Brand building through storytelling

A mother, a daughter and a bargain basement

My mother never managed to teach me how to roll out pie crust or sew in a zipper, but thanks to her I can spot the bargains at a post-Christmas sale and beat the crowd to the only 80-percent-off sweater in a certain shade of pink—one that shows up in stores about as often as a cockatoo lands in your back yard.

She raised me and my sister in Durham, New Hampshire, home of the state university and no place for lessons in competitive shopping. If you wanted to flaunt the UNH emblem, a fearsome wildcat, you had come to the right place for everything from sweatshirts to beer mugs. My mother had finer things in mind— designer dresses for the price of a six-pack of dish towels. She knew just where to take us—Filene’s Basement, the teeming Boston emporium that was to bargain-hunting what the Bolshoi was to ballet and Bourbon Street to jazz.

At least once a season we’d be roused before dawn to board the acrid-smelling Michaud bus for Boston, our wallets flush with dollar bills we’d been saving since the last expedition (a dollar counted for something at Filene’s). While tickets to the opera or the ballet sometimes gave this outing a patina of high-mindedness, it was always the prospect of Filene’s that kept me aquiver with excitement. Unlike any other store, Filene’s had a policy of automatic markdowns, which it followed with the same zealous pride that the Tour d’Argent brought to the rules of hautecuisine.The longer an item remained unsold, the more sharply its price would plummet, each new drop indicated by a colour-coded tag. My mother taught me to look for the colour (lilac? emerald green?) that signified the most astonishing deals.

Rona Fredelle WeddingdayForget the chain of stores that today bear the name Filene’s Basement and look just like their clones at Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off 5th. In my day Filene’s Basement was just that—a downtown warren that lay beneath the polished flagship store upstairs, with its glossy perfume counters and hip-thrusting mannequins. If the flagship was the face of a Beacon Hill matron, the Basement was the untamed id. In the aisles of the Basement women stripped to their skivvies (change rooms didn’t arrive until 1991). They told harsh truths. (Declared one as my 13-ish sister pulled a mini-dress over her hips, “Honey, it doesn’t do a thing for you.”) They snatched garments from the arms of rival shoppers. Following my mother through the fray, I kept hoping to witness one of the fist fights that had burnished the Filene’s legend. The Basement was the one place I knew where pillars of the PTA revealed their covetous ferocity. Men hunted; women shopped. At least they could wear their bounty.

My mother quoted “Dover Beach” and collected Danish teak while her neighbours were still buying maple, but I never saw anything light up her  face like a first-class bargain from Filene’s. “You couldn’t buy the fabric for that price!” she would exclaim of a find too good to pass up.

I remember an organza shirtwaist dress, lined with aquamarine taffeta, that had made its way from a hushed salon at Neiman Marcus  to the lowest, cheapest, sweatiest depths of the Basement. My mother couldn’t hope to squeeze into that dress unless she went on a grapefruit diet, yet she bought it without hesitation. “You can wear it to parties someday,” she said. I was maybe nine years old, and by the time I reached my teens, I would not have deigned to wear a shirtwaist. But it wasn’t really an outfit in which my mother had invested. It was a notion of herself as the keeper of essential female knowledge, and of her daughters as the lucky beneficiaries. For years the dress hung untouched in her closet like a promise of beauty.

At first glance the Basement embodied ugliness–its walls painted in ancient rooming-house shades, its corridors and stairwells opening at crazy angles onto ever more rooms filled with overstuffed racks that women pawed like foraging animals. Yet any any one of those racks might hold a confection of a dress for $9.98 (women wore dresses then, and hostess gowns for entertaining). When I grew old enough to go to Boston by myself, I looked forward to unwrapping my treasures for my mother so that she could see her wisdom reflected in a full-lengthZhivago-style coat or the velvet hat (pictured here) that I eventually wore to my wedding..

Now a gaping hole marks the corner where Filene’s and its Basement once stood (a long-awaited development won’t happen anytime soon). And women hunt for bargains in look-alike malls like one I visited the other day near Sarasota. Broad avenues led me round and round past cheap stuff that cost way too much. I could have sworn the marketing folks from America’s retail chains had all gathered at a conference table to ask, “How bad can we make the price-conscious woman look this year? Which colour has the best track record for draining skin tones—beige or Halloween orange?” They clearly reached a compromise: the beige and the orange.

I bought an umbrella, two bras and a grill pan. My mother would sigh at the bloodlessness of it all, but she’d know I made the right decision.

Photo: My mother and I purchased just about everything we’re wearing here at Filene’s Basement. She was particularly proud of the leather coat from Israel.

Click here to read about a few of my favourite fashion purchases. 

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