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A cut-rate route to a designer wardrobe

"If you shop with us, you should be in the mood for something new," says Mary-Jean Rainnie of Loehmann's, a discount women's clothing store. "But if you wake up one morning and decide you need a red coat with eight buttons and black trim, don't come here. Chances are we won't have it."

The flexible shopper, however, can unerth a bonanza. Scooping up the unsold overruns and extras of the fashion designers, Loehmann's and shops like it offer the height of fashion for the lowest prices -- $200 dresses for $130, designer coordinates at two-thirds of the retail price, and at end of season, bargains at 50 to 60 percent off.

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What you do not pay in lofty prices, however, is exacted in privacy. Picture a circular room walled in mirrors and crammed with dozens of shoppers trying on clothes, all under the wary eye of a dressing room clerk, and you will see Loehmann's.

If modesty is the sacrificial lamb of the discount stores, then it is a sacrifice eagerly made by factory workers and fashion queens alike. Lauren Bacall shops Loehmann's, Zsa Zsa Gabor shops Loehmann's, and Betty Ford browsed regularly until the Secret Service put a cramp in her shopping style.

The store has become a common denominator for women everywhere in search of a bargain. In a recent article on Washington's controversial Effie Barry, wife of the city's mayor, a friend sought to impress the reporter with Mrs. Barry's naturalness and humanity by saying "she even shops at Loehmann's."

Along with naturalness and humanity, you should bring cash to this store. In an effort to lower the ceiling on prices, Loehmann's refuses all major credit cards, operating on a cash (or check)-and-carry basis.

And you should be prepared to drive a bit. The stores tend to locate away from the high- rent -- and high-fashion -- district, to muzzle both expenses and competition with retailers.

Moving out of the limelight is a full-time profession for the discount stores , whose buyers are referred to as the "undertakers" of the business. George J. Greenberg, president of Loehmann's 48 stores, describes his company's association with the fashion industry this way: "It's a love-hate relationship. We're just tolerated by the industry and yet they need us."

Tave Kaufman, president of T. H. Mandy's seven East Coast discount stores, expands on this: "The only designers that last in this business are commercially successful people, and they accept the fact that not every one of their designs will be a hit. If the designer turns out a line of, say, 150 pieces, maybe 35 of them will retail successfully. He had to do something with the rest of them. And we're that something."

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Filling this gap wins Mr. Kaurman no popularity contests, but he says that the industry is learning to accept discount buyers. "It used to get pretty nasty. The big retail stores would exert pressure on these manufacturers not to sell to us, and I've gone under the table more than once at a show, to keep from embarrassing some guy."

Mr. Kaufman makes a serious effort to support the "jazzier designs" which "add flavor to the stock." These items are often slow movers, however, "and you can pick up some incredible bargains," he adds. "If you go for draping yourself in a picture of an orangutan with a rhinestone eye, look for it with a marked down price."

Markdowns also occur regularly for end- of-season leftovers and coordinates that "became uncoordinated, losing a jacket or pants or whatever," mr. Kaufman advises. "Also, we're pretty scrupulous about our comparison prices, so watch the tags for the best bargains."

The prices can be spectacular. Mandy's starts with a 20 percent discount, averages 33 percent under retail cost, and -- if you go for orangutans or winter coats in December -- can get down to 70 percent off.

Mandy's carves these bare-bones costs by dealing exclusively in women's sportswear ("We're narrow and deep," says the president), picking up huge quantities of sports coordinates to spread among their stores, hiring mostly part-time, unskilled help, and locating off the beaten track.

Unlike Loehmann's, which caters to the average shopper aged 18 to 80, Mandy's is out to cultivate the "higher class customer," asserts Mr. Kaufman who maintains that many of his customers "come from Saks or Bloomies."

Clerks greet you at the door with a "Welcome to T. H. Mandy!" greeting, a thorough explanation of their pricing policy, and a guide to the outfit of your choice. The dressing room guards help you find another outfit in your size and talks with your children while you consider your purchase. The cashiers accept major credit cards. And the clothes carry both their designer label and a special tag giving comparative prices.

At Loehmann's, the designer label is ripped out, but a careful reading of the tag spills the secret. There, you'll find initials that tell if the silk blouse is a Ralph Lauren (RL), Oscar de la Renta (OSC) or Pierre Cardin (GAL).

Codes change, add letters (Charlotte Ford is CFZ) or regroup (Diva-Evan Picone is EDP) at the manufacturer's request, and each of these code breakers may have metamorphosed since this writing has gone to press. But in Loehmann's "backroom" where the designer clothes are kept, you can be sure the quality is tops, and the price and fit should tell you all you really need to know.

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