As she strides down the marble hallways of Bergdorf Goodman — the New York City department store that brims with dazzling and extravagantly priced designer goods — salesclerks call out deferential greetings. The petite, elegant woman they salute is Betty Halbreich, one of the store’s longest-serving full-time employees.
Though the 86-year-old holds court over the entire Fifth Avenue store, Halbreich’s official title is director of its hallowed Solutions department. There, in her cozy office overlooking Central Park, she acts as personal shopper and stylist to Hollywood celebrities and other well-heeled clients, assembling drop-dead outfits for black-tie embassy events, awards shows, and the like. She famously consulted on the wardrobe for Sex and the City, and will continue her TV work this fall on Fox’s Batman prequel, Gotham.
But before Halbreich started dressing everyone from Meryl Streep to Stockard Channing, she was an Upper East Side housewife juggling a family, a laundress, and a cook (not to mention a calendar crammed with social engagements), a story that unspools in I’ll Drink to That. After separating from her husband in her 40s — an anecdote that she shares cheerily, as if chatting about the latest leather jackets from Rick Owens — the woman who never had to work found herself in need of a job. ”The day I walked [into Bergdorf’s], I was so frightened,” she says. ”There are things I’m not good at, but there are strengths, too. But I didn’t know that when I came here.”
Nearly 40 years later, the clothes that hang on the sleek racks at Bergdorf’s may have changed (”Some of these dresses are like what I used to see used as the lining of a coat,” she notes), but Halbreich still works five days a week, and her zingy, self-deprecating humor has not softened with time. ”I’m only a clerk. That’s how I’m paid,” she quips. ”I’ve never forgotten it.”
That candor made her an overnight celebrity (at least in the fashion world) after the 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, which in turn attracted fans such as Girls star Lena Dunham. The 28-year-old — whose taste in fashion has been branded questionable by some (Halbreich calls it ”cuckoo”) — has optioned I’ll Drink to That and is now working on an HBO series based on the stylist’s life. ”We’re like old friends,” says Halbreich, who’s excited about the show, which she thinks is going to be ”wonderful fun.” What she and Dunham have in common, she explains, is a philosophy that women would do well to follow not only in fashion but in life. ”It’s okay to make mistakes,” Halbreich says firmly. ”If you’re comfortable within your skin and your mental process — it’s okay. Don’t we all make mistakes every day? If we didn’t, we’d be robots.”