Jan/Feb 2007 Nonfiction

High Fashion—Low (ehmann's) Prices: A New York City Memoir

by Julia Braun Kessler

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

When you're born female in New York City, there's one impulse that comes in with the mother's milk: a love for high fashion at wholesale!

And way back in the 40's and 50's, it was ours just for the asking. What woman growing up in our City didn't know how "looking the part" was her particular birthright? Chicquerie first, foremost and forever was the name of our game.

It was very well for our cousins across the river, the ones we used to refer to as "the hicks from Jersey" to show up wearing any old rag from their hick stores. But us? Certainly not! Never us! We were New York women—another breed. For us, it was designer samples all the way! And, rest assured, these cost us not one extra dollar for any trouble it took us getting hold of them.

As my sisters and I grew daily taller and skinnier, and nothing seemed long enough to fit us from Ohrbach's or the Klein's children's departments, those bargain stores we had been dragged to over the years, and which meant trekking down on a long subway ride down to Union Square, something just had to give.

My canny Mom knew it was about time. By then, I must have been somewhere about thirteen, and despite the gangly, undeveloped body, yet to menstruate, or show a hint of any breasts, she hauled me along with my sisters, onto a bus headed for Fordham Road. It was a short ride from our Van Cortlandt Park perch at the top of the Bronx. Even so, it was a considerable excursion for us, which meant walking down some mighty cold, long blocks from the Grand Concourse before turning into a cul de sac off Fordham Road—on what seemed a trail to nowhere—until we arrived at this absolutely secret, never-advertised, and as yet unknown establishment called, LOEHMANN's.

In those dear, dead days almost beyond recall, to look chic, by definition, meant to wear haute couture, designer clothing. No substitutes, no exceptions! It was the way for us, lowly creatures that we were, to parade our distinction, our class and cultivation. As we used to put it, "You've just gotta know to know!"

The apparel we found at Loehmann's may have been produced right down in lower Manhattan, back in those grubby Seventh Avenue factory showrooms; but the creations—ah, those creations, they were made in heaven! The glory of such luxurious garments, their sleek, their svelte, their swank, velvets, wools and cashmeres, satins and silks! The magic designs of these costumes foretold our future—just like the gypsy fortune tellers with their crystal balls who showed up each year at Bronx neighborhood carnivals!

The best of it was that we New York girls had an exclusive on such a fashion wardrobe. Nowhere else in the entire U. S. of A. was there such access! Back then, in every town out there to the West and South of this nation there was literally a stone wall that divided the world into RETAIL and WHOLESALE. But only in our New York City had we women blown it down!

The story goes that it was during the Great Depression, when businesses were on the brink of collapsing everywhere and while people waited on the street in breadlines, that some ingenious German lady, a little thing named Frieda Loehmann, who had long been involved with the garment industry, woke up one fateful morning with a smashing notion. It was the kind of dumb-bunny idea that turns out brilliant. She'd figured out a way to slip through that heretofore inviolate system America had called retail buying.

And, after that pint-sized, persistent marketeer was done, she had created revolution in the trade. No more would a mere few have exclusive access to modishness! No longer would it be a matter of paying an outrageous "full price!" Jerome Weidman titled his famous novel I Can Get It for You Wholesale! It was to be the New Yorker's cry!

That persistent babe rang door bells, talked to salesmen and models, entrepreneurs, kept up her steady inquiries among factory and small business owners along those shabby streets. She wanted to find out just what became of all those marvelous designer sample outfits, created for the models.

She estimated that in every little showroom there had to be half-dozen or so of these, with their lusciously muted colors, their unlikely fabrics, done up for each new design? Just where did those clothes end up after the style shows were over and done? They had been made lovingly for these seasonal performances alone. Was every Manhattan manufacturer on Seventh Avenue stuck with them on his hands after these shows?

Except for the occasional daughters or nieces who'd show up in the downtown shop of a Saturday morning with Momma to demand one for her offspring, most often those garments were left abandoned in bins. In short, until then, these "one of a kinds" had been part of the expense, the investment, businessmen carried as overhead.

But times continued hard. The Great Depression battered the garment industry. Haute couture became one of its first casualties.

What might be done to remedy this desperate situation? So little, in fact, that to the trade even Mrs. Loehmann's proposition began to look good. Anything to save Seventh Avenue from bankruptcy!

What she offered was to buy their samples outright. Moreover, she'd take them off the hands of Seventh Avenue bosses the second those designs had been marketed—even while orders were just coming in for them from across the nation.

And the deal with this lady was always cold cash! Mrs. Loehmann paid for each and every lot right then and there. Some said her roll of bills was tucked under the garter of her black stockings. Others remember a little bit of a purse she carried, stacked with folded greenbacks peeled off one by one. A tough negotiator, she managed to walk out of those showrooms most of the time with a pile of fantastic clothes at a fraction of their original wholesale prices. Never mind, for entrepreneurs getting hungrier with each season, it was easy money.

Even when they raised questions, Frieda Loehmann countered with smart solutions. For instance, some argued that society women would never tolerate the notion that their exclusive outfits were not one-of-a-kind. Others lamented about their "good name," their reputation on the Avenue. How could they call their products "designer originals" when those dozens behind the door were in such sell-offs?

The ingenious woman aced them all. Okay, we'll cut out the labels, she told them. Who could then claim they were the genuine originals? Besides, she argued, hadn't rip-off artists (including their buddies right there on Seventh Avenue) been lifting patterns from Parisian designers for years with no dire effect?

So these transactions went on for decades! Nary a connection was made, while the "originals" fiction held fast through the rest of the country. And all of it, to the benefit of a relatively few savvy New Yorkers who could always spot the "real" thing, labeled or not. For such Loehmann's regulars, their merchandise was as distinct from imitations as butter from margarine.

That was how Seventh Avenue's manufacturers made it during those depressed years, saving their skins, and keeping their businesses afloat.

Meanwhile, the little lady herself built an empire. To launch it, she located an old building with a couple of stories on Bedford Street way out in the lost depths of Brooklyn. Soon enough, she was doing so well, she added to her initial sample purchases, more of the manufacturers' overstocks, and their cancellations too. It gave her substantial numbers of elegant pieces to sell, more than enough to get on with expanding her own "designer clothes" business at half price.

You entered her Brooklyn emporium through a grand foyer. At its end, you could see a wide stairway where, half way up, at the mezzanine landing, stood an opulent Louis XV armoire. On either side sat chairs in that same extravagant mode. Mrs. Loehmann had furnished her Bedford Street establishment with all manner of garish antiques, elaborate drawing-room furniture, carved tables, heavy credenzas, wall-hangings and ornate mirrors—every chatchka she could lay her hands on to make for the prevailing decor, her own special notion of "the right atmosphere for buying."

What she never did bother about was redesigning that place to make it functional. For this confident little lady, such conveniences as fitting rooms were of no consequence. She insisted that for the great bargains she offered, women in the know, would come no matter what, and manage very well.

Of course, she was dead right too. And if, in the process, the ladies were accompanied by the husbands or boyfriends, well, that couldn't present much of a problem. Not to anybody really dedicated to shopping! Besides, there in her Brooklyn store, Mrs. Loehmann herself often accosted these fellows to keep them busy with her erudite lectures on French antiques, while at the same time they were furtively glancing down towards the main floor, where half-dressed women prowled amid the open racks of clothes! (It was only much later, up in the Bronx, when her son Charles opened his store there, that any partitions were set up like stalls—vast open-closets that came to be called the Loehmann's "dressing rooms".)

At that legendary Brooklyn establishment, all continued casual, intimate, the kind of space people came to call many years later, "a somewhere just right for a happening!"

Certainly, what you could find at each store were those same aisles and aisles of unruly racks loaded with unsorted clothes—coats, suits, or dresses. As for sizes, these ran to super-small. Models then, as now, were rail thin. There they were just the same: Norells, Casherells, Diane von Firstenbergs, Mainbochers, Adrians, Pauline Trigères and all those fabulous designer creations of those times! And yours for a song!

There in Brooklyn, Mrs. Loehmann was ever in attendance, her yellow-white hair carelessly piled up atop her head in her ankle-length black dress, under which you glimpsed her black lace-up ankle high boots, the kind nuns wore under their habits. She was on hand, and as regular as the seasons.

Other diversions could be counted on. You could always depend upon finding a sprinkling of movie stars on view at Loehmann's. Zsa Zsa Gabor and her sisters were regulars, and so were Mary Martin or Nina Foch and even Lauren Bacall. All kinds of Broadway people showed up, those starring in some play downtown, trying to stay inconspicuous, wearing wide-brimmed hats or veils while they combed the chaotic racks.

Not that disguises helped. Whispers went round, were broadcast throughout the store. Even the usually attentive salesgirls (in those times they worked on commission only) were outrunning their pace to serve these celebrity gals.

But for someone like me, a pre-adolescent girl, it was those wide-open Bronx dressing rooms that came as a real shock! Who could forget such scenes? They were hardly like the familiar locker-room at the school gym—more of a college course instead: The Female Physique, 101.

The sheer numbers of bodies assembled and on view, undressed altogether or, partially so! The varieties: tall, short, the skinny, fleshy or fat! Just the parade of bosoms, legs, and backsides, and those flamboyant styles of underwear on display—all of it awesome.

It was unheard of then for "respectable" women to display themselves in a public setting. At least, in the department stores there were little booths, rows of closets for trying clothes on, often with barely any room for Momma to sit by you as you did. Still, these were private!

But Loehmann's? Those large dressing areas were set apart by flimsy, wheeled-in partitions, partitions which never even tried to reach to the store's ceilings. They were neither stable nor sound-proof, merely spaces equipped with lines of hanger hooks set upon their mirrored panels.

This meant it corralled together almost shoulder-to-shoulder perfect strangers of every age, women and girls, as they tried on what they had hauled in from the racks outside.

And shoppers certainly could watch each other as they pulled on or stripped off. They could enjoy, ogle, mock, even covet an outfit they saw in the mirror across the room! Ah, those wonderful exchanges between clothes-foraging ladies! Just their talk alone made the pilgrimage to the Bronx (or Brooklyn) worth the trip!

But disagreements came quickly too, and more often than not. Those densely packed enclosures led to some heated tempers. Things could get a bit thick! The women vied among themselves for the suits or dresses, and often, when they spotted something smart would slip over to grab it while another woman wasn't looking.

Pandemonium! Pushing, shoving, plenty of quarreling! First came the outraged, "I beg your pardons," and these followed by more impatient, "Wait your turn, lady!" All of it ended with shouting or insults.

I used to relish my mortified Mom's condescension when she came upon such displays. "You see, girls," she'd say, pointing a finger as she thundered at us in Hungarian, which presumably nobody but her own daughters would understand, "the stupidity of some people! Isn't there enough trouble in this world without fighting over clothes! Foolishness, madness, idiocy—pure and simple!" And that would settle the matter entirely for her.

The best results of all such Loehmann's excursions was that as the years passed, when we'd already left home, married, and gone to live in different cities, our trips back to New York were never complete without one of those ritual visits to the Bronx store to stock up with clothes for the year. For us, Loehmann's remained the only place you could find "the best for the least!"

Later, too, came all those great anecdotes. Was there nobody who'd grown up in the 40's without a New York Loehmann's story? An old friend cackles how she had trooped out to Brooklyn one winter to find a warm coat, and spotted one right there for the a picking, a Norman Norell, no less! It was in a model that was not only splendid, but fit her too. And what a bargain!

As she headed, in triumph, with it to the cashier, the salesgirl whispered to her, "Don't let them tape up the box! That way, you can show it to Mrs. Loehmann as you leave." Puzzled, but curious, my friend obeyed. How this delighted Frieda Loehmann! The old lady first cluck-clucked over its workmanship. "Fine goods," she concluded. Next, she looked its purchaser up and down, pronouncing, "My dear, this coat was created with you in mind!" before sending her on her way.

To me though, the capper to these tales came with my own little coup involving a Loehmann's coat—my back-door ascendancy into the world of haute couture-dom! That happened several years later, when, at my most career-minded, I had returned to live and work in New York City.

Having applied for a job as education editor for a hot-shot New York fashion magazine, I naturally geared up for that interview by going straight for the Bronx Loehmann to find a perfect costume.

The coat I wore that day—a natural-colored butter leather number with a black fake fur lining was its pièce de resistance. Certainly, I never even took it off all the time I was in that posh Madison Avenue office, barely letting it slide from my shoulders. It did make me feel like a million bucks!

And, as I held forth that morning, selling its executive the unlikely message that in the future this fashion magazine must become an integral part of the "domestic arts curriculum of every single school in the nation," even I began to believe in my idea!

The designer-costumed editor, with her smooth Westchester-county tones, was herself growing a bit more chummy by the minute. I could tell that she too was buying into the pitch.

"Yes, indeed, my dear," she offered, "I agree. Our high-style fashions will soon be in all our schools!"

And then she thrilled me with an out-of-the-blue afterthought: a confession that she hadn't been able to "help staring at my luscious Abercrombie coat" as I spoke! I can tell you, that's when I knew I had that job! Yep, it was a done deal!

To tell it true, this realization made me so giddy it was easy enough to deliver my jaunty fibbing response:

"Why, Miss Earle," said I, You are a connoisseur of fashion!" How could you have guessed my coat's from Abercrombie?"

That day, I swear it, it was the Loehmann's coat that did that job—and got it for me too!


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