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Bergdorf Goodman's Legendary History in Five Fun Facts

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The department store's famous personal shopper Betty Halbreich dishes in her new book.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Bergdorf Goodman's legendary personal shopper, Betty Halbreich, is in her mid-eighties. She walks to work every day, is good friends with Lena Dunham, and is quoted—quite often, lately—in newspapers and magazines "partially because I know how to feed them one-liners to liven up the same old dull fashion stories, but also because I know how to answer the phone!" as she explains in her new book, I'll Drink to That.

Her second book (the first was called Secrets of a Fashion Therapist and came out just last year) runs the course of her vibrant life, starting with a well-to-do upbringing in Chicago during the Great Depression through a marriage (and a separation); two children; one nervous breakdown and a mastectomy; the death of a companion; and almost 40 years spent at New York's most vaunted department store. Through all that, she manages to illuminate BG's fascinating history, so read on for five facts you might not know about Bergdorf, straight from the pages of Betty's memoir.

The Fendi fur salon was controversial when it first opened, but not for the reasons you'd think.

The fur department at Bergdorf Goodman was the definition of luxury in its heyday; Lauren Bacall's character in the 1953 movie How to Marry a Millionaire famously said, "...the gentlemen you meet at the cold cuts counter may not be as attractive as the ones you meet in the mink department at Bergdorf's." But what Fendi brought to the selection was truly unexpected, even in 1976.

Halbreich explains: "Ms. Fendi was in town to set up a new fur department at Bergdorf. Mr. Neinmark had negotiated an exclusive deal with the store, which was quite a coup, but also controversial. The Fun Fur from Italy was nothing like the rest of the stately fur department, where men came to buy wives long minks or fox stoles."

The lingerie department became "inconsequential" once couples started cohabiting.

Not one to mince words, Betty uses the adage of not wanting to buy the cow if the milk's already free—especially if that cow's an expensive negligee. "For my wedding night, I had the most extraordinary blue chiffon gown and robe. The first night together for newlyweds in 1947 was a novelty enhanced by exquisite silk and lace. (Bergdorf Goodman's once-legendary lingerie department became inconsequential when people started living together before marriage. Why spend a lot of money when there's no surprise?)"

European designers didn't get a proper showcase at the store until the 1980s.

The beginning of Bergdorf Goodman wasn't all exotic imports from Italy and France. American women, with American bodies, loved their local designers. "Up until the late seventies, the majority of the department and specialty stores carried predominantly American designers. The styles that were fitted on European models did not fit American women as well as homegrown designers did. Plus, there was still a belief that buying American-made products was the right thing to do."

"In the eighties, though, the store went in the opposite direction and devoted the whole of the second floor to new talent discovered abroad. These foreign imports included the exceptional tailoring of Giorgio Armani and Thierry Mugler's tight, curvy, and way-out dresses. The second floor was filled with the outlandish. There were Claude Montana's monstrous shoulders and military looks, as well as big plaids by Jean Paul Gaultier, who believed that the strange was beautiful, too."

Bergdorf is responsible for the success of Michael Kors.
More likely than not, Michael Kors would have made it big with or without the help of Bergdorf, but the designer was "discovered" serendipitously by one of the store's bigwigs.

"The Bergdorf Goodman executive [Dawn Mello] spotted the designer while he was adjusting pieces he had designed in the window display of Lothar's, a store across the street on Fifty-seventh that sold trendy low-end items such as tie-dyed corduroy leisure suits to a high-end clientele. Within a year he was selling his own line at the store and gathering a coterie of people whenever he appeared."

Though she helped Patricia Field pick out clothes for Sex & the City, Betty herself has never seen the show.
"I don't have HBO."

· I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist [Penguin]
· All Bergdorf Goodman Coverage [Racked]