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Betty Knows Best

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A sale isn’t consummated because the dress is a little snug. But it’s put on hold for a week, while the woman treks to a spa to lose five pounds. Halbreich, never pushy, knew from the start that she wouldn’t sell anything this time out. But that didn’t keep her from doing her job.

“She was muttering about husbands and their young girlfriends,” she says after the client leaves. “So I put her in something young and feminine. If you’re the least bit intuitive, you can get into someone’s head in about ten minutes. It’s all psychological. When a woman takes her clothes off in front of me, she’s shedding a skin.”

Once upon a time, there wasn’t quite so much psychology in shopping for a beautiful outfit. But that was when affluent women didn’t have any guilt about being rich.

“Years ago, women wore gloves and dressed when they shopped,” Halbreich recalls. “They dressed for other women, not for work. And when you went to nightclubs on the weekend, you never saw anyone in the same dress twice. Now women are embarrassed that they’re not doing more with their time.”

As women became integrated into the work force, department stores and specialty stores like Bergdorf, Bendel, Barneys, and Saks developed personal-shopping programs. They save customers time and energy, sure, but they also help women sort through the options that have increased exponentially over the past fifteen years, even as clothing needs became less extravagant.

“Many people have no idea what to wear,” says Dawn Mello, the president of Bergdorf Goodman, who hired Halbreich in the mid-seventies. “There’s a lot of editorial about fashion, but things that are in style aren’t always right for some people.”

Indeed, not long ago, the New York Times caused a flap by accusing the high-fashion world of being out of touch with the average woman’s needs. Halbreich pays as much attention to customers and her own taste as to what’s in style. And unlike other senior saleswomen, who tend to sell the most expensive articles from small areas in stores, she knows every item on every floor, from ball gowns to T-shirts. When she isn’t busy, she rummages through stock rooms. She gets ideas in the middle of the night for clients who need to put together something for a trip, and she calls them the next morning. She hand-delivers on her way home from work. The only thing she doesn’t do is sell hard, and in a world where salespeople are taught, even at Bergdorf Goodman, such new, aggressive tactics as following up sales with personal notes and phone calls, that makes her unique.

“I’m not a commission lady,” says Halbreich, who claims she sold $2 million worth of merchandise for Bergdorf last year. “The other day, Mrs. Astor came in and I watched a senior saleswoman on the floor go after her. I couldn’t bear it. I hate when a salesperson tells a customer she looks fabulous. What does that mean? And I really hate when they say something is only $1,000. That’s a lot of money. I don’t even know how to ask customers how much money they want to spend. It’s too embarrassing. Nice people don’t talk about money.”

They also don’t put their feet up in her presence, as Gene Pressman did a while ago when he tried to hire her for Barneys. “‘You know, Gene,’” she says she told him, “‘I have a son who’s older than you. You have got to take your feet off that desk.’”

This is a woman who knows from “appropriate.”

“I don’t want to stand out,” a young mother just in from Idaho is saying to Halbreich. “I don’t want people staring at me like I’m from out of town.”

This woman is so sweet and open that there’s no way she isn’t from out of town. Sure, her mother’s a socially prominent dowager with a petrochemical middle name who visits Halbreich every season. But she’s just a young mom from Sun Valley with nothing dressy to wear and a Manhattan bas mitzvah to attend with her daughter, whose friend from camp lives on Fifth Avenue.

“You’re going to this big do!” Halbreich says to the daughter, who has never been to a city bigger than Boise. “Are you nervous?” While the daughter, a shy snowboarder with a predilection for black, is whisked off by two assistants, Halbreich takes mom for a walk.

“What does your eye pick out?” she asks her among the Armani suits.

“My eye is always wrong,” the woman answers nervously.


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