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Betty Knows Best

Thanks to a sharp eye and even sharper tongue, Bergdorf’s Betty Halbreich has become New York’s preeminent personal shopper, putting clients like Estee Lauder and Joan Rivers in touch with their inner supermodels.

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The fashion doctor is in. on a quiet Wednesday in January, on the third floor of Bergdorf Goodman in a quasi-regal office with a view of Central Park, Betty Halbreich, the queen mother of personal shoppers, is surveying a rack of beautiful clothes she has pulled for a client coming in next week. She loves every item, of course. But she can’t help finding room for improvement.

“I’m sick of suits,” she says as she tugs at a sedate navy-blue suit by Versace with the firm hand of a loving disciplinarian, “but these days I have no choice.” A gray suit by Ferre is more adventurous. “Some people think this fabric looks like a bedspread,” she says, “but at least it isn’t black.” A pink Chanel suit makes her smile, but since it’s priced at $2,800, she has to be tough. “Its buttons don’t have the Chanel logo,” she says. “At these prices, women like having the logo.” A checked blouse ($425) by Isaac Mizrahi, meanwhile, makes her wonder if her favorite designer is becoming a little too American. “This blouse would work for the Fourth of July,” she says. “And I do believe in dressing for the Fourth of July.” Finally, she gets to a strangely cut jacket by her beloved old friend and former boss Geoffrey Beene. “You can’t wear his clothes so easily,” she says with a sigh. “But Geoffrey wants to be his own designer, so what can you say?”

Even as designers and editors seem to be conspiring to lure women into their latest whims, Betty Halbreich is a scrupulously practical truth-teller. She considers it her job to protect women from clothes that are wrong for them. She takes pride in pushing the least expensive items she can find, when it’s appropriate. Of course, she also believes shopping should be fun and that if you aren’t enjoying your clothes, you’re missing the point. “Show me a person who doesn’t like new things -- whether it is a frivolous adornment or a necessity -- and I say she isn’t a woman,” she writes in her book Secrets of a Fashion Therapist, published last fall by HarperCollins.

A brassy Chicago native with a manner that’s part Angela Lansbury and part Lucille Ball, Halbreich believes in taking chances with color and accessorizing lavishly. And because she loves clothes so much, she feels more deeply let down by them when they’re dowdy and uninspired.

“I don’t see the beauty I saw ten years ago,” she says. “But then again, all I see in the lobby of my Park Avenue apartment is people in running clothes.”

Since 1978, Halbreich, 70, has been helping women wrestle with their vanity, insecurity, self-esteem, and compulsiveness in her office, called Solutions, at Bergdorf Goodman. Her clients range from Staten Island matrons to Central Park West socialites. She taught Candice Bergen how to walk in high heels and showed Gerald Ford how to properly carry a dress. Stockard Channing learned how to show off her legs. Betty Buckley, who calls Halbreich a goddess, learned how to dress for auditions.

Estée Lauder is a client, as is her granddaughter Aerin. Joan Rivers is, too.

“Betty is honest,” says Rivers. “She doesn’t tell you that something is you, then you get home and try it on and it looks backwards. It’s like shopping with a friend. With her, you never feel pressured. I do all my shopping through Betty unless I can get something wholesale.”

And despite her bruising honesty, designers revere Halbreich as well. Isaac Mizrahi says she was made to sail through people’s lives telling them what to wear. Geoffrey Beene says she knows how clothes can elevate people. Michael Kors admires her spunk.

“She’s picky; she knows what’s new, and she doesn’t mince words,” says Kors. “She goes through clothes and tells me what doesn’t work, and designers need to hear that. Betty also tries to understand her customers and how they live. She’s like a sociologist. The relationship in a fitting room with her is the most personal thing in the world. She’s the queen of that.”

Things have, in fact, gotten rather personal with the big-boned, hard-as-nails older Russian woman who has come in for an appointment. She’s looking for sartorial support in her role as mother of the groom this spring. Although she’s in black and claims to like beige, Halbreich gets her into a flirtatious dress by Thierry Mugler. It’s white with a bold green floral print -- more kept mistress than mother of the groom, but whatever it is, it seems to be working its magic. The dour matron drops ten pounds and twenty years as she preens in the mirror.

“You have a great body,” Halbreich trills. “Do you work out?”

“Yes,” the woman replies proudly. “I just came from the gym.”


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