Q&A: At 86, Legendary Personal Shopper Still Has Style And Customers

Photo Credit: @ Ruven Afanador/Corbis Outline)
By Patricia Sheridan
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The original personal shopper, Betty Halbreich , continues to help customers of all shapes, sizes and bank accounts with their wardrobes.

Working at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City since 1976, she is appreciated by many and feared by some for her candor; she is incapable of selling for the sake of the sale.

The 86-year-old has attracted the attention of “Girls” creator and star Lena Dunham, who is working to put together a show for HBO based on her life.

She has followed her first book, “Secrets of a Fashion Therapist: What You Can Learn Behind the Dressing Room Door,” with a more personal account of her life and work, “I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style With a Twist,” published by Penguin Group.

Question: In the book, you open up about where you came from. I think many people are inspired by that.

A: I hope so. My greatest joy is when I go out and speak to women. I have a very passionate feeling about this.

Question: And you like it?

A: It’s love/hate, you know, but that’s what keeps me perking. If it was all love, I could be home lying down eating bonbons. Retailing is tough and ever-changing. I am not a great person with change.

Question: But the retail business has changed so much since you started?

A: Oh, I could write another book on that, but I’ll tell you something: I couldn’t come back here the next day (laughs). I would be persona non grata.

Question: You describe your job as lay therapy, especially when it comes to the dressing room and the vulnerability involved.

A:The teenagers and some women are shy about their bodies. The older people have other issues. How about the one client I have who faces me rather than the mirror, which I think is really the most interesting thing.

Question: It says a lot about you and the trust you have established with your clients.

A:I think it’s honesty more than trust. You know, the take-it-off-it’s-awful syndrome. They get one arm in and I can tell them, “It’s dreadful. Take it off!” They will look at me sometimes and say, “You know I rather like this.” (I say) “Well, try it again. I could be wrong.” They put it on and it’s really dreadful. There is a lot of awful clothing.

Question: You think some outfit is great until you get it home and wonder what you were thinking?

A: Exactly. People do that. Sale time is the biggest time for that. “I’ll take it at a price, and I’ll make it look good.” That ends up at the back of the closet.

I don’t use a computer, I must tell you. I don’t have a cell phone. I am adamant about cell phones because when you don’t have one, you can see how abusive they are and how rude people are. Emily (her assistant at Bergdorf Goodman) is my computer.

Question: Is there a particular figure that looks best in clothes?

A:There’s no such thing. You are going to have the best season this coming winter of your whole life! First of all they are booking on it being a freezing winter. We are loaded with sweaters. Big sweaters! And whatever those pants are called that you pull on.

Question: Leggings.

A: Ugh. Claustrophobic leggings, I call them. I won’t wear blue jeans, and I won’t wear them. I am very eccentric. As I am speaking to you, I am beginning to think I better keep my mouth closed. They’ll think I’m a nutcase.

Question: No, they won’t. What is your favorite thing to wear?

A: Sweaters. I am very comfortable hiding in a sweater.

Question: You have a great figure. Why hide?

A: That doesn’t matter. I have always liked that look. I love dresses. I do wear dresses. One of my favorite is this Libertine out in California. He is incredible. He embroiders blouses for me with things on them. He is the fellow who brought out skulls on the back of sweaters. He is a genius. I don’t wear name things.

Question: Did you ever feel intimidated by your more well-known clients such as Babe Paley?

A: Absolutely, absolutely. Walking down the street, people can intimidate me. It’s a strange thing. My great strength is sitting in this chair (in her office at Bergdorf’s) looking out the window at the park. The strength is where I’m sitting and my fitting room. It gives me some sort of authority and not in a bad way.

Question: After writing the book, which is very truthful about your struggles when your husband left and what it did to you, did you feel vulnerable?

A: I wrote that book on a legal pad for almost a year. I spilled my guts out onto that paper. I have the original, and I will never read it again.

Question: Did you cut things?

A: No, we turned it around a bit. The editor wanted it that way. I would have had it much more brash. I haven’t heard from my children yet about it.

Question: How do you feel about working with Lena Dunham (creator and star of “Girls”) on the show for HBO?

A: I love this young woman. If nothing comes of this, I will have found a new, young friend. I just adore her. She is not only intelligent, (but) she is extremely well brought-up and kind. That is what you get from being well brought-up, loving your mother and father and grandmother as she does. I feel a great kinship to her. We got very intertwined about people we knew in common. I have never seen “Girls.”

Question: I was going to ask if you had seen the show.

A: Never and I have the entire tape. I have only seen it once at a preview, and I loved it because I love her, and I liked the crazy nonsense with her body and whatever. She could do no wrong. Not because I am going to work with her but as a human being.

Question: Well, I hope the show comes out. I can’t wait to see it.

A: It’s strange because someone called me yesterday. They are doing a show on women over 70. I can’t. I have a contract with HBO. It’s another thing I didn’t read, I stashed away. You see, I really could hide under a rock. I don’t like to face reality. You get it?

Question: I do!

A: But you have to and you do it every day. I do it with a lot of pain in my stomach (laughs). Oh my God! You are getting a lot out of me.

Question: What do you think of Internet shopping?

A: I think the Internet is a very important part of our world today. I don’t see it turning around and going backwards. I don’t understand it because I know how things should fit. That is what I do for a living. I can tell you what size you are the minute you walk through my door.

I have a young woman who worked for me, and she is a size zero. She has found this Net-a-Porter on the computer and buys tons of things on it. First of all, they have her size and they are European. She’s got a good eye. She is successful with that. But is the world?

Question: Speaking of size, has yours changed? You look like you have remained trim all your life.

A: My size hasn’t changed really, but my body has. I don’t have a waist like I used to and everyone is, “Oh, you are so small.” I say, “Yes I’m shrinking.” (laughs) From 5′ 6, I am now probably 5′ 4 and-a-half. I hold myself erectly and my legs still work, but my body changes. God bless me, my memory still works. I don’t care how much you pump yourself up, after the 30s that is it. Thank God I have my teeth. I pay a fortune for them. All my own teeth (laughs).

Question: So people should not be so hung up on what size they are.

A: Absolutely not because (with) the designers today, what used to be an 8 is now a 6 or a 4. Everybody has cut their sizes down and cut off all the sleeves. The more you yell, “Please give me a sleeve,” the more they don’t give you a sleeve. If you give someone a sleeve, it can be removed, shortened or made the length you want. There is a lot you can do if you have the fabric. If you don’t have the fabric, you don’t have a chance. We lose more customers on that sleeveless. The dress can be great, but I can’t cut off their arms. What can I tell you? You should come around sometime.

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