mother and daughter

Remembering Loehmann’s, and My Mother

Photo: Photos: John H/flickr, Shutterstock

It’s really happening this time. After almost 100 years in business, a few bankruptcy scares, and an untold number of deeply discounted sales of Italian designer cashmere sweaters, last-season’s It bags, and lightly damaged black-tie gowns, Loehmann’s is officially shutting down. That goes for all 39 of its stores throughout the country, which trace back to its original flagship in the Bronx, where my mother, who grew up in the neighborhood, made pilgrimages with her mother, finding fur-trimmed coats, silk scarves, and “pocketbooks.” In America, the streets weren’t paved with gold, as it bitterly turned out for the Italian immigrants of my grandmother’s generation — but there was Loehmann’s. And it was good.

My mother carried the torch with her to Westchester, where she had a daughter of her own — her only child, who was going to shop with her even if she hated it, damn it — and where there was a Loehmann’s, in White Plains. At first, it was a chore. I’d ward off the boredom pocketing the “Extra Button” envelopes that were inevitably fastened to every bouclé blazer in the place, while my mother, in all her eighties glory, scored a sheen-y magenta skirt-suit for an upcoming wedding or expertly tailored tweed trousers for work. No, none of her fellow middle-school teachers bothered with outfits like that. But for my mother, it wasn’t about how other people dressed. It was, as one of her favorite Italian expressions loosely translated, “The face you show to the world.”

The communal dressing rooms were equal parts fascinating and terrifying. The nonchalance of these women! Standing around in control-top hose and big, painful-looking flesh-tone bras with lots of clasps, awkwardly shimmying into garment after slightly wrinkled garment, asking total strangers if this dress was dressy enough for a family friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. The lighting was unkind; the checkout line promised to be long and conducive to impulse buys of register-side Calvin Klein perfume, but it was worth it. Because you wouldn’t find bargains like this anywhere else. There was no Back Room — Loehmann’s name for that hallowed section separating the discount shoppers from the designer discount shoppers — at TJ Maxx or Marshall’s. Nor were there the rewards coupons, which floated around in people’s purses like glossy Monopoly money, saving the most dedicated collectors extra hundreds of dollars at a clip. Nor were there, of course, the group fitting rooms, which united us in a band of misfits, all finding hope and exhilaration in armloads of clothes we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
Eventually, it was a rush to case out Loehmann’s with my mother, despite our different tastes and the fact that she insisted I try everything on (“If the fit isn’t right, forget it,” she’d tell me, swatting the air with a French manicure). In a pre-Internet world, my mother was faster than a flash-sale shopper at sniffing out, say, a fine-wool peacoat that would last me many winters, or a sleek school-dance dress that would look just as expensive as the Neiman Marcus ones worn by my private-school classmates whose parents were less leveraged than mine.
I’ll never forget the summer when I first got serious at Loehmann’s, when I was finally ready to rise to my mother’s level of shopping (and dressing). I’d landed my first real job, in book publishing (salary: a cool 27K), and wanted to look the part. I knew I had to ditch my undergrad uniform, which consisted of a pair of stretchy Frankie B. jeans and alternating shelf-bra tank tops from the Gap. It was all teed up perfectly for my mother and I to actually peruse the racks in harmony (rather than in a vicious cycle of me pulling yet another velour tracksuit and her rolling her eyes). But the irony of it was that she was too sick by this point to shop with me for a brilliant career wardrobe. The stomach issue she’d silently endured leading up to and for a few months following my graduation — I’ll never know how she managed to sit through the endless ceremony — had turned out to be a fast and furious form of colorectal cancer. When I suggested delaying the new job so I could help take care of her, she waived me off, patient-I.D. bracelets and all. She pretended she would be fine. I pretended to believe her. Between hospital visits, I’d take myself to the nearby Loehmann’s in search of distraction, comfort, and professional attire among the tangled racks.
I came upon a pair of slim-cut trousers. I didn’t recognize the brand, but it seemed Italian, especially when you considered the “original price” marked on the tag below multiple layers of clearance stickers. They were flattering, with hip-contouring cotton-stretch fabric and a heel-friendly straight-leg hem; versatile, thanks to their neutral sandy shade; and comfortable, with a mid-rise waist and breathable fit. Wearing them, I felt exactly as I hoped to in my new job: confident, put-together, at ease.
As I started working, my mother’s health continued failing. Riding the Metro-North line that stopped close to Greenwich Hospital, I’d visit my mother on my way to and from the office. I’d take a breath and in I’d walk, wearing a white blouse tucked into a seersucker pencil skirt; a belted shirtdress that didn’t gape at the bust; a blue-grey blazer, with not-too-long sleeves, layered over cropped black pants. From bed, my mom would look me up and down, and she usually seemed to like what she saw. She didn’t know that I was pretty much on autopilot. She didn’t know that I didn’t want to get out of my bathrobe or do my laundry or wash my hair. She didn’t know that I’d gone numb, robotically dragging myself out of bed when the alarm buzzed and forcing myself to get all dressed up because I wanted, I wanted … what? That moment of approval, that look of pleasure my mother took in seeing her working-girl daughter? Maybe what I wanted was to say was, Hey, Mom, check out this perfectly tailored jacket — that I got at Loehmann’s! — I’m doing okay, you can cross me off your list of worries. At night, driving with my dad back to my childhood and once-again home, I’d escape the long silences in thoughts of tomorrow’s outfit.
By early fall, the doctor said the end was near. I guess I should have known by his lack of eye contact and vague wording (“Well, I don’t like what I’m seeing in her most recent scan…”) that “near” was an understatement. I stopped by the office the next morning to ask my boss for some serious time off, but that wouldn’t turn out to be necessary; within a few hours of returning to my mother’s bedside, I was squeezing her hand as her last breaths left her mouth. When, eventually, I walked out of the hospital — my dad at my side and the sky somehow still bright — I was wearing my perfect-fitting tan trousers, showing the world a strong face.
I’ve returned to Loehmann’s — mainly the Chelsea one, which is now set to be replaced by Barneys — probably hundreds of times since then, almost always coming away with a steal: an Alberta Ferretti sheath for my bridal shower, white Sergio Rossi wedges for my wedding, an olive-colored Vince blouse and black pleated Valentino skirt for my interview at New York Magazine. Shouldering through the store’s heavy brass doors, I’ve often been so euphoric, I’ve forgotten I couldn’t call my mother to tell her about the purchases — something that’s never happened at any other discount store. Here’s hoping Barneys has some good sales.

Remembering Loehmann’s, and My Mother