A sale isnt consummated because the dress is a little snug. But its 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 wouldnt sell anything this time out. But that didnt 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 youre the least bit intuitive, you can get into someones head in about ten minutes. Its all psychological. When a woman takes her clothes off in front of me, shes shedding a skin.
Once upon a time, there wasnt quite so much psychology in shopping for a beautiful outfit. But that was when affluent women didnt 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 theyre 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. Theres a lot of editorial about fashion, but things that are in style arent 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 womans needs. Halbreich pays as much attention to customers and her own taste as to whats 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 isnt 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 doesnt 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.
Im 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 couldnt 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. Thats a lot of money. I dont even know how to ask customers how much money they want to spend. Its too embarrassing. Nice people dont talk about money.
They also dont 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 whos older than you. You have got to take your feet off that desk.
This is a woman who knows from appropriate.
I dont want to stand out, a young mother just in from Idaho is saying to Halbreich. I dont want people staring at me like Im from out of town.
This woman is so sweet and open that theres no way she isnt from out of town. Sure, her mothers a socially prominent dowager with a petrochemical middle name who visits Halbreich every season. But shes 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.
Youre 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.