The Originals: Betty Halbreich, Bergdorf Goodman's "Director of Solutions"

Betty Halbreich wears a Libertine coat and blouse; her own pants and jewelry.

You hold the title of director of Solutions at Bergdorf Goodman, where you have provided your highly sought-after stylistic advice since 1976. How has your work evolved since you started? What has changed?

The world has changed, my love. Nobody gets dressed anymore. I think it’s all about climate change. We don’t have the seasons we had. This all reflects on clothing. Where are you going to wear a fur coat? It snowed once last year.

What sort of direction do you give your clients?

Honesty is a big part of my structure. I try to be very kind and straightforward, almost to the point of being dogmatic. When they come in here and take their clothes off, they’re at my mercy. A person can put their arm in one side of a dress and I say, “Take it off, it’s not right.” I’m visual. Nothing else. It’s a gift.

Was there a moment in your life when you realized you might be able to turn that gift into a career?

All my life I’ve loved clothes. I remember dressing up in my grandmother’s negligees on Sunday afternoons when we visited. All the old ladies were having coffee and schnecken cake, and I was in her closet. My grandmother loved peignoirs, and I had the best time. Not looking at myself. Just putting them on.

What does originality mean to you?

I’m 92 years old. I’ve seen a lot of things come around and go around. Sending someone to the moon was original. But in clothing? How mundane!

What is your favorite form of self care?

Forget it.

Doesn’t exist?

I haven’t seen my skin doctor in two years, and the longer I wait, the more they say, “Where have you been, Betty?”

What was your style like when you were a teenager?

Well, if my mother were here, she would tell you: If everybody wore cardigans buttoned down the front, I wore them buttoned down the back.

What’s the most unoriginal thing people ask you?

“How was your weekend?” I loathe it.

Why?

Because I turn to them if I’ve had a terrible one and say, “Awful.” What am I going to tell them, that I cleaned? That I used the vacuum cleaner and made meatloaf? Sometimes I shock them with an answer.

Do people ever come to you looking for holiday advice?

Oh, yeah. Sure they do. They don’t come to me, they dump it on me. Some people want to buy by price. That’s ridiculous. I want it to be done with some thought. I get a biography of who they’re buying for.

What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

I listen to the radio all night, to NPR. So I turn over and hear what the weather is, what happened in the world, I rise from my bed, I go in and I wash my face. I’m extraordinarily neat. I will not leave my house unless my bed is made and everything is put in order—I’ll tell you a funny story. When my children were little, I had a laundress. She was coming the next day. That night, I rolled my daughter over in her bed and changed her sheets. She’s never forgotten it.

Did she wake up?

Sure she did. Talk about obsessive. I have an obsessive personality.

But I’m sure that benefits your work in a certain way.

It does my work. But not my private life. If I’m asked to come to dinner at 7, I’m sitting there waiting at quarter of.

You’ve called what you do “lay therapy.”

There’s no question. I’m a therapist—a fashion therapist. Half the time I don’t sell, I’m very busy getting into their lives. I hear more than I sometimes want to hear.

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