Best's Apparel (Seattle)

  • By Clara Berg
  • Posted 4/08/2022
  • Essay 22449
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Best's Apparel was a women's clothing store founded in Seattle by Dorothy Cabot Best (1888-1958) and Ivan Lovich Best (1887-1979). The business opened in 1925 at 1520 3rd Avenue and then moved to a larger location at 5th and Pine in 1935. Dorothy led the buying decisions and was known for her good taste and ability to find exceptional style for a range of price points and needs. Following her death, Ivan negotiated the sale of the business to Nordstrom in 1963. At the time, Nordstrom was a shoe business -- the acquisition of Best's was the beginning of its expansion into a full-line clothing and fashion retailer. Nordstrom took on Best's tradition of an Anniversary Sale to sell preseason fall merchandise during the summer.  

East Coast Matron Meets Russian Immigrant

Dorothy Cabot Best was born in 1888 in Boston and was raised in New York. She was from a wealthy society family and grew up with servants in the household. Stories about her early life are plentiful but difficult to verify -- possibly accurate or possibly embellished later to build her reputation as coming from a world of affluence and refinement. She allegedly spoke only French until the age of 4. Her family had a farm in the Berkshires and wintered on their land in Texas and Mexico. Summers were spent in Europe.

In 1909, at the age of 21, she married her first husband John William Lawsberg. He was German and the wedding took place in Paris. A small mention of the wedding in The New York Times called it "the only social event" in the city worth mentioning, as most of high society was in Reims that week. After the wedding the couple lived in Chatham, New York, with Dorothy's parents. Lawsberg's profession was listed in the 1910 census as a cloth manufacturer, which may have given Dorothy an early connection to the fashion industry. The couple had two children, son Willis and daughter Sally.

When her marriage ended and her family money disappeared (the specific circumstances of both are unclear), Dorothy needed to support herself for the first time in her life. After some reflection, she decided to work toward being a buyer at a store. As one version of the story goes, she recalled more extravagant days when she assisted a friend with her lavish wedding trousseau and the friend remarked that Dorothy ought to be a buyer. Another version is that she remembered an incident when she cut and draped some luxury fabric for a friend and an older man suggested she had a future as a buyer. When she asked what that was, he responded, "An ideal buyer ... is one who selects clothes that turn a person into a personality" ("A Snip of the Shears ..."). So she got a job for $10 per week (in some versions only $6) selling underwear at a department store in Boston. Within a year she had been promoted to buyer with an annual salary of $4,500.

She next took a job with the San Francisco fur importer H. Liebes & Co., and it was there that she met her second husband Ivan Lovich (later Ivan Lovich Best). Ivan was born in Russia in 1887 and immigrated around 1904 at the age of 17. He came to San Francisco in about 1913 and became vice president of H. Liebes & Co. and the general manager. Their 1918 wedding announcement in the San Francisco Chronicle was titled "Business Man Takes Eastern Matron As Bride," and referred to Dorothy as "Mrs. Dorothy Best." This is interesting as the "matron" and "Mrs." clearly identified her as a woman who had already been married, but she was using her maiden name rather than "Lawsberg." Early on, it appears Dorothy was already firm about retaining her marketable last name of Best.

Best's Opens in Seattle

After a brief time with a branch of H. Liebes & Co. in Portland, Dorothy and Ivan came to Seattle in 1925 to open their own store. Initially they had co-investors I. Lowengart and E. J. Blumenthal as president and vice president of the business. What is interesting is that newspaper accounts of the store opening do not mention that Dorothy and Ivan were married. Most articles name Ivan along with Lowengart and Blumenthal as the male managers and investors, and then focus on "Miss Dorothy Best" as the lead buyer and store namesake. "The business will largely revolve around Miss Dorothy Cabot Best, who has had a long experience in these lines in other cities" ("Best Shop to be Open Here"), explained the Seattle P-I.

It is unclear if the couple was intentionally secretive about their relationship or simply allowed journalists to assume they were unconnected since they didn't share a last name. At the time they came to Seattle, however, the couple now had two children of their own: son Peter and daughter Pamela. Willis and Sally, who were also using the last name "Best," were teenagers at the time. If there was some degree of secrecy, at least for the press, one reason may have been Dorothy's busy schedule of buying merchandise. Several of the articles about the store emphasized that Dorothy expected to spend a large portion of her time on the East Coast, buying for the store and staying up on the latest trends. This kind of statement served as a marketing tool -- assuring potential customers that the selection of the merchandise was well informed and up-to-date. But the public was probably more comfortable with the idea of an unmarried "Miss" making these trips than a wife and mother of four spending time away from her family. 

Best's Apparel opened in August 1925 in the Century Building at 1522 3rd Avenue. It opened with nearly 60 employees and two floors of merchandise: the main floor for millinery and the second for dresses, gowns, coats, wraps, and suits. An ad for the store promised to "Bring Paris to the Northwest ... a modified, Americanized Paris to be sure, but Paris just the same" (Best's Apparel ad, August 1925). Early ads and press also emphasized the affordability of the merchandise. "Medium priced merchandise for the woman with good taste" ("Two Years' Search ...") said one article. Their ads boasted: "Definitely presenting to the Seattle Woman finer apparel of distinction at a degree of economy hitherto unknown" (Best's Apparel ad, September 1925) and said more simply: "More style for less money" (Best's Apparel ad, August 1925).

This pitch found a ready audience, although getting such an ambitious business off the ground was still challenging work. Daughter Pamela Best would recount, "Things were on the lean side in the beginning. Mother used to save the tissue paper the clothes were shipped in, press it out and use it again" ("After All ...").

Best's Expands, and Expands Again

In its first decade, Best's flourished and its reputation grew. In late 1934 the store announced a major move and expansion to a five-story site at 5th and Pine. The location had once been the Alhambra Theater, built in 1909 as a venue for Vaudeville shows and early films. In the 1920s it was home to another woman-led fashion retailer called Carman, and then a chain called Livingston Brothers. Substantial changes were made to both the interior and exterior of the building to transform it into a "modern" space in keeping with the latest retail trends. "Old festoons and garlands and facades are being torn down to give way to modern simplicity" ("New Best's Site ..."). Each department had a different, bold color scheme. Particularly remarkable was that all of this was taking place during the Great Depression, and many reports about the move made sure to mention the $1.5 million price tag for the deal. The amount and the 20-year lease were a bold show of confidence in the continuing success of the business, and interpreted as a sign of confidence in Seattle itself. The new location opened in February 1935.

Just two years later, Best's expanded by acquiring space on the Westlake side of the block. In 1941, the store announced a further $100,000 addition, making it three expansions in six years. Announcements of these expansions were accompanied by glowing profiles of Dorothy and how her taste and fashion philosophy had benefited the women of Seattle. "There is a general trend of styles but there are individual styles for everyone," Dorothy explained in one article. "There is a right dress for every woman ... and the tragedy of it is there is a wrong dress for every woman ... She must buy the thing that best expresses her personality, that suits her needs and fits her present wardrobe" ("Dorothy Best Tells ...").

In the early twentieth century, Paris dominated the fashion landscape. The public assumption was that all "real" fashion came from that city, and so most of the manufacturing industry in New York and other U.S. cities was focused on making copies and translations of styles coming out of Paris. Some couturiers in Paris licensed designs for duplication by ready-to-wear firms. There were fashion businesses in Seattle that did some direct buying in Paris, such as Frederick & Nelson and Helen Igoe, but much of their stock would be copies and derivatives at various price points (mostly at the high end for Helen Igoe; a full range from high to low for a department store such as Frederick & Nelson). Because Dorothy Best's buying trips were in New York and not Europe (in 1937 she was making eight trips per year), and many of the ads emphasized fashion at a middle range of price points, it seems unlikely that Best's sold any Paris originals. The niche that Best's was cultivating was around Dorothy's impeccable eye for good style. While visiting New York she would find the most fashionable, well-designed items at each price point.

In Seattle, many women craved the kind of guidance and authority that Best's offered. With so great a physical distance between Seattle and the fashion capitals of the world, there was sometimes hesitation about trying out the latest, most cutting-edge styles. Shoppers wanted to trust a store to sell them what was appropriate for their age, budget, and lifestyle. There also had to be a balance between the comfort of "correct" and the excitement of "new," and Dorothy seems to have had a reputation for both. While some profiles emphasized meeting the needs of each individual client, others portrayed her as having a finger on the pulse of the next big thing. According to one story, she would tell customers, "If you buy a hat and your husband likes it, bring it back -- it's not new enough" ("After All ...").

During World War II the United States was cut off from Paris, and American designers were finally given more respect and prominence. Best's moved right along with that shift, beginning to advertise American designer names and companies. In 1942, when MGM costume designer Adrian premiered his first fashion collection, Dorothy and Ivan were among a small group invited to the showing. Best's was granted the exclusive rights to sell Adrian's line in Seattle.

A Family of Bests

By the 1950s, Best's could boast of being "the largest exclusively home-owned and family-run apparel store in the city, and one of the few left in the United States" ("After All ...").

The whole family took Dorothy's last name, a move rare today and practically unheard of at the time. Her children from her first marriage were likely born "Lawsberg" but were known in Seattle as Willis Best and Sally Best. It appears that Ivan's name change happened sometime around 1940. Prior to that, newspaper mentions usually call him Ivan Lovich and occasionally the couple are referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Lovich. But in 1940 he started being called Ivan Lovich Best or Ivan L. Best and she Mrs. Lovich Best or just Dorothy Best. This is around the same time that they were more widely acknowledged as a married couple in stories about the store. Ivan's and Dorothy's children Peter and Pamela are listed in the 1940 Census as Lovich, but either took the name Best later, or the census taker made an incorrect assumption based on their father's last name. In most newspaper mentions they seem to be consistently using the last name Best. Pamela took a page out of her mother's book by remaining professionally as Pamela Best after her marriage to Carl O. Strand but was Mrs. Carl Strand in some social contexts. A Seattle Times article about Strand's experience joining his wife's family business said that he was sometimes playfully referred to as "Mr. Pamela Best."

Three of the Best children built their careers in the business. In the 1930s Willis managed the department known as the Budget Shop and worked in the New York office in the 1940s. Later, he was the fashion buyer for coats, suits, and knits, and then manager of the Nordstrom Best Northgate store. Peter Best got undergraduate and business degrees from Harvard and became vice president and general manager. Pamela held the title of "fashion coordinator" in the 1950s and early 1960s. She and husband Carl Strand later held the positions of treasurer and secretary, respectively, and moved to Portland in 1960 to take the lead on running that new location. Sally Best is the only one who appears to not have worked for the store. She eloped with classmate George E. Miller just before graduating from Broadway High School in 1930. The couple later moved to California and in the 1940 her occupation was listed as "radio actress." 

Sale to Nordstrom

Dorothy Best died of a heart attack on August 8, 1958. For a time, the family continued running and expanding the business. In 1960 they opened a second store in Portland. Pamela Best and her husband Carl O. Strand moved to Portland to oversee the success of the new branch. At the time of that store's opening, the media identified Ivan as the president of Best's, Peter Best as vice president, Pamela as treasurer, and Carl Strand as secretary.

But despite outward signs of success, the loss of Dorothy had taken some of wind out of the sails, particularly for Ivan. In the early 1960s, he was actively pursuing several options for the sale of the business. In 1962 he offered it to the retired president of Frederick & Nelson, William S. Street. Street was not interested, but connected Ivan with executives at Marshall Field (who owned Frederick & Nelson). They also declined. The third option under consideration was another family-owned Seattle business that shared the same block with Best's: Nordstrom.

At the time, Nordstrom was exclusively a shoe retailer. It opened in 1901 and in the early 1960s was being run by the three sons of the founder: Everett, Elmer, and Lloyd Nordstrom. The three were nearing retirement and moving their sons (and one son-in-law) into key leadership positions. There was a feeling that they had outgrown their existing group of local shoe stores and were considering expansions and new ventures to engage the upcoming leaders. Youngest brother Lloyd was the most passionate about acquiring Best's, which would also mean expanding their business into clothing for the first time. In 1963 the purchase was made. The official statement from Nordstrom read:

"For several years, Nordstrom has been alert to a possible acquisition which would permit diversification in the retail apparel field and in the market area presently served by Nordstrom's. One key criterion was that any property to be considered must have successfully operated for years on a level of service and merchandise in keeping with what has constantly been Nordstrom policy. Best's Apparel Inc., ideally fit this criterion ("Nordstrom's Purchase ...").

For a short time Nordstrom continued to operate Best's Apparel as a related but separately branded business. Ivan retired but retained an office with the company, and Peter Best continued as vice president. In 1965 a branch of Best's Apparel opened at Northgate Mall, adjoining an existing Nordstrom shoe store. But later that same year, the company announced that a combined apparel and shoe store called Nordstrom Best would open in Tacoma Mall in 1966. From then on, the stores were branded as Nordstrom Best.

In 1973 the "Best" was dropped from the name, and the business was once again just Nordstrom. In the year prior, portions of the old Best's store at 5th and Pine were demolished and rebuilt to better integrate the various buildings on that block into one unified, multi-department flagship store. At the time, Ivan Best still maintained an office within the company, and gave an interview to the Seattle P-I on the day of Best's demolition. Rather than downcast, he was positive about the new direction of the business he had helped build. "You realize that change is inevitable," Ivan said, "To hold onto something like this because it means something to you personally is silly ... This change is all for the future and I'm delighted to see the store grown and give new life to the city." But the memory of Dorothy elicited more wistful and poignant responses. Their relationship was "a real partnership," he said, "our desks were side by side and we had identical 50-50 shares in the business ... The business of dominating someone you're fond of never did make any sense" ("A Rare Look Back ...").

Continuing Legacy of the Anniversary Sale

Even with "Best" permanently dropped from the Nordstrom name, the business did live on in one of Nordstrom's most popular annual sales: The Anniversary Sale. Best's actual anniversary was August 29, but ads for their Anniversary Sale ran most commonly in late July or early August. July is a notoriously slow retail month, so that was probably a strong reason to select that time to drum up sales. But while most stores use a sale to move old merchandise, Best's started using this sale to sell new merchandise for the upcoming fall season. A 1952 ad for an early August sale promoted wool sweaters and fur coats. A 1953 promotion was for new alligator pumps and bags from designer Andrew Gellar. The concept seems to have fully solidified in 1955 when the store celebrated its 30th anniversary. A long, text-heavy advertisement in local papers wrote lovingly about the store's time in Seattle and affection for the city. It went on to promise:

"YOU will reap the benefits of our many long months of preparation, scouring every worthwhile market in the nation…YOU will find everything in the sale NEW ... all brands that you know well ... YOU will see hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of fine fashions ... on sale for one week only ... at prices we are unlikely to duplicate!" (Anniversary Sale ad, July 1955).

This sale of new merchandise meant that prices would go up to regular price after the sale, which created urgency for shoppers to attend. After Nordstrom acquired Best's in 1963, the pre-fall Anniversary Sale continued to be promoted as a signature annual event. Prior to the acquisition, Nordstrom had a series of anniversary sale promotions in April 1951 for its 50th anniversary. But otherwise Nordstrom had no annual sale celebrating the store's anniversary. Soon the Best's Apparel Anniversary Sale became the Nordstrom-Best Anniversary Sale and eventually just the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale. It has continued to be a signature event for the retailer.


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