For some, it was the breakup of the Beatles — for others, the demise of the Volkswagen Bug.
For me, though, “groovy” officially died last week when Vanity announced it’s closing its doors.
Millennial shoppers may view it as merely a sign of the times … or barely notice at all, given their propensity for ordering online and foreswearing girly fashion in favor of athletic duds. While they’ve been taking their business to other venues elsewhere, the sun has set on more than a dozen once-sizzling West Acres shops that used to draw their kind like honey attracts bears.
Once-sizzling Abercrombie and Fitch was among the first to shrivel in the face of change, along with PacSun. The Limited, Wet Seal, New York and Company and quite a few more have already disappeared. Anchor stores are sinking, too; though Macy’s in Fargo has dodged the bullet that took out its sister store in Grand Forks, Sears is a goner. Rumors are flying in the national media about corporate shakeups at J.C. Penney’s and Kohl’s in the face of troubling sales. Just down the street, Gordman’s is being shuttered.
Granted, shopping center stores always come and go. West Acres CEO Brad Schlossman has assured that new tenants are on the way to fill these gaps, like false teeth fashioned to replace the aching molars pulled by a merchandising dentist. Virtually all the current closures seem to be part of a dire nationwide trend: Anchor stores are drifting down to the depths. Specialty women’s apparel chains are collapsing at a breathtaking pace.
But … Vanity? True, I haven’t walked through its door for 40 years. (Perhaps that’s a clue.) But it has been so much more than just another of the young women’s chain stores that line the mall. Nearly 50 years ago, Vanity brought “cool” to North Dakota. It introduced my Baby Boomer generation to groovy.
There was nothing like Vanity 2 in Grand Forks when it went full-tilt to junior fashions, or Vanity 3 when it opened in downtown Fargo. They were Shangri-La. They were the gold at the end of the rainbow. They were hip, and what’s happening — finally, our local connection to all the flash that had been teasing us for years as we fantasized over Seventeen and Tiger Beat and TV shows that delivered that swingin’ ’60s vision into our tidy Midwestern homes.
Vanity brought the edgy counterculture here to the Heartland. It injected exuberant, youthful hippitude into the mix on Broadway — trailing California and most of America by, oh, five years or so, but welcome nonetheless.
Downtown Fargo was bustling with our parents’ and grandparents’ tastes and tendencies. They’d kept the business district sedately humming for decades, vying for parking spots in front of Herbst and Penney’s and Sears and DeLendrecie’s, as well as more select establishments — Shotwell’s, Sgutt’s, Black’s, S&L and even the Virginia Flora Corset Shop (an ancient local precursor of Victoria’s Secret). Some might dabble a bit, dubbing a corner strung with bead curtains “the mod shop” and stocking it with outlandish garb, but that was only teasing.
Then along came Vanity. Its ground-breaking all-junior fashions instantly won the heart of high school and college girls who still spent evenings dragging Broadway. They’d suddenly found a locus all their own — designed to enchant their teen-age tribe. Even better, it annoyed the dickens out of older generations.
From its garish pink, orange and gold pop-art façade at 208 Broadway to every square foot within, each facet of Vanity was geared to its target market — more beads, of course, plus fuchsia shag carpeting, black light posters, hip sales associates and eye-popping arrays of the hottest new fashions. Even better, it offered charge accounts to its customers without a parent’s (male) cosignature … a true innovation in its day.
Oh, Vanity! Miles of miniskirts! Bountiful boatloads of bell bottoms. Fringed and beaded leather vests. Paisleys and Peter Max and everything denim. The top attraction, though, was Gunne Sax, the high-fashion ne plus ultra of every would-be hippie girl who danced across the vast northern prairie. Young America, its cool-guy counterpart, was just upstairs. The Walrus waterbeds were a floor below, backed with a little head shop of accessories, jewelry and other accoutrements.
Vanity embodied all that was cool and hip, From the moment you entered, the whole place rocked. Youthquake! The walls trembled with KQWB’s top 20, blasted at runway volume (not as in “fashion runway” — I’m talking airports here). It was all designed to make the young smile … and, perhaps, to discourage parental oversight by making Mom grimace. Indeed, a friend — another Nancy — remembers her mother asking the manager to turn down the music while they were shopping. “SO embarrassing,” she recalls.
It may be hard for the generations who followed us to understand the thrill of hanging out in Vanity 45 years ago. Subsequent teens soon would have whole shopping malls to haunt, sampling the stylish wares of a host of shops fabricated to fit their generation’s trendiest tastes.
But in 1971, there was no West Acres — not quite yet. A store aimed directly at teen and 20-something females felt like a revolution. When my besties and I were in elementary school back in the days of early Elvis and Brenda Lee, clothing (like life itself) was still compartmentalized into just two basic categories: kids and adults. Suddenly, now, the hazy bridge between childhood and dull, hidebound maturity acquired a ZIP code of its own.
Vanity pulled back the curtains to not only reveal a vivid fashion world apart from Mid Mod suits, pillbox hats and shirtwaists, but the tribal identity of our generation. Remarkably tame (and rather late by California standards), yet we teens, too, in the Heartland had our heyday.
The coolest selections that once amounted to an anti-uniform — bell bottoms, dashikis and tie dye, plus miniskirts, fringed mocs and macramé belts — were pruned from my closet long, long, long ago. But Vanity’s demise revives fond, fading memories like a faint whiff of patchouli wafting in a crowd.
Someday — maybe in 2525 — apparel archeologists could still spot a few fossils here and there, entombed among 2017’s jackets, leggings and T-shirts proclaiming “Peace, Love, Cats.” Consider the little brass temple bell hanging, silent and nearly forgotten, from a hook way in the back. I wore that bell for months, nay, years, on a rawhide cord tangled among the love beads around my neck. Its pleasant tinkle sounds crashingly loud when I jostle it now. It must have driven the adults around me crazy back in the day. Today — grouchier, as befits my present age — I’m amazed that they allowed me to live through the rest of my teens.
Peace, love and rock ’n’ roll. Groovy — R.I.P.