Saying Goodbye to Century 21

The fashion industry is in a state of emergency. This has been made clear not only by the mounting bankruptcies of big-name retailers, but also by the closure of beloved small businesses. These are shops that won’t bounce back.

There are 13 Century 21 locations, but to the store’s discount-stalking devotees, there’s nothing like the Lower Manhattan flagship.

Now sprawled across six buildings, its reputation as a shopping mecca is almost mythical, inspiring folk tales of staggering designer deals and chaos in the communal fitting rooms. Today those fitting rooms have doors, and the crowds have dwindled as more branches opened and the internet introduced a new kind of bargain hunting. But that aura of budget bedlam never fully lifted.

Soon it will. Last week, the company announced it was filing for bankruptcy as a result of the economic devastation of the coronavirus, which has hit department stores particularly hard. All Century 21 stores, which are in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Sunrise, Fla., will close.

But the biggest loss will be felt in the financial district of Manhattan. The cousins Al and Samuel Gindi, known as “Sonny,” opened Century 21 there in 1961. Across the street from the World Trade Center, it became a symbol of recovery in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

More recently, the company made moves to attract a younger clientele with the boutique offshoot Next Century. Telfar Clemens gave a party there in 2018.

In the wake of the bankruptcy news, fashion mourned: “Boo hoo,” said Patricia Field, quite sincerely, on Monday. Ms. Field, the costume designer and stylist best known for outfitting “Sex and the City,” is a longtime Century 21 shopper. “All my friends are texting me about it,” she said.

She usually goes to Century 21 in the morning, squeezing in a few hours of shopping before the masses descend. (Her most memorable recent score: a pair of printed jeans from Versace.) For her, shopping at Century — she drops the “21” — has always been more about discovery than deals. The store’s stock includes showroom samples that designers never put into production.

“It’s like seeing a line that no one else has seen before,” Ms. Field said.

Sometimes her characters shop there, too. In one “Sex and the City” episode, Carrie Bradshaw stops by Century 21 while on a break from jury duty. She has already found a Dolce & Gabbana kimono and is still digging through the racks when she has one of her voice-over epiphanies: “With an arm full of discount clothing, I realized I could no longer discount my feelings.”

When news broke of the bankruptcy, there were a lot of feelings to go around. Writers at Vogue and The Cut eulogized the store that made inaccessibly priced labels like Moschino and Gucci accessible to them as young shoppers.

“When I was in high school, the fashion finds at Century 21 were accessible and eye-opening,” Zac Posen, the designer and Brooks Brother creative director, wrote in an email. “Designers like Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Martin Margiela, Josephus Thimister, Tom Ford’s early Gucci collections (the red velvet suit!) Romeo Gigli, Olivier Theyskens — these were the things that fueled my love of fashion.”

Shopping at Century 21 was never easy; inventory would fall into disarray on busy days, the aisles overrun by tourists. A $900 dress (originally $1,500) would fall off its hanger to the floor. Shoes would be tried on and put back in the wrong boxes.

But often, people went there to shop for big life moments — weddings, graduations, job interviews — which made the scrappy experience more sentimental in hindsight. (This reporter still cherishes a James Perse cardigan and pair of Calvin Klein collection sandals, bought at Century 21 and worn on the first day of a new job in the summer of 2011.)

Then again, it was also just a good place to get cheap socks.

“Where am I going to go to replace Century?” Ms. Field said. “Woodbury Commons?”

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