Photo courtesy of Edward Bess
The 91 year old has been running the personal styling depart at Bergdorf Goodman for 42 years. “Sometimes, I forget I’m there to sell clothes – a sales lady!” Yet she is so much more than that…
I am Betty Halbreich
What do you do?
I started a department, “Solutions” 42 years ago, as a personal shopping office. It was the first of it’s kind at Bergdorf Goodman.
How do you think people from New York and Chicago are different? How are they the same?
Oh my goodness, there is no difference in people anywhere- New York, Chicago… In the advent of cellphones and computers we all live next door to each other. There used to be great jealousies between the two cities when I was growing up. That seems to have eased and I don’t hear the “New Yawk” accent being satirized anymore. Aren’t we all trying to make all colors, nationalities and religions equal??
What brought you to Bergdorf Goodman?
In all my interviews, I’m always asked how did you get to Bergdorf Goodman or for that matter any job position you have been fortunate enough to have. All through friends who believed I had something to offer, even though I didn’t have a clue. So when the store was being reinvented forty two years ago, I was one of the lucky ones to be part of it under Ira Neimark and Dawn Mello.
Halbreich at her namesake book party, 2014.
Tell us about your process of writing a memoir?
Writing a memoir beats paying a psychiatrist!!! It is a grand catharsis. You can spill your guts out. If no one is interested in reading so be it. However, you’ve taken the good and the bad and put it all on the table. What I have found so amazing is there is no experience, situation, marriage new- We all suffer and enjoy the same.
You’ve compared your job to that of a therapist. Can you explain that a bit further?
God blessed me with one wonderful attribute. I’m a good listener. I fall right into someone’s plan when they are speaking to me. I do not become distracted and before I know it, I’m literally “sitting in their living room” involved in their lives! Sometimes, I forget I’m there to sell clothes- a sales lady!
What do you think has caused fashion’s devolve to things like white leggings over the last few decades?
Fashion does not exist as it is written about in magazines, books, and the media. To my mind, women and men have become cloned. “Monkey see, monkey do.” Perhaps, the media has thrust this upon us.
Do you think fashion and the sociopolitical climate are related? If so, how? And should they be?
Fashion and the sociopolitical world have always existed. We all watched Mrs. Reagan and her wardrobes and how she governed herself. The Eisenhower era and back then it wasn’t a television and computer world. You can’t see through a radio or a telephone. I see nothing wrong in observing The First Lady and what she chooses to wear. We have the right to criticize, but we also observe and sometimes read more into it than necessary. For example, the coat she wore to Texas for the immigration incidents.
Do you think fashion has helped you break out of your comfort zone as a person?
Nothing in this world could, would or can make me break out of my comfort zone. I am comfortable with people on a one to one basis. My office is my nearest “comfort zone”. I enjoy the diversification of persons who come to it. We do a great deal of TV work, ad campaigns and films as well as private people. This opens my whole world to the always new and exciting.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Oh goodness, never follow in my footsteps- create your own and plunge ahead. My mother, who owned a book store in Chicago, warned me never to get involved in what I now do. “Never” said she “pull clothes on and off of people!!!” I guess I was deaf, but I plunged ahead and created something new for me.
Your mother was friends with J.D. Salinger’s family. Did either of your families expect to you to have the legacies you both carry today?
I grew up not knowing J.D. Salinger, he lived in New York as did his sister. My mother knew her slightly but I remember as a child the family discussing Dr. Salinger, which could have been J.D.’s father.
Do you think your “clients” provide you with fashion therapy in some ways as well? If so, how?
My clients provide me not only with fashions questions but with knowledge about so many other industries; the book business, politics, banks and on and on. Nothing that speaks of fashion so I learn and absorb a great deal about the world around me. Most of my “clients” have very diversified interests and I try to dress them to fit their world and know the world of current retailing–not easy!
Halbreich and guest at Iris Apfel book launch 2018.
You’re a big reader. What are some of your favorite books, classic or modern?
I love to read, including the newspaper. I get to work early around 8ish just to read the paper. Otherwise, by the time I pick it up in the evening it is old news! I have read Philip Roth from the very beginning and have a signed copy. There are so many authors and they are so diversified. I don’t read comedic books and I tend to relish the heavier side of fiction; Jonathan Franzen, David Mamet (a good friend of my mother’s) and authors of the 1960’s…and believe it or not, cookbooks.
Are there any modern designers you like?
I’m open to all and any designers. It is not like the Geoffry Beene (I fortunately worked for him.) Bill Blass, Pauline Trigere, Norman Norell days. Fashion is a slippery slope- often “Monkey see, monkey do” and then onto another brand, another season. Michael Kors is to be admired. He is consistent to what he believes in. For example, Isaac Mizrahi was another and he left the industry to pursue other desires when he felt it was over! Good! I’m not going to answer my feelings about designers. I offer clothes to my “patients” by style, color, what they are looking for to suit their specific needs. I do a lot of mixing and matching and very often have no idea who the designer is.
Is there a difference between fashion and style?
Fashion is what is given to you through the media, magazines, etc. Style is what you slip into face the mirror and smile- Yes!!
You said that Bergdorf’s took you in just after an emotional breakdown. Do you think fashion still has the ability to save people?
Any business can save people if they want to be saved, helped and are willing to march on. We do not use a job to save or change us. We give back and learn from our experiences in dealing with others.
What is the achievement of yours that you are most proud of? The biggest hurdle that you have overcome?
Halbreich at Behno launch, Bergdorf Goodman 2018.
Building a department that has become well known for it’s honesty and taste. Competing is not my strong suit.
Currently watching/reading/listening to:
I’m watching Shameless and The Deuce and listening to NPR. I start every morning with reading the New York Times. I come to the office early to read it.
When you’re not working on your career or being an activist, we can find you:
Keeping my house in order, dining with friends, going to the movies and theater, cooking, dusting and reading.
Who is a Woman of Empowerment in your life (a woman who inspires you, who you look up to)?
My own daughter, Kathy Halbreich has found great success in a completely different world than my own. She is the Executive Director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and formerly was the Associate Director of the Modern Museum of Art.
How are you a Woman of Empowerment?
I’m a woman behind the scenes. I don’t want to take the credit and instead I prefer to see others flourish and helping them in anyway possible. Seeing others succeed provides enough satisfaction for me.
My mission is…To be able to continue! Putting the key in the office door every day; rain, snow or sleet. At 91, rising to this can be a challenge. Honesty is my mantle!