There is no problem Betty Halbreich can’t solve—sartorial or otherwise. Since launching her Solutions personal shopping department at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman four decades ago, the Chicago-born fashion maven has dressed everyone from Babe Paley to Candice Bergen. Generations of women have looked to the 88-year-old for the gift of style, and she never fails to deliver, although it often comes with a smack of brutal honesty and an equally jarring price tag. But it’s worth every penny, because during their Solutions sessions, her clients get so much more than new wardrobes—they get no-nonsense advice, tough love, and comfort. In fact, many refer to her as the “fashion therapist.”
Halbreich first walked through Bergdorf Goodman’s hallowed doors in 1976. She was a 40-something mother of two, whose tumultuous marriage and subsequent divorce had pushed her to the brink. At the time, she was recovering from a full blown emotional breakdown that had landed her in a psych ward, and Bergdorf, as she tells it, became her haven.
Simultaneously elegant and salty, Halbreich is the author of two books, Secrets of a Fashion Therapist: What You Can Learn Behind the Dressing Room Door and I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, With a Twist, a lover of vodka (hence the name of her second tome), and a bona fide celebrity, thanks to her unfiltered personality and her film-stealing spotlight in the 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s. As you can imagine, she has acquired a mindboggling collection of clothes (her ten closets house wares by her former employer Geoffrey Beene, Issey Miyake, Christian Dior, Emilio Pucci, her friends Isaac Mizrahi and Libertine’s Johnson Hartig, and beyond), accessories (gloves, handbags, shoes, you name it), jewelry (like a stunning Kenneth Jay Lane necklace made for Jackie Kennedy), and mementos (Donald Robertson has given her books and illustrations, the late Joan Rivers gifted her a chocolate gun to cheer her up, and a mystery admirer sent her a gilded sculpture comprising five red-manicured fingers, each of which eerily arrived separately). In the above film, and the below extended interview, Halbreich speaks to Fashion Unfiltered from her third floor office, where she walks us through her wardrobe, delves deep into her dynamic life, and explains how fashion gave her strength.
Katharine K. Zarrella: Betty, do you love fashion?
Betty Halbreich: Is there such a thing as loving fashion?
KZ: I think so.
BH: Not in the way you think. I like what I do because it's very psychological. If it weren't, I don't think I'd love it as much. I can walk a room and find a piece for everybody. Love fashion? I don't think of it that way. I think of it as a…I hope I'm a doctor. My therapist once told me that I was really like a fashion therapist. I said, “Then why don't I have a shingle? Why aren't I making more money?” I can pick out things that I know are going to be good. I can do that. But I've been here 40-plus years. This is sort of hands-down now, so that I have to reach out for more. I have to reach out for more, or I'd be so bored. I don't want to be bored.
KZ: What, in your opinion, is the purpose of fashion?
BH: Cover-up. One word. If you stripped people of all their glorious clothing, jewels, hair, makeup, just stripped them down to the way they were born, I wonder what you'd find. But I'm very psychological about it. Clothing to me is something you really don't need. Sometimes it makes you feel better. I run a therapy session in here—I'm known for it. I don't sell as many clothes as I should because I'm so busy giving therapy, but so much of it is feel-good. Make me feel good. Make me feel better. Heal me. It's kind of a nice way of giving back. When I started, I was a very frail lady. Now, when they see me, everyone runs.
KZ: If we stripped you down, what would we find?
BH: A frightened woman. That's why this has become sort of…it’s crowded, but it’s become my haven. It was my place to grow. I grew in here. I became sort of human in here. I've always been a listener, even through my cuckoo days, and I've had a lot of cuckoo days. I hope I'm giving something back. Not only selling a frock.
KZ: Can you tell me about the first time you walked into Bergdorf Goodman?
BH: [I was] petrified. I can tell you exactly what I had on—a green Cacharel suit. Can you imagine I remember that? Jungle green jersey. I thought I looked very chic, I guess. I interviewed here and they really didn't know what to do with me. Mr. Goodman interviewed me, Ira Neimark interviewed me. This is when they were just bringing the store back into what it is today. They put me down on the second floor, which was the fur department, and then built a Geoffrey Beene department. And Mr. Beene agreed, after being angry at me for leaving him, to put me into his department. I gave all my sales away. I don't work a register. I don't use a cell phone. I don't use a computer. Money has never been one of my big things. Consequently, I'm still here. So, after a year and a half, Mr. Neimark, who was running a service atelier, said, "What are we going to do with you? You don't show any sales." I said, "Give me a personal shopping office." So they gave me this office. It’s been here for 40 years.
KZ: How has your relationship with fashion changed since your first day at Bergdorf Goodman?
BH: Fashion was very beautiful then. I don't want to sound that way, but the clothes were made so beautifully, the fabrics...we cannot duplicate that today. Geoffrey Beene literally closed his doors because he couldn't find the fabrics to make the clothes that suited him. I often joke that some of the printed dresses that I see now are linings that we used in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. And today they're wearing them on the outside! I think fashion is struggling. Most women have to be led to drink. They don't know how to drink for themselves. So that's why there's someone like me in the world. What good am I if I don't direct them? I don't force feed them, but I'll tell you immediately if I don't like something on you, whether you like it or not. But the fabrics, they're not the luxury we had before. They're just not being made, so I can't blame the designers for that. I think the prices are unbelievable. I mean, they're escalating beyond all escalation. They forget that even the very affluent question price. They don't just turn the price ticket over and say, "I'll take that. I'll take two of those." Baloney!
You know, fashion is a very archaic word. I wish we could think of something better than calling it fashion. We've come so far ahead in the game and yet we've fallen so far behind in the game. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe my youth told me the clothes were so luxuriously beautiful. And I'm sure the custom-made clothes...but if you just go buy something off the rack, it doesn't have to be at Bergdorf Goodman for god's sake. It's how you wear it, how you fit in it. It's knowing yourself. Let's put it that way. It’s knowing who you are. Not who you think you want to be and who someone says you look like, whatever. It's the inner knowing of who you are.
KZ: You have an incredible collection of fashion, jewelry, books, letters... If someone were to go through your apartment, what story do you think your possessions would tell?
BH: They’re in such immaculate shape. All you'd have to do is open a drawer, open a closet, and it would tell its own story. I'm a neat freak. For years, I thought I couldn't live alone after I separated from my husband. And then I had a friend, Jim, who I lived with on weekends. But I was terrified of being alone. I'd been a sheltered little girl. Now, I find it very intrusive if anyone walks over the threshold—it's completely reversed itself. I'm sure my children would say to you it's like living in a museum because everything is in its [place]. I'm a neat freak. I'm obsessed. It's an illness, I know it. If you pulled out every drawer, you'd see the story. You'd see the story of the scars. You'd see the story of pantyhose wrapped like donuts. Someone just wrote a book on this, a young woman, about how to take care of your clothes or whatever. I thought to myself, I was born that way. I don't like disruption in my life, period, so I think it comes out this way.
KZ: You’ve brought quite a few of your treasures to the office. Do you remember the first time you wore the red-and-black polka dot Dior dress over there?
BH: Well, I certainly do because I brought it through customs. I bought it in Canada and almost got stuck in customs with a very angry husband who didn't want me to buy it. I was going to a huge party and I felt very good in that dress. I wish I could still get into it. I loved that dress. I loved how it moved. You know, sometimes you put something on and it doesn't matter what it is, but you say, Gee, I really look good today. There are other days I say to myself, Mirror mirror on the wall, fall off the wall.
KZ: A lot of your jewelry was given to you by your mother. Why was it important to her that you have it?
BH: Because she thought I was her only child. Because she thought I was perfect. I don't think my children are perfect. My mother thought I was perfect, which made it very hard to live in this world of imperfect people. I've lost a lot of jewelry. I have a lot of Bakelite. I love my turquoise. I'm eclectic. Some people ask me, "How do you know what to wear everyday?" I lie in bed and listen to NPR all night, and around a quarter to seven I say, Before you get up, what are you going to put on? And in those three or four minutes, I know exactly what I'm going to wear. And I never deviate from it.
KZ: Those books on the table, why are they significant?
BH: The books were given to me. They’re on decorum. I have a wonderful client and every Christmas I get one of those old books about etiquette, and I treasure them. What a nice thing. That's a very personal thing to send somebody, don't you think? I'm a huge reader. It consoles me and takes me into another world. I escape into literature. I'm selective. The book that I really love is [by Philip Roth, and it’s] signed. It’s really a treasure because Philip Roth doesn't autograph books. And it's sort of interesting that I would be so immersed in his books and his life because it is not my life that he writes about. It's nothing I associate with, but I'm very fond of him as a writer.
KZ: Why do you find yourself so immersed in his work if you can’t relate to it?
BH: I think he's probably one of the craziest men that ever walked in shoe leather. I followed his life just like [J. D.] Salinger’s, who came from a Chicago family. His family and my mother were friends because they were part of a Chicago family. He is a very reclusive man, and if anyone ever asked me what kind of man I like, I like very crazy men—all my life, from the time I was 16.
KZ: Who was the first man you were attracted to?
BH: Oh, please. I can't even go back far enough. The one I married.
KZ: You’ve been doing this for a long time. What else do you hope to achieve through your work in the Solutions department?
BH: Being able to get up every day, putting my feet up over the bed and saying, "Rise now, get dressed, go to work." See, this has become my savior. Ask me what I'd be doing if I weren't here today.
KZ: What would you be doing if you weren't here today?
BH: What would I be doing? Looking out of a window? Going to another museum? What am I going to do, have lunch? And then go home and have dinner? And then drink vodka all day? I'm blessed that they still allow me to be here. Maybe they're blessed to have me in a strange way, but I'm more blessed to have them.
KZ: Are you happy, here at Bergdorf?
BH: In the last years of my life, I have truly been very blessed, and I'm grateful. I mean, I'm a fighter. I wasn't born to be a fighter. In my era, people weren't brought up that way. We were brought up to be seen and not heard, to oversimplify it. So, to be thrown into a rat race in my 40s was not easy. I'm still here. They don't tread over my threshold, I'll tell you that. I've become strong. They, they, made me strong. I've always had an eye, since I was a little girl. My mother, if she came back, would tell you that. If somebody wore headscarves, you know, “babushkas,” as they used to call them, I wouldn't wear them. I wore my sweaters backwards before anybody did, buttoned down the back. I had a laugh when Prada came out with the button-down cardigan. As a little girl, [style] was always my only strength. I was terrible at math. I can write. I love writing.
KZ: You're an author.
BH: It was before that. I like writing thank you notes. I like writing letters to people. I think it's much more intimate. I can get out my soul on a piece of paper.
KZ: Earlier, we were talking about the various family situations you deal with at Solutions, and the psychological components that come along with them.
BH: I get mixed up in a lot of those situations.
KZ: Can you tell me about that?
BH: Well, if you do the ex-wife, you can't take care of the new wives. I won't allow it. I absolutely will not get involved in anything like that. I had a lovely incident last week. I had a client I was extremely fond of for many, many years and she took sick and it took her a long time to pass away. And I loved her and I had known her children, her daughter, since she was 10 or 12 years old. She's now a psychologist and has two children of her own, and really is still grieving her mother. Her brother is getting married in New York and she came in to see me last week. It was a very painful process to get a dress for her brother's wedding. It took us four or five hours and lots of talk and lots of pictures I still have of her mother. It’s heartwarming to me if I can do something like that, to make her feel better. And I know what grieving is. I grieved for years over a man I was married to. So I haven't forgotten the bad days, I’ve just moved on to the better days. But I do try to help people and I do get a lot of those people. I see young people who want to meet me for some advice poking down that hall, slowly coming. I say, "Come on! Come on in! It's an open door. Door's never closed." And that's gratifying.
KZ: Last but not least, why does fashion matter?
BH: Because it gets your juices going. It can be very exciting. I have to live it. It's a way of life, is it not? Or else we'd be running around in the nude or with a loin cloth. It's important. It stimulates. People like to read about it. They like to see it. They like to wear it. They like to spend their money on it. I think.