I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist, page 1
THE PENGUIN PRESS
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First published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Betty Halbreich
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Halbreich, Betty, 1927–I’ll drink to that : a life in style, with a twist / Betty Halbreich.
eBook ISBN 978-1-101-63455-4
1. Halbreich, Betty, 1927– 2. Image consultants—United States—Biography.
3. Clothing and dress. 4. Fashion. 5. Beauty, Personal. I. Title.
Illustration on pg. 273 by Meighan Cavanaugh
Some of the characters described in this book are composites, drawn from the author’s many years of experience. The names of some of the author’s customers have been changed out of respect for their privacy.
Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.
To Kathy and John, my grown-up children, and the wonderful accomplished grandchildren they have blessed me with: Gillian, Hannah, and Henry
When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt. . . .
Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.
It lasts for always.
—The Velveteen Rabbit
It would take many chapters to mention all those in my life1 who play such momentous roles.2 They know who they are, and there are many heartfelt thank-yous for keeping my dance card filled!
The pieces I pulled the day before were lined up in my dressing room with military precision, in the order I planned to present them to my client—a very tailored woman who typically wore extremely expensive clothing—were a cashmere double-breasted jacket, various tops in crisp white percale, cropped khaki pants, and dresses categorized into ones for day and others for night. They weren’t separates unified simply by taste but rather possessed a continuity that I saw in my head and would introduce to the client on her body. The cashmere jacket was to be paired with the cropped pants for a weekend afternoon or matched with the charcoal gray skirt for a business lunch—and white percale goes with practically anything. Together the disparate items I gathered made a series of outfits. A story, if you like. To have a closet fully packed and presented to you is a gift. That is not to say that the women I work with adore all the items I choose, but the experience of walking into my dressing room for an appointment makes for something individual and special. The clothes I work with as a personal shopper (a title I have never particularly favored) are an extravagance unto themselves—the price tags on many are often too rich for my midwestern sensibilities. Yet the true luxury of what I do is the knowledge my client has as I slip a sweater over her shoulders or zip a dress up the back that I was thinking only of her when I selected the garment.
Many women are nervous when they first step into my office. I am the antidote to the intimidation of shopping, but it is difficult here at Bergdorf Goodman, probably the most beautiful store there is because of the years on it. Even the location of its elegant, mansard-style building on the site of the former Vanderbilt mansion is venerable. One walks into the store and gasps: It is truly opulent. Light twinkles from crystal chandeliers at the center of magnificent white rotundas. Even updated, the French moldings and paneled walls display old-fashioned charm that simply cannot be built into new stores.
It’s beautiful, but the store itself is not all that my clients are seeking. Often their need runs deeper. A great many of them require mothering, which I provide in various ways. The simplest is the advice I dispense from the list of purveyors I have amassed over the years in a leather-bound book I keep handily on my desk. My clients don’t just ask me about what to wear; they also want to know the best nursery schools to send their children to, a hand laundry that does linens, or the best chocolates I have ever eaten. And I oblige—with dentists, party planners, bakeries, whatever they require. I am the ultimate trusted source, because when a person enters my dressing room and takes off her clothes, I must instill confidence. I also become a listening post and hear things my clients won’t tell their husbands, best friends, or real mothers. I don’t mind. It’s much easier to take care of other people than it is yourself. I put a lot of myself into the heads and bodies of my clients, whom I want to dress as well as I would myself. Having grown up around and lived with beautiful clothes and fabrics all my life, I sometimes find it difficult to see the new and appreciate it—even here at Bergdorf Goodman, a store many consider to be the ultimate in fashion and my place of work for the last thirty-eight years. But I romance the clothes in my mind. Instinctively I feel the fabric, see the allure.
When I’m gathering, I can have only one woman in mind. This approach takes longer, but I’ve never been much of a multitasker. It also has the blessed benefit of making the seven floors of the Fifth Avenue store new every time I travel them for a different client. By the end of a season, the clothes are like old relatives that one knows all too well. But in the game I play with myself, looking closely at the same departments and clothes as if I have never seen them before, I always find something new.
In the dressing room, I straightened a persimmon sheath dress and considered the woman arriving in several hours for an appointment to answer two different needs: a new dress for a benefit luncheon hosted by her daughter and a few pieces that were more casual than she was used to for a trip to Aspen with an old college friend who was not nearly as dressy as she. Calling them “needs” was something of a misnomer. In truth, we need very little. Certainly nobody needs all these clothes. Want, however, is something else. Whether they buy them at H&M or Bergdorf, women love clothes. You can get someone at the lowest point of her day and make her feel good (at least for a moment) with a new shirt or, even better, a dress. It doesn’t matter how erudite or worldly someone is—doctors, bankers, artists—they all want a fix. The client in question, a lawyer who worked at a top Manhattan firm, was no exception. Her large frame, however, made fitting her a challenge. Over the years I had gently nudged her away from her comfort zone of jackets and
The phone rang in my adjacent office. Back at my desk to answer the call, I looked out at the stunning view from my office window that unfurls past the Plaza and the Pulitzer Fountain, to Central Park, and up Fifth Avenue. Although it was raining when I got into a cab to come to work, I could see the sun breaking through over the Upper East Side.
On the end of the telephone line was another long-standing client calling to say she needed new pants.
“What do you need new pants for?” I asked. I’m the only salesperson on earth to dissuade customers from buying; I’m known for it. Here was a woman whose husband of forty years was dying of pancreatic cancer and she was contemplating pants?
“I know exactly what you have, because I sold them to you,” I said.
“They are not very exciting. Exciting pants I’ve never seen. Unless we are talking about what’s inside pants.”
The woman on the phone didn’t need pants; she needed a visit. She had fallen out of my life for a long time but reappeared six months earlier, after her husband’s diagnosis. Ever since then she had come for a lot of retail therapy. I kept the appointments frequent but the bills low.
I made a mental note to find out where one could buy those special tabs to affix to zippers for women who have to get into dresses by themselves—another client of mine, whose husband had had a stroke, showed me the clever invention last time she was in the store. This client, too, would need them to zip her own dresses when her husband would eventually lose his battle to cancer.
“We will get you something,” I told her, taking out my well-worn leather-bound datebook. “When do you want to come in?”
Just as I finished writing the word “pants” under her appointment entry in my book, in walked my first client of the morning, a new person I had only previously talked to on the phone.
Through all the years of being “at the same station” and seeing the many hundreds of personalities who’ve come through the door during that time, as soon as someone enters my office, I pretty well know what I’ll be dealing with. The unsmiling woman before me, clad in all black, birdlike in stature and movement, clutching a small purse as if it were a life preserver, was a reluctant patient. No doubt about it.
Now standing on my threshold, Mrs. P, the silver-haired society wife of an industrialist, had been adamant when we talked on the phone prior to her appointment about why, after nearly fifty years of dressing herself, she’d decided to come to me.
“I have to dress appropriately,” she’d said. “None of my beautiful clothes are appropriate for me anymore.” She named every French, American, Italian couture designer in her closet!
“You’re making it too important,” I had replied. In our subsequent conversation, the frustration in her voice lessened as we talked about her desire for a change to suit her age. In other words, she needed an updating.
Yet as I now made eye contact with this woman, who lived in an apartment with a prominent address, full of art and beautiful clothes, I could see she was absolutely petrified. It’s a peculiar phenomenon, but generally when women first come to me, they are very apprehensive. I don’t know why: Maybe it’s the store that people have adorned with so many absurd titles, like “Mecca of Style” or “Fifth Avenue’s Finest.” Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s my white hair!
Sensing this apprehension in Mrs. P, I immediately sat her on the soft love seat beside my desk to make light chatter. After all, I’m here to serve. My bedside manner settled her down while we retraced ground on her needs and desires.
“I would like to look like you,” Mrs. P said.
As she gave my ensemble of twenty-year-old black pants, a chartreuse collarless jacket, and gold star pin that had been my mother’s the old up-and-down, I thought if she only she knew how little clothes meant to me. I have often toyed with the idea of wearing a vendeuse smock like the kind they used to wear in the ateliers in Paris, but I must keep a semblance of my personal fashion sense in my line of work.
“And I would like to live in your building!” I replied.
The one-liner made her laugh and eased any tension. We weren’t in competition. “Come on,” I said, “let’s look. I will lead the way, because it is very bewildering. We’ll go slow, and you don’t have to feel compelled to buy anything.”
We set out from my cozy office, blessedly hidden away at the end of a long corridor of dressing rooms in a nondescript corner of the third floor. Walking the floor—which I do alone every morning before the store opens, irrespective of weather, tragedy, or sickness—is not something I like to do with clients. Unlike the singular and luxurious experience of having a whole wardrobe brought to you, doing the large, crowded floor is confusing, overwhelming, and not in any way one-on-one.
But I always walk through the store with a new client. The first meeting with anyone is something of a test run. I can get the feel of a new client’s body just by looking at the person, but to understand her personality, lifestyle, sense of color, fantasies for herself? For that I find I’m not successful unless I eyeball her in action. Our going through the floors of the store together is a lot of wasted walking time (I can do them so much faster myself, for I know all seven like the back of my hand). There is much touching and feeling of material—and talking, not just about clothes but also about what the women do for a living, how they act with their children and husbands, the depth and breadth of their social lives. I closely watch their reactions as I show them things they would never put on themselves. That is what I’m here for—to open them up to new worlds. Why else would they come to me? While I was escorting Mrs. P onto the elevator, a woman exited with a stroller that held an infant who couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. When we got off the elevator, in rolled an elderly woman in a wheelchair pushed by an attendant. A large mix of people walk through the store, every nationality and every age, even if it is just to look. I don’t care where the person who walks in hails from—Saudi princesses or tourists from the South—they are awed. Many don’t stay. They walk in one door and directly out the next. Sometimes it worries me that the place feels too out of reach. I don’t care for that kind of snobbishness.
Mrs. P and I arrived at the second floor, which houses the luxury brands that can be found in malls stretching from Beijing to Birmingham. In general I don’t do much there. I prefer individuality to ubiquity. Strolling past a dress in glove leather by a popular Italian design house, I couldn’t help but peek at the price tag, only to roll my eyes in disgust; one drop of red pasta sauce and the wearer would be out three thousand dollars. Mrs. P, looking as lost as a little girl in a deep forest, asked, “How do you deal with these clothes?” I pulled her away from a dress splattered with paint à la Jackson Pollock and beckoned her into the fur department, where one of the designers who had started as a furrier had become a grand dressmaker as well.
“He makes lovely clothes,” I said about the designer. “A lot of people don’t make nice clothes anymore. They use what once was lining material and call it a dress. This designer uses extravagant, beautiful fabrics, but his prices are absolutely obscene. One pays for quality.”
She held up a jacket made of white sheepskin and black leather, with monkey-fur epaulets, a misstep in an otherwise perfectly beautiful collection, as if to prove me wrong. She reminded me of a petulant child who finds the one exception to every rule.
“Let’s go up to saner clothes,” I said.
“I believe in you.”
“Don’t believe in me.”
On the fourth floor, I showed her a dress by a young American designer with a pattern of colorful bunches of flowers against a ro
Instead Mrs. P turned to a sleeveless shell dress with matching three-quarter-length coat in elephant gray. “This I like,” she said.
“And you probably already have it in your closet. Every New York woman does. Let’s move on.”
It was becoming clear that Mrs. P wasn’t going to let go of her hang-ups without a fight. Tough cookies, however, are my specialty.
I kept moving. At a black wool cape with a dramatic, positively clerical, white collar that tied, I commented, “Isn’t this beautiful?”
“But it isn’t fun.”
Oh, I did not like this game. Not one little bit. Mrs. P veered off into a boutique I don’t frequent very often, a society designer too mundane for my taste in his overuse of sparkles, feather, and tulle.
“My mother loved feathers,” I reminisced out loud at the sight of a dress trimmed with white feathers around the neckline. “Wherever she went, she left a trail of them. Feathers are not my favorite. I like birds, but not feathers.”
Mrs. P took a sparkly black blouse off the rack and said, “This is like a white horse—you could take it anywhere.”
It was gracious and feminine in its round neck and it had sleeves. A miracle!
“It’s actually very pretty,” I said, putting the garment over my arm to bring back to my dressing room. “Now let’s leave this department.”
Mrs. P protested, to which I said, “Well then, you don’t need me. You can just shop at the store.”
Stomping her foot, she said, “I don’t want to spend the time. I want you to do it for me!”
While I kid by calling myself a “clerk,” I am pleased to be of help whether it’s to hunt for a wedding dress or just to provide a diversion for an hour. At times, however, when I deal with difficult women—those who let me know they’re spending money, for instance—I put my foot down. If not I’ll get run over and killed. I am most definite about how I work. Mrs. P and I needed to gather a few items to whet her appetite and then return to the dressing room. Otherwise we were headed for a tantrum.