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 cant help finding room for improvement.
Im 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 isnt black. A pink Chanel suit makes her smile, but since its priced at $2,800, she has to be tough. Its buttons dont 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 cant 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 its appropriate. Of course, she also believes shopping should be fun and that if you arent enjoying your clothes, youre missing the point. Show me a person who doesnt like new things -- whether it is a frivolous adornment or a necessity -- and I say she isnt a woman, she writes in her book Secrets of a Fashion Therapist, published last fall by HarperCollins.
A brassy Chicago native with a manner thats 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 theyre dowdy and uninspired.
I dont 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 doesnt tell you that something is you, then you get home and try it on and it looks backwards. Its 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 peoples lives telling them what to wear. Geoffrey Beene says she knows how clothes can elevate people. Michael Kors admires her spunk.
Shes picky; she knows whats new, and she doesnt mince words, says Kors. She goes through clothes and tells me what doesnt work, and designers need to hear that. Betty also tries to understand her customers and how they live. Shes like a sociologist. The relationship in a fitting room with her is the most personal thing in the world. Shes 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. Shes looking for sartorial support in her role as mother of the groom this spring. Although shes in black and claims to like beige, Halbreich gets her into a flirtatious dress by Thierry Mugler. Its 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.