In the world of personal shopping Betty Halbreich stands apart. Personal shopping is generally the art of tapping into a client’s style, preferences and needs, helping them kit themselves out appropriately, perhaps also challenging them a little to experiment with things they would not otherwise have tried. Personal shopping with the legendary Mrs Halbreich, however, is therapy for the soul. On a recent visit to Bergdorf Goodman I managed to gain an audience with this style legend and found her to be every bit the genius that she is billed as.
To start with, she is charm personified. As she ushered me into her white-walled office overlooking Central Park, she worried about how cold my hands had been as she shook them and about how cold her office was. Her working space is a wonder in itself – the clean cold lines of the white walls are broken down by an Indian painting here, a clothing rail there, magazines, books, a row of orchids on the windowsill. The environment is eclectic and indicates a broad range of interests. In fact, as we started to talk, it was current affairs that was on her mind, not fashion. Mrs Halbreich feels passionately that people should exercise their right to vote and if she had more time than her job allows, would campaign on this point. Gun crime in the US, the immigration crisis in Europe, extremism, climate change are all on her mind and, as a child brought up during the Second World War, she worries that the world is again standing on the brink of global conflict.
We cannot put the world to rights so we turn to talking “shop” – literally. She does not have a favourite designer but does admit to loving Jean Muir (“She really knew how to use a needle”) and feels that the designer never achieved the recognition that she deserved. For hats she loves Patricia Underwood for wearability and Philip Treacy for his dramatic artistry and she loves a veil on a hat for the way it flatters the face (and she writes in her book* about her own mother’s love affair with hats).
Mrs Halbriech loves Uniqlo too – a slightly surprising but endearing admission from one whose job is selling some of the most expensive clothes in the world to some of the wealthiest clients. Yes, this is a job with a window onto a world of privilege, but she also sees first hand the results of the rising pressure on designers to create more fashion, more frequently. She feels there is almost too much fashion these days, with too much recycling of ideas, too few high quality textiles, priced too highly.
Our time is drawing to a close but she insists on walking me out to the elevators and suddenly her instincts kick in and, with the fairy godmother’s twinkle in her eye, asks me if I have seen the Libertine collection and whisks me around the corner to see it. She has read my style runes to perfection – in fact this very collection had caught my eye on the way in – and I love every piece of it. I think she loves it too as she tells me about the Californian designer, inspired by Damien Hirst’s skull motif, all the while stroking an irridescent sequinned coat. We pull pieces from the racks admiring them for a few minutes and I fantasize about being one of her clients, picking out one of these exquisite pieces to take home with me.
As with all dreams, one eventually has to wake up and as the elevator doors closed with Mrs Halbreich waving at me, I had no need to pinch myself for she had signed my copy of her book: “What a joy to meet. Do come again.” Oh yes please, but next time, the Libertine is definitely coming with me.
* “I’ll Drink to That”, by Betty Halbreich