the fact that the Manhattan Loehmann’s occupies the shell of Barneys. After all, before Barneys was every millionaire’s one-stop shopping mart, it was a schlock store. Something for everyone for cheap. Loehmann’s minus the brands. But that doesn’t explain the fact of a men’s department-what, they expect the Loehmann’s Man to rise from his seat and tell his wife to hold her own damn pocketbook while he tries on a linen Hugo Boss suit?

Loehmann’s belongs on Fordham Road, where it hasn’t been since June, 1988. The March 1988 Riverdale move was fine; it gave New Yorkers a choice-drive or take the subway. But when Loehmann’s moved into Barneys’ old flagship, what were they thinking? Linda Mann is co-president of Deignan-Mann Inc., a public relations firm that has represented Loehmann’s since that fateful October in 1996. “With the old Loehmann’s, you open the door, you fight to the death for the cashmere sweater and that was the end of it,” she said. “I guess they recognized the need to change with the times. They’re realistic; they’re expanding. But they still recognize the need to keep the spirit.”

And, indeed, I admit I did find the spirit: I found him, the Loehmann’s Man. But I had to know where to find him: I left the Oscar Wilde event and the lower-level men’s department and took the escalator up to wander the second through fourth floors, and there he was, on floor 2, in Ladies’ Sportswear. Seated patiently, purse on lap, shopping bags arrayed around his feet like huge dogs, no newspaper, and I’m willing to bet the bags held nothing for him, no Polo PJ’s or lime-green Diesel corduroys.

But what else has been lost since Loehmann’s updated? Tradition and choice. Loehmann’s used to be a place of tradition, where mothers taught their daughters to develop an eye, to scan the racks, to recognize a well-constructed shoulder, to spot a designer suit in a sea of fashion don’ts. It was a skill, an art. Back then, Loehmann’s used to cut the labels out. They stopped doing it five or six years ago. Now they even place signs on top of each rack. Gone is the mystery, the thrill of the game. On the way home from Riverdale, it was guesswork-could you tell, just from the remnants of the ripped label, who made the garment?

More tradition: Families would go once every few months or so and buy a whole season’s worth of clothes. Now the selection is comparatively tiny, some days nonexistent. To go into Loehmann’s and come out empty-handed was unheard of. Now, it happens more often than not; it’s a place where you pop in. You find yourself in the neighborhood, you run through to see what’s in stock. Ms. Mann offered a defense: “Women shop differently. People need fewer clothes now, with slight variations. People don’t wear outfits; women don’t have to wear suits to work, to dress up. There isn’t that need to get the whole wardrobe in advance. And Loehmann’s literally has shipments every day, so people pop in.”

But what does someone like my mother need with one of those Donna Karan burnout dresses from last season? What does she need with sophistication and in-store promotions? For that, Bloomingdale’s is only a subway ride away.

The changes have been made. There are 67 Loehmann’s stores all across the country! At the rear of the Back Room’s communal dressing room in the Manhattan store, there are actually two private dressing rooms. Ms. Mann says the older women don’t use them; they are holding on to their tradition. They like trying something on and asking other women what they think; better yet, they like telling their younger doubles what they think, not just about clothes but about life, men, food. But that’s getting harder to do: Reports are that the young shoppers love the new private dressing rooms.

Loehmann’s Love Lost, No Returns