Betty Knows Best

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.”

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.

She’s right about that. Within moments, Halbreich sees that for all her modesty in conversation, this slender Idaho mom loves clingy, sexy, glimmery things, the sort of stuff you see at the Golden Globe awards, not at a bas mitzvah in Temple Emanu-El that ends before sundown. Slowly, kindly, but with a firm hand, Halbreich guides her to a sheeny suit in an unusual shade of teal by Richard Tyler and a form-fitting but eminently appropriate black lace cocktail dress by a lesser-known designer. The woman fingers a cocktail dress by Richard Tyler that’s a lot vampier.

“Where would you wear something like that?” Halbreich asks pleasantly.

Case closed. After four hours, mother and daughter end up with outfits that speak to their souls without saying anything wrong to the rest of the world. They’re radiant and grateful.

“If you need me,” Halbreich tells them as they depart, “I’m here.”

Nietzsche believed that the only things below the masks people wear in daily life are more masks. Halbreich seems to know this intuitively. After all, she prefers color, decorative touches, and accessories to the stripped-down essentiality of minimalism. Often, when she tries to see through her clients’ stated preferences, it isn’t to force them to confront their deepest selves but rather to help them define the new mask they’re looking for.

“I love this gown, Betty! It’s so wonderful! Thank you!”

It’s Friday, and a veteran soap-opera actress is being fitted in the bare-shouldered red satin gown she’ll be wearing as an honoree at the Soap Opera Digest awards in Los Angeles next week. On TV, she plays a kind woman, and it’s obvious that she’s been typecast perfectly. Her voice quavers as she stares with deep-set, un-made-up eyes at the overwhelming glamour cloaking her plain frame. The gown is so opulent, ravishing, and architecturally extravagant that it’s nicknamed the Chrysler Building. Only it seems bigger.

“This is exactly the gown I imagined,” the actress says. “It’s the gown in my head.”

Halbreich nods. She’s been finding clothes for this actress for twenty years and thinks she knows why she’s drawn to such a bawdy, bare-shouldered number. “Everyone has a fear of something,” she says, after the actress has departed. “She’s terribly afraid of being old.”

The following Monday, Halbreich is facing a real therapist across her desk, an ebullient, socially prominent Upper East Side psychologist with an apartment decorated by Peter Marino and a beautiful pair of legs. She’s a stylish client who has been distracted from shopping for five years by graduate school, but she’s finally back, with Ph.d. and a Chanel bag in tow.

“I’m so happy to see you, Betty,” she says. “Now I’ll never leave.”

For a while, they gossip. Then they talk about the therapeutic process. The real therapist, who has worked at Bellevue, talks about having a short period of time to find out who a client is and what the real issues are. The fashion therapist talks about the fear women have of confronting themselves in the mirror. The real therapist talks about addiction, confidentiality, and being empathic. The fashion therapist wonders why everyone today has to be so low-key.

“Aerin Lauder’s so minimal that she looks like somebody undid her,” she says.

The real therapist, however, doesn’t mind minimalism. She thinks it’s a search for “essentiality.” She also believes that, as a group, psychologists should learn to dress better. “It’s true that if you have form without substance, you’re empty,” she says. “But if you have substance without form, you’re boring.” Pretty heady stuff for Bergdorf Goodman, but then, Halbreich is practiced at talking about anything, from politics to psychology. She thinks it’s part of her job.

“If I only talked about clothes all day,” she says, “I’d be in Payne-Whitney.”

Finally, they get to the clothes she has gathered. And they’re not boring.

“Betty, I love you!” the therapist exclaims as she caresses a white leather jacket by Alber Elbaz for Guy Laroche. “I just want to give you a hug!”

Within seconds, she’s in front of a mirror, getting fitted in a rust-colored mandarin suit by Josie Natori. With the Asian influence in fashion as strong as the yen is weak, it’s a very now outfit. The only thing is, she wants the skirt short, to show off her shapely legs.

“You can’t do that,” Halbreich tells her. “It’s not the trend for spring.”

The therapist won’t have it. “I’m not going to be pushed around by a trend that changes every four months,” she says. “I like my legs and I want it shorter.”

Halbreich knows the suit looks better longer, regardless of trends. What can she say? After it has been pinned up, the therapist asks, “Is this too short? It’s okay, isn’t it?” Halbreich closes her eyes a moment. In her line of work, the customer is not always right, but in this case, faced with such childlike exuberance, she gives her approval. “Yes,” she says, “it’s fine.”

Life is short, even if hemlines are knee-length this spring.

Betty Knows Best