That’s why we were beyond excited to enter Betty’s corner office, where she showed us all sorts of amazing things: Bakelite brooches, personalized gifts from legendary designers, and some of the most stunning vintage pieces we’ve ever seen. (Dior, anyone?) Even better, Betty invited her dear friend, makeup wunderkind Edward Bess, to share in the storytelling. Since launching his cosmetics line at Bergdorf’s back in 2006, he’s been building a beauty empire — and he’s quick to point out that he couldn’t have done it without Betty.
Read on to see Betty’s to-die-for collection of art, jewelry, and (surprisingly delightful) bargain perfume — and don’t be surprised if you develop a sudden urge to make an appointment at Bergdorf’s….
Edward Bess: “Betty is one of my closest friends. We met six or seven years ago.”
Betty Halbreich: “He was on the floor, wandering in the Ralph Lauren department. He was dressed exactly the same way, but with short hair — so you can see how long I’ve known him. I went up to him, and I said, ‘Can I say something to you? You are the best-looking human being I’ve ever seen.’ Only at my age could you do that! I had seen him downstairs in the beauty department, standing there with shelves of lipstick. Edward, how long did you stand there?”
EB: “All day, every day.”
EB: “People pass Betty and say “Betty, I loved you in the Post,” but I know you’re going to say something snarky like ‘I don’t read that gossip rag.'”
BH: “I don’t read my own press. Joan Rivers doesn’t read anything that’s written about her. Neither does Maggie Smith. There’s something mentally good about that. There is a whole plus to not reading about yourself. It’s very difficult to read about yourself — people strip you of the way you see your intimate self. And, that’s my serious side.”
Meredith Frederick necklace, Libertine sweater.
R29: Betty, how do you work with your clients to identify their personal style?
BH: “I only have to meet them once. I’m pretty good at sizing up sizes after 36 years. I can tell you that you wear a two, and not a four or a zero. But that’s a little trick to the game, sizing someone up.”
“I don’t like everybody looking alike, so I try very hard to make everyone look a little different and not sell the same people the same clothes. That’s the trick. One thing about me is that I am very price-conscious for my clients.”
R29: That’s unusual.
BH: “Yes, and that’s why I don’t work on commission — so that I can take you to buy clothes on the 5th floor, to the couture on the 4th floor and mix it all up together. The individual looks a bit different, and put together differently. I’m not out to sell the most expensive dress in the store — that doesn’t mean too much to me. I want to build a relationship with my customer, to know about them and their children, their happiness, their unhappiness, what they eat, what they don’t eat…so, it’s an ongoing and long process. Over the years, I’ve had people from three generations of families, their children, their grandchildren, and their dogs. I get questions like “Do you know a good dentist, or a good shoemaker?” I’m a real information booth. Which I like, because it keeps me out there, tuned in.”
R29: How has fashion changed most since you’ve been at Bergdorf Goodman?
BH: “It’s a bad thing to ask a woman my age when she’s been around such beautiful clothes in her lifetime. You couldn’t find clothes made like those vintage dresses today. All the beautiful fabrics don’t exist anymore, the artisans don’t exist anymore. People growing up don’t even know about them. I mean, you don’t even get a hem on a dress today! You could spend $10,000 and still not get a hem on a dress to let it down. So, I go with the flow. I mean, I have to. I can’t say that something was more beautiful before, when there are also beautiful, innovative things today. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in business.”
R29: Are there any designers that excite you?
BH: “I never name designers, because otherwise I’m a prostitute that way. Everybody does something good, or we wouldn’t be carrying it. If they don’t, they fade away — but everybody deserves some sort of chance, and you don’t know until you try them on. What’s on a hanger is not what you get on the body.”
Christian Dior gown, Donald Brooks dress, Jean Muir coat, Geoffrey Beene leather jacket, vintage scarf.
R29: These dresses are beyond beautiful.
BH: “I’ve got closets full of them! I keep my good things for a long time. The polka-dot is Christian Dior — I don’t even know how old it is. It’s an original, and it still has the girl’s name in it. Her name is Caroline; she’s probably not with us anymore.
“This lace dress has been at the Fashion Institute of Technology. It’s by an American designer, Donald Brooks. This man was really wonderful, and people didn’t do what they should have done for him. He did beautifulclothes. This dress has been everywhere. I walked into FIT when they were having a huge show, and they had painted this dress up on the wall because they did a retrospective of him. I almost fainted! I really do love this dress. I remember very well when I got it — it was a sample. The Swiss lace is turning yellow, but it is quite unbelievable. This kind of thing is long gone.
“This purple piece is Jean Muir. Every year I take it out, and I think I’m going to wear it. One day, I’m going to get up the nerve to do it. The Geoffrey Beene leather jacket — I still wear this today. I think this really is as good as it gets, with the little satin buttons.”
R29: Tell us about your workspace.
BH: “There’s a privacy attached to this, the room at the end of the hall. I don’t use a computer or a cell phone. I’m a reader and a book person, and most of these books mean something — much more so than at home. It’s all something that someone has given me. Geoffrey Beene gave me the sweetest little silly book, so everything here has a lot of personal meaning. All of this means something, it’s not just sitting here.
“But, let me tell you about these five fingers. A package was hand-delivered from Spain one day, with a single finger in it. The next day, another package — and another finger. The same thing for five days straight.”
R29: Was it from an admirer?
BH: “It’s a mystery! I have no idea who sent it. Nor have I received the wrist, the elbow, or the leg, or the head — or the man or the woman. Isn’t that interesting? Some people think it’s creepy.”
R29: Have you always had short hair? It’s quite chic.
BH: “Thank you. I cut my hair in about 1950. I don’t play around with it. Most girls go upstairs [to the John Barrett Salon] and get their hair done, but I’ve never done that. I get my hair cut at the least expensive place uptown.”
R29: That’s a lovely scent you’re wearing. What is it?
BH: “It’s Edward’s perfume and Coty’s Lily of the Valley. It was my mother’s. It’s something like $9 — you have to get it through a catalogue, though. Everyone always gave my mother the most expensive perfumes in the world, but she swore that this was the best. I’m addicted to it.”
R29: Are those the only scents you wear?
BH: “Not the only ones. There’s a woman in Greece who brings me this scent in a medicine bottle with an eyedropper. It’s from her garden and homemade. She can only smuggle it in in little eye-dropper bottles. Wherever I go, people will say to me, “What are you wearing?” It’s almost like a hyacinth, gardenia, lily of the valley sort of thing. It’s potent — you can only use a couple of drops of it.”
R29: You have so many beautiful things in your office.
BH: “I’m becoming the old lady who has all the collections! Do you know who William Ivey Long is? He’s a very big costume designer for Broadway — Nine, The Producers — I mean, he’s as big as they come. And, for 20 years he’s been sending me valentines. I have portfolios of his stuff. If I open up the bag, out come all these sequins. He is unbelievable.”
R29: Betty, you said that you wear your mother’s perfume. Did you learn about beauty from her?
BH: “No. She wasn’t interested in beauty, but she loved books. My mother had a bookstore on Oak Street in Chicago, next to the Esquire Theater. I went back to Chicago two years ago, but I couldn’t go to Oak Street. I didn’t want to see it.”
EB: “It’s so funny that you wouldn’t go near that. My partner [Ruben Afanador] is a photographer, and he was in Chicago years ago. He went to the bookstore and met Betty’s mother out of chance, and he bought Victor Skrebneski’s book — and Victor is a dear friend of Betty’s. Ruven very clearly remembers Betty’s mother telling him to get this book, since it was signed by the artist, so Ruven bought it.”
R29: What is your beauty routine?
BH: “Beauty routine? Ha! I get up at 6:30 in the morning, make my bed, put the coffee on, put food out for the cleaning lady if she’s in that day, and pack my own lunch. It takes me about 15 minutes to do my beauty routine. Really, though, I’ve never really had a beauty routine. You know why? Because I’m surrounded by people who do that every day. I do go to the dentist every three months to take care of my teeth, and I have a dermatologist who cleans my face once a year.”
Edward Bess’s Eau La La, which Betty wears along with Coty Muguet de Bois.
R29: Edward, it’s clear that you two are incredibly close.
EB: “I adore Betty. Few people excite you when you talk to people all day long, but I’m alwaysexcited to talk to Betty.”
BH: “You should see the women when Edward is behind the counter. They sit in the chair in awe of his beauty.”
EB: “Oh, come on, Betty.”
BH: “Well, it’s true.”
R29: Betty, can you talk about this amazing jewelry collection?
BH: “Some of it is gifts from my daughter, and I have some Ruser jewelry from California, too. This bracelet is by Meredith Frederick, who is a contemporary jeweler here. She’s known for color, and I think this color is extraordinary. She really invented these roll-on bracelets, which have become so popular.”
BH: “I’ll tell you something about Edward: He’s built a very beautiful business.”
EB: “She gets a lot of credit. When it was just me, Betty told every A-lister to come in here, every who’s-who, Park Avenue princess, everyone that I needed to know to get the business going. She told them, ‘You have to try his lipsticks, he makes the best lipsticks,’ and they all just came because she said it. Listen, if Betty had told them they had to buy coal, they would have. She’s got the power.”
BH: “It’s not power, it’s real directness.”
EB: “They like who she is.”
BH: “It’s trust. I speak to what I believe in, and that’s how I’ve always been.”
R29: Betty, do you wear much makeup?
BH: “No, but I wear a Bobbi Brown lipstick that I’ve had for something like 20 years. It’s ancient. And, of course, Edward’s lipsticks — they’re the best.”
EB: “Well, if she’s been using the same tube of lipstick for 20 years, then she really must think mine is smooth! Deep Lust is the shade Betty wears.”
R29: You seem extremely at home in your work. What do you love about it?
BH: “It’s been 36 years. I always say that I’m not only at home here, but I’m very secure here. Out on the streets, I don’t feel so secure; stepping onto an airplane, I’m not so secure. This is my security. I do my best work here; I can do anything here at my desk. Nothing distracts me. It’s some sort of inner security. And, I think if I were to stop working, I’d just have to…go.”
R29: If you could go back and talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?
BH: “That’s a very difficult question. But…you have to go through the tough parts to get to the good place you are today.”
Photographed by Sunny Shokrae
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