Somewhere Between Fantasy and Reality: A Tribute to Loehmann’s

by Sara Campbell

The scene at Loehmann’s on a Thursday afternoon in early January was both grim and hyper-charged. I was one of a few dozen women who’d been drawn there in a mixture of nostalgia and desperation after the shocking news from the day prior that the chain had declared bankruptcy and would soon be closing its doors forever.

“Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck,” I thought as I ransacked the aisles, which now wore bright yellow signs that said “Up to 70 percent OFF” and “All Stock Must Go.” Though I’d only been introduced to Loehmann’s in my early twenties, it had been the sight of so many victories. A red wool-hooded coat by Escada (Originally $800, bought for $100.) A pair of Narcisco Rodriguez studded black flats. (Suggested retail $425, I paid $75.) A classic Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress with a butterfly print, snagged for $90, down from $350. How would I ever again find a place that so regularly slaked my need for high-end clothing that I really cannot, should not afford but nonetheless can’t live without? Loehmann’s was the undisputed champion of the fashion bargain, and the apotheosis of my own personal designer aspirations.

“I couldn’t believe it when I got the email,” one woman said in the dressing room, to no one in particular. “It really is the end of an era.”

Another woman shook her head. “And I just renewed my gold membership last month, too.”

We were crushed.

While I can’t speak for those ladies, the closing of Loehmann’s really matters to me. Every quiz I’ve taken to uncover my hidden talents and find my purpose has centered on one question: what are the activities in which you can lose track of time, and not even notice that hours have passed? I’ve always thought this question is the height of ridiculousness for most of us. How many people get lost in anything that isn’t at least 75 percent passive? And while I largely don’t know jack, I do know that nobody is going to get anywhere on their predilection for chain watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU or lying poolside with a Victorian novel while under the influence of Chardonnay.

But I do in fact have a hidden active talent — and it is one that I have been honing for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and then some. Unfortunately, it is not knitting or baking or solving equations or anything that could even remotely be leaned upon to generate cash money or do some good for the world. In fact, it is probably the opposite. It is shopping.

I’m not talking about the “let’s go to the mall and put a hurt on our credit cards” type of shopping fetishized in just about every magazine and movie geared at women I’ve ever seen. I’m talking about something far less glamorous. I’m talking about a borderline compulsive behavior that has nothing to do with choosing from a lovely array of the latest styles laid out in a picturesque window or retail display. I’m talking about a highly specialized skill that requires the eyes of a sniper, the tenacity of a weed and the tolerance for hideousness of a nightclub bathroom attendant. I’m just going to come out and say it: I am an Olympic-level champion in the sport of bargain shopping.

There’s no designer label I can’t acquire, no seasonal trend I can’t try, no special occasion outfit I can’t get at a steep discount. And I’m not talking 20 percent off here. Anything less than half off retail is child’s play. I’m talking 60 percent and another 20 percent off that. I’m talking about swooping in after the fourth round of markdowns and scoring, say, a silk blouse of such perfection the saleslady herself casts a side eye at me, wondering where the hell I turned it up.

I didn’t get here overnight. My journey started like anyone else’s, as a small child with a dream. As far back as I can remember, one of my most fervent wishes was to grow up to be a stylish woman. And truly, the odds were stacked against me. As the oldest daughter of a harried mother of nine, ensuring my looks and comportment were top notch was not high on the list of her priorities. Which is not to say that she didn’t care about my being presentable. Just that the time and resources at our disposal were extremely limited. I–no, we — had to get creative.

And so we did.

My earliest memories of shopping were of jaunts with my mother to discount chains like Ross, TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. We’d pick through racks and racks of the most god-awful clothing you’ve ever seen — brown plaid hot pants, floral blazers with padded shoulders, dresses with inexplicable straps and belts, all manner of prints that weren’t just off-season, but possibly off-planet — hoping to find something someone in the family might actually wear. It started from necessity (we had very little money to work with), but it was the thrill of the hunt that hooked us. Because from amidst the turmoil of all those islands of misfit clothing, acceptable things would emerge, sometimes even gems. Though we may not find the exact style of shoes that every kid was wearing that year, or the precise brand of polo shirt in vogue, we could find things that were close enough to pass, and instead of paying, say, $59.99 (an unthinkable amount), we’d pay $5.99.

I resented this kind of shopping, of course, because it meant that though we were never completely out of style, we were never really in style either. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just be like everyone else and buy the stuff that other people were wearing, for the prices other people were paying. I blamed my mother, which was, of course, completely unfair. Why, when my six brothers were always kept in baseball gloves and basketball jerseys and soccer cleats in progressively larger sizes, was it so hard to get her to spend a little extra on girly stuff for me? Wasn’t looking cute just as important for a girl as being athletic was for a boy? Though it wasn’t deliberate, the message I implicitly got was that no, it wasn’t. And even if I had been able to make this point in a convincing way, it would have been a tough sell, gender relations being what they were in my male-dominated household. My mom stayed home to watch the kids while my dad worked full time and moonlighted too, and she never felt comfortable spending money on anything that could be considered a frivolity, which was exactly what “girly” things were considered.

I have to hand it to my mom, though; those early expeditions taught me everything about being resourceful and the way that if you’re willing to put in the time, you can get what you want — or close enough to it — for significantly less money. So much so that later on, when I did have more money to spend, I still couldn’t bring myself to pay full retail for anything, because I by then I took pride in my ability to make do with less. What started out from necessity morphed into a credo — not just for me, but for my mom, too. Now in her late 60s, she is comfortable enough financially to be able to afford to walk into Bloomingdale’s and go to town. But that could not and will not ever happen.

There’s a darker side to this credo, too. While I may have been able to gradually increase the dollar threshold on the stuff I buy (I don’t think she’s ever spent more than $50 on a single item of clothing in her life, whereas I’ll go a lot higher if it’s a great deal), there’s still a part of me that will never believe I’m worthy of the original number on the price tag. And so a store like Loehmann’s offers a bridge between fantasy (I want the perfect of-the-moment dress but am not thin/young/rich enough to deserve it) and reality (I have to buy a dress, and I might as well get the best possible one I can given my size, age and financial limitations.)

I wonder, is there a more suburban, female sport than shopping? If the men in my family had basketball practice and tournaments and neighborhood pickup games to get lost in, what did we women have? My mom and I had books, but there’s only so much time you can sit still. And in a house so chock full of boys, quiet didn’t exist. We had to find our peace elsewhere, and in the burbs, where do you go? Church? Once a week was enough. The coffee shop? Starbucks didn’t exist in the ’80s. What else is there? Parks? Nice idea and all, but screw that. For most of my childhood, we didn’t live close enough to family that we could just pop over and hang with the aunts/ uncles/ cousins, so we were forced to explore other options. And if there is one thing that suburbs do have, it is miles upon miles upon miles of strip malls and the strange shops that inhabit them. There are Tuesday Mornings and Rugged Warehouses and Gabriel Brothers and Daffy’s. There are Filene’s and Big Lots and Nordstrom Racks and so many other places a lady can escape to without interruption from men, and — perhaps more importantly — without having to worry about spending too much money. You could spend 20 bucks on a movie, popcorn and drinks for two (the ’80s, remember?), or you could pass a few entertaining hours either for free or the price of whatever goods you scored, with the added bonus of a tangible result of your expenditure. And half of what those stores are selling are not so much goods, but the opportunity to get lost for a while, maybe to get a little thrill. To be momentarily liberated from the children that need rearing and the roast that needs roasting and the endless piles of laundry that need laundering. An abandon that includes the promise of a small but life-enhancing purchase, whether it’s a new lipstick or a set of hand towels or a pair of shoes.

Under the right conditions, shopping can put me into a trance: the fluorescent lighting, the familiar aisles — Women’s, Trendy, Shoes, Home — the scrape of the hangers on the metal racks as I snap through them, and the hushed “excuse mes” from other shoppers as we pass. Depending on my mood, I glance over or go deep, taking a long look at items that show promise. The right color, a flattering length, a reputable brand, a quality fabric — any of these attributes can make me stop and give something a proper once-over. Any one of those aspects being off can also torpedo an item’s prospects. A bad cut, a strange hem or length, clumsy stitching or a cheap material on an otherwise cute top can ruin it entirely.

I’ve made many mistakes, of course. I’ve bought things that were too good to pass up, but just weren’t right for me. A slightly-too-small cashmere sweater. A dress in a color that didn’t do nice things for my complexion. Black leather booties that were incredibly chic, but nearly impossible to get on and off (there’s a reason a lot of these pieces end up in the land of discount retail). These mistakes happen, but less now that I’m older; I no longer buy things I don’t have an immediate urge to wear. I’m never going to need a white linen pantsuit or a neoprene jacket or a snake-print trench coat, no matter how luxurious and well-made and deeply on sale. Such things just aren’t called for in my jeans-and-tank top reality.

And neither is shopping, really. Not that it ever was, but it especially isn’t now, when, as a freelancer, my budget is tight, my needs are few, and — not least of all — there’s just all this stuff floating around my apartment. It’s that, and the psychic shadow of it, which feels inescapable, and suffocating. I’m sure I’m joined by millions of fellow income-challenged aesthetes who share my need for a sharp outfit on a dime. Shopping taps into primal instincts — gathering things, perhaps. Or maybe I’m just shallow, and maybe I need to work on other hobbies. I’ll put it on the list of things to do.

And in the meantime, I’ll keep mourning Loehmann’s, and probably will for years to come. But you know, another one of my favorite stores is having an event this weekend where they’ll be offering an additional 30 percent off of everything that’s already marked down. There will be silk. There may be cashmere. My mind thrills to the possibilities. I will be there.

Photo via fanofretail/flickr.

Sara Campbell is an L.A.-based writer and PR strategist whose car often magically steers itself towards outlet malls off the freeway. She sometimes blogs and tweets as her alter ego, Jane Donuts.