Walkabout: Brooklyn Riches from Rags

Believe it or not, a paralyzed lip started a fashion empire. Charles Loehmann was a flutist with a New York symphony orchestra. In 1916, he developed a paralyzed lip, thus ending his career and his income. It was up to his wife Frieda to become the breadwinner for their family of five. She was employed as a coat buyer with a fashionable store, and in 1921, with $800 in cash, she and her son Charles opened a store in a vacant auto showroom below their apartment on the corner of Sterling and Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights. The store was on Bedford’s famous Automobile Row, directly across the street from the Studebaker Building, the Row’s most spectacular showroom. The shop was originally called the Original Designer Outlet, and was a woman’s specialty shop selling designer overstock. The address was 1476 Bedford Avenue, soon to be one of the most famous addresses in Brooklyn.

The store, always known as Loehmann’s, was an enormous success. Frieda Loehmann became known as the Grand Dame of Cut-Rate Fashion. Long before stores like T.J.Maxx and Marshalls, long before Overstock.com and designer outlet malls, Frieda and her Brooklyn Loehmann’s store ruled. All of the comedy routines about women fighting over clothes and shoes at samples sales started here, as did the bargain basement tradition of women in slips trying on clothes barely hidden behind lines of clothing hanging from pipes. Frieda was not running a posh establishment serving tea; this was shopping at its most primal. Top-name designer garments, fresh from the designers’ own studios, were marked down to next to nothing — and may the best woman win.

Frieda, aka “Mama” Loehmann, was able to supply her customers with the designer garments they craved because she had developed relationships with all of her suppliers. Every day, from 1920 until two weeks before she died in 1962, Mama Loehmann would go into Manhattan to the garment district and the multitude of designers there, and buy up their overstock, samples, and discontinued or never produced lines.

As her wealth and success grew, designers looked forward to Frieda descending on them, a spare woman with her hair pulled severely back, always dressed in black. She would arrive in a panel truck, with her driver, and pay cash for her purchases from a huge wad of bills that she carried in what Bill Blass called “her voluminous black bloomers.” Everything would come back to Brooklyn, where it could be on the racks in her store the same day, minus the label, although everyone knew who the designers were. Goods could be had at bargain prices up to 75 percent of what was currently selling in a department store. It was a brilliant marketing idea that still resonates with shoppers today.

Frieda thought Brooklyn was the beginning and end of the world, and was content with her store where it was, but her son Charles wanted to expand. When Frieda turned him down, he began the Charles C. Loehmann Corporation, opening another store on Fordham Road in the Bronx in 1930, using the same marketing and purchasing formula. It was Charles’ Loehmann’s that would go on to expand to other states, go public and eventually become the company that it is today. But that was not Frieda’s Loehmann’s.

Frieda loved the Bedford Avenue store. She bought the building, and lived there in a four-room penthouse apartment above the store for the rest of her life. After her death in 1962, people were surprised to learn that her own living space was rather spare. She loved traveling, auctions and fine food, but her greatest pleasure was buying props and décor for the store. As famous as her Original Designer Outlet was for its clothing bargains, it was equally famous for its grand, opulent and gilded décor.

The first thing one would see when approaching the store were gilded concrete Chinese dragons chasing flaming pearls, running across the roof of the building. Ornamental ironwork and stained glass peacock windows adorned the facade. And inside – if anything stood still long enough, Frieda would gild it. Her night guard, an artist, spent 10 years gold leafing scenes of sunbursts, peacocks and flowers and arabesques on the walls and ceilings when he wasn’t patrolling. The interior was festooned with chandeliers dripping with prisms, Venetian columns festooned with gold, along with huge paintings, lions in both marble and iron, lanterns, torchierers and figures holding clusters of lights. Frieda collected furniture and accessories for the store, most of it obtained in the 1930s, during the height of the Art Deco movement.

Frieda Loehmann died at the age of 88 at Long Island College Hospital, in September of 1962. During her lifetime, she had built up a $3 million business in the Brooklyn store. It had always been a strictly cash and carry business. She took no credit cards, and she left no debt. From Brooklyn to Park Avenue, her loss was felt by fashionable women everywhere who had come to love the opulent store that the New York Times called a “hodgepodge Oriental-Renaissance-Victorian palace” that had no frills when it came to shopping.

Two months later, her children closed the store she had loved so much and auctioned off all of the furnishings. The sale was a riotous event, and brought out the decorator trade, as there were many valuable Deco pieces, as well as the curious, and those who were fans and long-time shoppers. The building was sold, as well.

In 1966, a man named Martin Kogut, who owned a dress shop nearby, bought 1476 Bedford and restored it to its Freida Loehmann glory. During the auction, he had bought up as many artifacts and pieces as he could, and had traced down and bought back some of the most iconic items, including the 1920s store mannequins, some statuary and lighting, and the iron cages that held the cashiers’ booths. He was operating the store in much the same way as the original Loehmann’s, selling designer overstock and samples on the two floors of the store. He managed to get back some of the old customers, and bring in new customers, but it wasn’t the same, although it was close. The New York Times wrote up a long article with photographs showing the opulent décor, the gilded ceilings and the ’20s mannequins.

I was not able to easily find out how long the store survived, but ten years later, in 1976, Martin Kogut sold the space to New Life Tabernacle Church of God in Christ for $58,000. The church remains there to this day. They use the main floor selling space as a banquet and events hall, and much of the gilded ceilings, large chandeliers, and opulent wall décor remains in situ, and can be glimpsed through the large picture windows, through metal security gates. All of the gilded dragons on the roof have lost their heads; hopefully the church has seen fit to keep the pieces, as well as anything else that remains from those golden days. If you peek in the windows, in a small way, Frieda Loehmann’s vision still endures. I would have loved to have seen it in its glory. GMAP

(Originally posted 05/20/10)

1962 Photograph: Brooklyn Public Library

1962 Photograph: Brooklyn Public Library

Loehmann’s building in the 1970s, after becoming a church.

Present day interior, as photographed dimly through the windows.

Present day interior, as photographed dimly through the windows.

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