— Within 30 seconds in her airy, orchid-filled office three floors above Central Park, Betty Halbreich had zeroed in on one of my chief torments as a professional woman.
“I know why you have a problem with pants,” Halbreich said dryly, patting my hip.
Halbreich, an 85-year-old personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, has dressed Joan Rivers, Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen, and helped costume designer Patricia Field adorn the women of “Sex and the City.” She’s one of the supporting characters in “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” a new documentary, which opens May 3 in New York and Los Angeles, about the aspirational fashion emporium, and she is writing a memoir that HBO recently optioned for Lena Dunham to adapt.
Frank, warm and wickedly funny, Halbreich counsels powerful women at their most vulnerable moments — when they’re standing naked in the luxury department store’s mirrored rooms, trying to dress for a new career, new spouse, new body size.
For a recent hour, on a springlike Tuesday afternoon, she was dressing me.
Halbreich had pulled from the racks a soft, pastel green Theory leather jacket (marked down from $825 to $499); a flowing, navy, sequined top from Alice & Olivia ($330); a black-and-white, graphic print A-line Prada dress that was missing a price tag (“very expensive,” Halbreich said with a shrug). She tossed aside a printed green dress as “too sweet,” declared a blazer too short and dismissed my fears of horizontal stripes on a Missoni knit dress as outmoded thinking.
“Oh, dear God, come up into the new world,” Halbreich said. “First of all, this skirt moves. It covers whatever you’re trying to hide.”
When director Matthew Miele started making “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” in 2011, his primary interest was in the artists who designed the store’s intricate windows, which his family had come into New York City from New Jersey to see every holiday season when he was a child. As Miele, whose film was made to mark Bergdorf’s 111th anniversary last year, spent more time there, he began to identify other key characters, such as the store’s elegant vice president and principal tastemaker, Linda Fargo, and Halbreich, whose unpretentiousness has endeared her to clients and designers in a world that is often fawning.
“She was no-holds-barred candid; she came out with the funniest things,” Miele said.
Halbreich began her career in her 40s, when she was a mother of two with an unraveling marriage. She started at Bergdorf’s in 1976, running the shop’s Geoffrey Beene boutique, an era when women — even the rich ones — were changing the way they lived and the way they shopped.
“I’d see these women, they were needy,” said Halbreich, who was wearing a dark Marni blazer, sensible shoes and a whimsical wooden brooch she had bought for $2 in the Berkshires decades ago. “In my day, we didn’t work. What’s evolved is most women work ... most women do something. These women are on a timetable.”
Halbreich has an uncanny ability to size up her clients’ moods in an instant and coax them through life’s difficult moments with a joke and a properly fitted dress.
“I love the baggage,” she said. “I love the stories. I have someone this afternoon, she’s the ugly stepmother of the child getting married. Which means I’m going to get a chip on the shoulder because she’s buying anything.”
Halbreich is not paid on commission by choice, and she loves to dig up bargains in a store that caters to the kind of people who can own their own islands. In a designer-obsessed industry, she is agnostic.
“I don’t pick from labels,” she said. “I pick visually. I pride myself on that.”
And she does it well. After three dresses in a row fit impeccably, Halbreich declared, “I’ve done very well on you. Maybe I’ll keep this job.”
She had brought several pairs of black pants into the fitting room for me to try as well but grabbed my arm, looked me in the eyes and said, “For the pants, go to J. Crew.”