Calvin, Joan, Oscar, Anne, Ralph, Donna, Marc, Oleg, Paloma and Liz were there, and so was Alli Russel.
A stylish woman of a certain age, Russel came to the opening of the new Loehmann's in Timonium yesterday in search of a periwinkle gown for her granddaughter's wedding. "I've been a customer at Loehmann's for more than 30 years, more than 30 years. My husband was still living," she said.
Russel never patronized the original Loehmann's, founded by Frieda Loehmann 76 years ago in Brooklyn, but she doesn't think this slicker, brighter, more accessible store is what Frieda had in mind. "I like it like she had it," Russel said before heading off to her senior center class in "American women who made a difference in history."
Without reaching too much, one could make the case that Frieda Loehmann was one such American woman.
Before The Rack, before Marshall's, before C-Mart, before Filene's Basement, there was Loehmann's. Housed in a former automobile showroom in Brooklyn, the first upscale discount store was nothing fancy. Its long, narrow aisles were stuffed with manufacturer's overruns. Women changed in a communal dressing room, while bored spouses perched on brown "mourning benches."
And no one thought to question Loehmann's notorious no-return policy.
Loehmann's was the first store to lay bare the folly of fashion elitism. Why buy it at Saks, or Lord & Taylor, if you could get it at Loehmann's for a song? And under the harsh dressing-room lights, the mirrors didn't lie. Nor did your mother or the woman in her skivvies next to you.
Loehmann's loyal following couldn't prevent the chain from taking a dive in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now nearly 80 stores strong, Loehmann's has been revived with new ownership, appeal to the working woman and a public stock offering. Its flagship store occupies four floors recently vacated by the glitzy but bankrupt Barneys on New York's Seventh Avenue.
The new Timonium store, one story below its previous site, is more than twice as large as before and is designed for the working-woman, lunch-hour crowd, not women with scads of leisure time on their hands.
But yesterday, those women came anyway. So did women who took vacation days, called in late, or dashed from early morning tennis games. By late morning, 200 customers were fingering the merchandise and the cash registers were squawking. The parking lot was a mire of big, late-model cars.
Things have changed, agreed Loehmann's experts Renee and Rose Miller, one of many mother-daughter teams working the store. For one thing, men can enter the Back Room.
Once, the Back Room, where Loehmann's customers found the rarest and most exquisite garments, was part and parcel of the dressing room. Now, an open shopping area at the rear of the store, it is no longer a sacred inner sanctum where men dared not tread.
Loehmann's sells shoes now, and lingerie, baby clothes, men's socks, and picture frames. It even has a return policy, albeit a strict one: within seven days, store credit only.
Once, nearly all the inventory had been stripped of its labels, and customers needed either a sixth sense or had to crack the store's code to ferret out certain designer lines. Now, only items with the most extreme price cuts, such as the handsome linen jacket marked down from $840 to $299.99, are missing labels.
Behind closed doors
The dressing room is still a bullpen, but there are also individual stalls for those who want a little privacy. Yesterday, a few customers hid away, but most braved the big room, where the personality of the original Loehmann's certainly seemed intact.
In pantyhose and lingerie, women checked one another out by way of the wall-length mirror. "That's a great skirt," said one customer as she eyed her neighbor's svelte silhouette.
"It's really cheap, too!" the young beauty said.
"Are you holding your stomach in Judy? Let it go!"
"You're taking that, aren't you?"
"No, there's something about it I don't like."
As quickly as a diligent sales staff could whisk away mounds of rejects on a mobile rack, the confounding piles rose again. Even the rejects were under surveillance by keen shoppers: As one rack was wheeled away, a half-undressed customer grabbed at a white blouse and laughed at her own moxie.
Outside, some grumbled about the prices. A Donna Karan dress marked down from $1,000 to $399.99? Forget it.
Others, methodically minesweeping the sales floor, found nothing special to take home. No couture, too many "bridge" items (those in between high-end and mid-price), too many identical pieces.
"They must have sold out to someone, the whole look is different and the clothes are different," one customer said.
"It looks more like the Hecht Company," said another.
But Susan Godwin was not complaining. The Greenspring Valley woman was too busy believing in the Loehmann's magic. She had come to hunt for treasure, knowing that hard work can pay off in singular Loehmann's style: that one-of-a-kind gem hidden among racks of schmattes. Once, Godwin recalled, she found a gorgeous burgundy dress by Romeo Gigli marked down from $600 to $60 -- "and I've never seen another one!" she trilled. Yesterday, she found a long, cotton, tie-dyed dress and a bottle of Casmir, her favorite fragrance.
Good job, Frieda Loehmann would say. Stop talking, keep looking. Shopping isn't paying, Frieda would say. It's working.
Pub Date: 5/08/97