NEW YORK, N.Y. - Clothes and how to wear them have been a constant in Betty Halbreich's life for most of her 86 years.
Good thing she landed a job at Bergdorf Goodman as a personal shopper nearly four decades ago.
The opportunity couldn't have been better timed. She was fresh out of a mental hospital after a breakdown following her split with her husband. She had found herself alone in his city — it wasn't hers — for the first time and needed a reason to get out of bed.
Fashion and style loomed large in her proper upbringing as a lonely only child in Chicago. At the famed department store, it was the thing that saved her life. But with age, she's made a few changes, particularly when it comes to her relationship with clothes.
"I've loved clothes all of my life. I don't love them personally anymore. It's more of a job. Today it's like whatever's in the closet," the blunt-spoken Halbreich said by phone in a recent interview.
Dressing "correctly" has always come easy for Halbreich, especially under the watchful eye of her fastidious mother, so sharing that love by dressing others is about the only job she could have imagined.
Halbreich, with two grown children and three grandchildren, is remarkably still on the job, pulling looks for clients from the racks at Bergdorf and posing them in front of her unforgiving three-way mirror in the Solutions Department.
She lays out her life in a new book, "I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style with a Twist," co-written by Rebecca Paley and released in September by Penguin Press.
A conversation with Betty Halbreich:
AP: Closets have always been a source of comfort to you. They've played a huge role in your life.
Halbreich: They're my playhouse, like my dollhouse when I was growing up. I can get up in the middle of the night and start doing them. I live in eight rooms. I have 12 closets. I just keep rearranging all the retro clothes backward and forward.
Closets and keeping them neat are like a hobby. It's really going back to my childhood. I've had enough psychiatry to tell you.
AP: You have an odd relationship with mirrors. You're surrounded by them all day long at the store.
Halbreich: I do have an odd relationship. My mirror is so terrible at home that when I see myself in a better mirror when I come to work I say, 'My God, Betty. Turn up the lights. Don't walk out in the morning looking like a shadow.'
But clients, I teach how to look in the mirror. It's so interesting. It's a reversal. It's psychological. I've always had a fight with mirrors. I've never liked a mirror image. I've never really liked who I was, you know. I like who I am today because I'm more comfortable.
AP: How do you train somebody to like their image in the mirror?
Halbreich: My mirrors are three-way and most women do not like that three-way mirror thrown at them, where you see your rear end, and you see your side view. But if they're really enamoured of some beautiful piece of clothing it works.
I know what looks good on them the minute they put it on. Look, 37 years of this stupid job, if I don't know that it doesn't look good on them I should really leave.
AP: So you don't live, eat and breathe fashion and shopping?
Halbreich: When I leave the store I try to live another life. I don't talk about clothes. I haven't been in Saks since they put the escalator in (that would be 1979). Maybe I'll have to go to Bloomingdale's to buy a pillowcase, but I don't tread in other stores. I find it extremely boring. It's like eating too much candy.
I don't want to bring it home. I'm really not interested.
AP: Have you ever dressed Lena Dunham? She's developing a TV series inspired by you and your book.
Halbreich: Absolutely with a great big N.0. Never. Never attempted to. Never talked about it. I usually put my arm around her and I'll say, 'What is all of that?' I think a lot of it's done tongue in cheek, and I approve of it. And I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole.
We're going to have such a good time together if we ever get on with this, whatever we're doing. I feel like she's my other child. We're soul mates in a strange way. We've suffered through some of the same things. We think a lot alike. She's sweeter than I am.
AP: You appeared in last year's documentary "Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's." Where would you like your ashes scattered?
Halbreich: I'd like my son, who loves Chicago like I do, to take them back. I was back there recently. I felt like I've never left it, or why did I leave it? You really can go home again. So I would like them to be scattered there. Or flushed. Either way.
AP: But not Bergdorf's?
Halbreich: Are you crazy? I don't think they'd have them.
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