Frieda Loehmann, dressed entirely in black, chain-smoking through a black cigarette holder, leaned against the back door of the Seventh Avenue showroom of Ben Zuckerman, king of the coat business. "Ben," she began, as her eyes scanned a rack filled with pastel wool coats, "I'll give you $1,000 for everything on that rack."
The coats were left over from a shipment Zuckerman had made to Fifth Avenue stores. If the stores needed more, he could deliver them at once. But if they didn't, he would be stuck with them.
Loehmann's $1,000 offer would hardly cover the price of the fabric used in the coats. But if stores didn't need those coats, he wouldn't even make that, figured Zuckerman. The $1,000 from Loehmann would be cash in the pocket. "I'll take it," he said finally.
Frieda Loehmann lifted her skirt, dipped into her bloomers, pulled out 10 $100 bills and signaled her sons to move the clothes downstairs to a waiting car for the short ride to her Brooklyn store. The next day the coats were on sale at less than wholesale cost.
That conversation between Frieda Loehmann and Ben Zuckerman in the mid-1950s typified her way of doing business that in recent years has dramatically changed the fashion industry--off-price shopping.
Paying less than the full price has become standard in buying cars, television sets, hair dryers and mattresses. And while women were once reluctant to admit they shopped discounters or even sale racks for their clothes, they now have found this something to boast about. Women who wore sunglasses to keep from being recognized at Loehmann's now are the first to tell their friends how much they spent, which is to say how much they saved.
"I had a terrible dream last night," said a woman trying on an Ultrasuede dress at Loehmann's recently. "I dreamt I bought something and paid full price for it." It was only a dream.
In a season when stores have been stuck with racks of fashion items, Loehmann's is thriving. Other off-price stores are starting up and expanding. Filene's has opened three bargain-basement stores in New York, and other large department stores have started profitable discount divisions. Locally, Syms recently opened a huge store on Rockville Pike, and Mandy's, T.J. Maxx, Marshall's and The Burlington Coat Factory are among the discount stores boasting healthy sales while traditional stores are hurting.
Some women don't have to go farther than across the street to shop off-price: Increasingly, individual women are setting up shops in their living rooms to sell clothes at discounted prices. Other women, with an entree to Seventh Avenue showrooms, have made a profitable business of buying clothes to order at wholesale and selling them to private clients for a 10 to 20 percent profit.
"Women are telling traditional stores in more ways than one that they are not happy with the price of clothes today," said George Greenberg, president of Loehmann's Inc.
But Greenberg says he is not worried about the off-price competition. "It reminds me of the 1950s and the bowling alley syndrome. Everyone felt they were a great investment. But after six or seven years, only the good ones survived."
Loehmann's huge purchasing power--resulting in lower prices from manufacturers and, in turn, lower prices for customers--ensures its survival, Greenberg said. "If you are going to the supermarket for a roasting chicken you pay a lot more as an individual than the Colonel Sanders does for it," said Mary-Jean Rainnie of Loehmann's. "We can buy by the trailerload." Minimal advertising and no-frills shopping, including no charge cards, group dressing rooms and no returns ("Even my wife can't return anything," said Greenberg), have made the prices hard to beat.
"Thank God for Loehmann's," said the president of a large Washington specialty store recently. "If Loehmann's didn't buy up all the extra clothes that were manufactured, we would have to charge a lot more for our clothes."
It didn't take Frieda Loehmann long to realize that the clothes she sold at discount prices in her Brooklyn store were snapped up far more quickly than regularly priced merchandise. That was in 1921. Within a year the entire store consisted of off-price clothes, which she had bought for cash from manufacturers' overproduction. Off-price shopping was born.
The first Loehmann's was a huge, barn-like room--an old used-car showroom--gussied up with gilt angels and baroque candelabra. It had no dressing rooms. Women left their coats with husbands, who hovered embarrassed near the door while their wives dropped their dresses mid-aisle to try on the new styles. The more bashful customers would try on new clothes over what they wore into the shop. They checked their choices with other women in similar poses, or with their husbands, and took their choices to the cashier, who sat in a gilded cage.
Loehmann, who died in 1962 at the age of 88, was a second-generation German from Cincinnati who came to New York when her husband, Charles H. Loehmann, suffered a paralysis that forced his retirement as flutist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She had been a coat buyer for Stewart & Co., the store that preceded Arnold Constable on Fifth Avenue. As a buyer she knew that manufacturers were forced occasionally to sell things below wholesale cost and that her customers appreciated the lower prices she passed along to them in sales. She figured if she could open a store featuring lower prices, women would seek out these bargains. She was right; women flocked to Brooklyn by subway, taxi and Rolls Royces to snap up the bargains. With cash in hand, she went back to Seventh Avenue to buy more.
"I loved her. She was a charming old girl," said designer Bill Blass, who recalls that Loehmann would only use the service elevator and carried out her dealings in the shipping department. Blass recalled hearing that Frieda Loehmann dressed to the nines when she took her annual trips on the luxury liner Ile de France. "But when she came to Seventh Avenue she looked like she didn't have a nickel to her name," he said.
Then, word would go out that "the undertaker is here"--referring to the way the samples and overproduction by a designer were bought for cash and carried away immediately in an unmarked black van.
Her son, Charles, made the rounds with his mother for almost 10 years before he decided to break out on his own. No one will say what precipitated the split, but it may have been Frieda Loehmann's reluctance to venture out of Brooklyn. Charles took the same formula and opened his own store on Bainbridge Avenue off Fordham Road in the Bronx in 1930, and six branches after that.
It was Loehmann's president Greenberg, a former Macy's executive, who started a major expansion in the late 1950s. There are now 60 stores in 24 states. Figures on the volume of business have not been public since the company was acquired by private investors two years ago. It is estimated, however, that Loehmann's annual volume is $250 million, which is at least as much fashion business as is done by some leading Fifth Avenue stores and their branches. Frieda Loehmann was right: Selling off-price is big business.
Every hook was filled in each of the three dressing roomsat Loehmann's in Falls Church by 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning. Mary Zon was trying on a Pauline Trigere coat while her friend from South Carolina was considering several blouses. "I usually come about three times a year for my seasonal purchases," said Zon as she turned to get a back view of the coat in the mirror-lined room. "But when friends come to town and have a Loehmann's attack, I'm quick to come with them."
Elsewhere in the room, women were in various stages of undress. Some had stripped down to their underpants to try on bathing suits; many were far from model size. "It cheers you up when you see what the possibilities are," Zon laughed.
Adro Vymetalik was trying on an Oleg Cassini silk print chemise. Vymetalik, who works as an office manager, has been to Loehmann's once a week since it opened in Virginia. She regularly checks Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor "to get fashion tips," she says, and may occasionally buy things at those stores. "But 90 percent of my wardrobe is Loehmann's."
Women will often get the approval from the woman at the next hook before making a purchase. But if they decide to put an item back on the hook as a reject, it is placed on a color-coded moving rack, not unlike the kind in a dry cleaner or fancy coat check room, and in less than 20 minutes it's back out on the racks for other customers to see.
Each Loehmann's branch has a Back Room, where the top-price items hang. In this town, because of the demand, a lot of Ultrasuede and evening clothes can be found there.
"I went to the Kennedy Center for New Year's and all of these ladies came up to me to say hello," says Ingrid Kitts, who has worked in the Back Room at Loehmann's for 4 1/2 years. "I knew them from the dressing room but I didn't know their names."
Lee Kimche, an international art consultant in Washington and a Loehmann's addict, shops mostly in the Back Room. She's in good company. Lauren Bacall, as Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, bragged that her Norells came from the Back Room. Betty Ford stopped shopping there when she moved to the White House, but White House staffers were known to take the official car to one of the branches. Martha Mitchell loved Loehmann's. "I grew up shopping at Loehmann's in the Bronx," she once said. Barbara Bush, Helen Burns, Bennetta Washington, Vicki Bagley and Tandy Dickinson have often shopped there.
"You can't go to Loehmann's looking for the ultimate dress for a special occasion. The key is to have an idea, not a specific, exact need for something for tomorrow," said Kimche.
Kimche doesn't need a scorecard to tell which designer label was cut out of the clothes. Like many Loehmann's customers, she can verify her guesses with the fairly obvious code on the hangtag, which is close to the designer's initials. Adolfo is AD, Blass is BLA, Ralph Lauren is RL, Oscar de la Renta is ORC, Geoffrey Beene is GEB, Halston HAL and Pauline Trigere IX, for example. Armani, Versace and Fendi have different labels depending on the manufacturer they are designing for.
Calvin Klein's code is GJG, named for Greenberg, the company president. Recently, Greenberg was checking the Hewlett store near where he lives. He had entered the back of the store but the chauffeur brought his car with a GJG license plate to wait for him in front. "My God, Sadie," said one customer to her friend when they spotted the car. "Can you believe it? Calvin Klein must be shopping here."