As Lena Dunham plans a HBO series inspired by Betty Halbreich, Emer Sexton finds out what drives New York’s shopping queen
BETTY Halbreich, a stylist and personal shopper and legend in the most exclusive fashion circles, has worked for the New York Store, Bergdorf Goodman, for 38 years and is the director of Solutions, their personal shopping service, which is about far more than selling expensive clothes to clients.
Many of us will remember the Bergdorf Goodman Store from Sex and the City, as it was a popular shopping spot for Carrie Bradshaw. Sex and the City was a visual feast for those of us who were never going to shop for Chanel, or carry a Hermes Birkin, or totter in Manalo Blahniks to a girlie lunch.
The store is a landmark for both lovers of architecture and serious shoppers, and is located on the shopping mecca that is Fifth Avenue.
Betty rushes through her life in her new book, I’ll Drink to That, lingering longer over clothes than over her relationships. Her childhood in Chicago, in the 1930s, was luxurious; there is no hint of the Great Depression in her memories.
Her life was beautiful clothes, and delicious food prepared by the family cook. Though she wanted for nothing, she was an only child surrounded by adults. Her mother was glamorous, chic and distant, but couldn’t sympathise with the child, Betty, who says: “What I wanted, above all else, was to be with my mother”.
Clothes and shopping became a way of bonding with her mother, and, later, with other people. As a young woman, she and her circle of friends were aggressive shoppers. For them, dressing was a form of personal expression, an art form. “A sweeping dress became an expression of one’s ability, a jewelled necklace of one’s worth”.
She illustrates moments of her life with outfits, describing fabrics, cuts and accessories, and she has a prodigious memory for not only what she wore, but what everyone else was wearing.
Married at 20 to Sonny Halbreich, the only son of a wealthy family, she punctuates her account of her early married life in New York with descriptions of clothes: her only responsibility was to find outfits for endless lunches, cocktail parties, dinners, dances and shows. However, her marriage was stormy, and her husband was social, but uncommunicative at home. “Everything was for the outside world and there was nothing left when he closed the door”. Through her separation and eventual breakdown, shopping, and dressing both herself and her children, were a solace.
Personal shopping also brought in money, when she had none. Later in the book, after years of therapy, she can recognise “the displacement of love and affection and attention, onto a pair of shoes or a dress,” that had dominated her life, and continues to dominate the lives of many of her clients.
We have all needed retail therapy, from time to time. But this is therapy on a grand scale, where the rich and richer come to Betty to be dressed. A lingering image from the book is of clients examining and trying on expensive and beautiful clothing by the most-sought-after designers, before tossing the garments on the floor of the dressing room. When Betty realises that she is being given the once-over by a client, she quips“if only she knew how little clothes mean to me”.
Betty can put together a look effortlessly. This may not seem like a skill when you have a limitless selection of beautiful clothes at your disposal, but it is a skill that so many do not possess. She has built her reputation on dressing women like Sarah Jessica Parker for the shape they are, not the shape they want to be or think they are. Brutally honest sometimes, she differentiates between what her clients need and what they want when they come to her office, not just in terms of clothes, but often in terms of emotional support.
“It is much easier to take care of other people than it is yourself”, she says. Having attended a psychologist for years, she offers her clients retail therapy and her own brand of therapy: honesty and attention to their needs.
“Their litany of complaints and woes, they are repetitive, redundant and even ridiculous,” she says.
However, Betty’s self-depreciating attitude takes the sting out of her words and she describes her own trips to her therapist as “repetitive, redundant and ridiculous”. She has had the same clients for over 30 years and has dressed their children, and now their grandchildren. Her work at Bergdorf Goodman is far more than a job.
It is a safe harbour and a sanctuary, where staff and clients are like family.
I will take home at least one piece of shopping advice from her lifetime of experience; don’t go home without a complete outfit.
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