The Assistant Files: Maria Kardaras, Bergdorf Goodman’s Betty Halbreich
It’s here: The next installment of the Assistant Files! This time we visited Maria Kardaras, personal assistant to Bergdorf Goodman’s longtime style extraordinaire Betty Halbreich. With 40-plus years at Bergdorf Goodman and 89 years of life experience, Betty is in many ways the ultimate fashion boss. From Betty’s office relics and prized orchid display to the famous flip-phone, Kardaras gives us a peek into her world.
So Maria, what’s your background? Was it always fashion?
I didn’t go to school for fashion—I have a degree in public health. But I always loved fashion. There weren’t many jobs that appealed to me after graduating, so I traveled a little bit—a Euro railing adventure. Afterward, I enrolled in a few post-grad classes at FIT, got a job at a little boutique in Connecticut, and was there for a year until I applied to Bergdorf. A couple months later I heard back from them. When Bergdorf calls, you always say yes! I was hired in their personal shopping department, and was there for almost a year before I was promoted to being the Solutions Coordinator—which means Betty’s assistant.
How do you and Betty jive?
We both love restaurants and food and cooking, so we’re constantly chatting about new restaurants in town. She’s also a big fan of the weather. One of my biggest responsibilities in this office is checking the weather report two to three times a day—Weather Channel, Accuweather, I’ll check the local news sometimes. Because if I’m wrong, I hear about it! [Laughs] During snowstorms, if the store is closed, we’ll speak multiple times. She calls from home making sure everything is OK. She’s like, ‘How much more do you think we’re going to get?’
What are your other daily duties?
Every day is different. I usually get in around 9—she always beats me here, and she’s always done two to three things on her to-do list well before I’ve arrived. She doesn’t use a computer, so I manage all of her emails. She has business stuff coming through that email, but also her friends reach out. Anything that’s directed at me, I handle, and if it’s for her, I print them out and put them on her desk so she can handwrite her response, and I’ll type it up and send it back out. On any given day, I’m sourcing costumes for TV shows and movies and ad campaigns. I split my time between assisting her and her private appointments and doing the studio appointments. I also literally just help dress people—zip em up and zip em out.
How much time do you spend together?
40 hours! Monday through Friday, 9 to 5:30. Some days we spend a little more, but never less. I spend more time with her than my family. [Laughs]
What’s the lunch routine?
Betty and I both love to cook, so we bring our lunch most days of the week. She’s a big soup fan. Every once in a while she’ll drop off fresh fruit at my desk in the morning. If we order out, it’s usually sandwiches and salad.
What is your best job perk?
Besides the discount, which fuels my ever-growing closet, the view of Central Park and Fifth isn’t bad. And working under Betty. She’s taught me life lessons and how to grow as a person, new restaurants that are under the radar, and she’ll be like, go to this dentist, try this dry cleaner, go to this shoe repair. In terms of fashion, she’s taught me so much about fit and how to look at a garment and compare it to a person without ever putting it on them.
What was your last purchase at Bergdorf?
The last round of sales, I got a black and white speckled DVF jacket and purple Gucci satin Webbys.
Do you know the story behind every object in the office?
I’m still learning! And more things get added. She has the finger sculptures, and she still doesn’t know who sent them. She has her chocolate gun. There are so many!
What’s the latest addition?
We’ve added two orchids to the window, and she got an adorable frosted cookie as a party favor, and she loves the wrapping. It’s probably so stale, but it looks great on her desk.
Who’s in charge of the orchids?
Betty. If she is out for more than two or three days, I water them, but I’m a little scared! She recently had some die—it was a big thing.
NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 13: (L-R) SVP Fashion and Store Presentation Director at Bergdorf Goodman Linda Fargo, designer Michael Kors, and Betty Halbreich attend the celebration for Michael Kors’ 35th Anniversary and the new book “Slim Aarons: Women” at Bergdorf Goodman on October 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
What’s your favorite Betty story?
It was my first week with her, and Michael Kors was here for Slim Aarons’ photography book launch. Betty asked me to come with her after work. She’s getting photographed left and right, and she leans over with a glass of wine in her hand and looks at me and goes, ‘Honey, have one.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, I want to make sure I keep a professional image.’ Michael Kors was right there! And she was like, ‘Honey, if you’re going to come to these events with me, you’re going to have a drink with me.’ And then she shoved a glass of wine in my hand. That’s when I knew we were going to get along really well.
Do you go to many events with her?
Now she brings me along to a lot of events, in and out of the store. She took me to Linda’s launch party as her plus-one. Adam Lippes, Gilles Mendel, all these designers were there. Alber Elbaz walked in, who she knew from her time at Geoffrey Beene. She was imploring him to come back to fashion. The littlest welling of tears in her eyes happened. It was such a touching moment!
Does Betty get fan mail?
We get a couple of letters every week, and she often handwrites a response. It’s a lost art! But she does that for everyone.
Do people know you’re the person answering the emails?
Yes—I am the email signature, ‘Assistant to Betty Halbreich.’ But if she handwrites an email that I then transcribe, I always sign it ‘Betty,’ and my signature is at the bottom. That’s how they know it’s from her.
How do you keep in touch when she’s on vacation?
She has a flip phone, but she’s not known for using it. When she’s gone away in the past, she’s left a sticky note on my desk with the phone number where she’ll be, should there be an emergency. Normally it’s a friend’s landline or cellphone, whoever she’s staying or traveling with.
Does she take any interest in social media?
She is very interested in Instagram, mainly of people she knows. Like makeup artist Edward Bess, who’s one of her best friends. She’s always asking me to pull up his Instagram from my phone. Recently she whipped out her flip phone and was tinkering with it, which I thought was interesting because normally she doesn’t touch it. I’m like, ‘Betty, what are you doing?’ And she’s like, ‘Can I Instagram on this phone?’ [Laughs]
What is the best advice she’s given you?
It’s not so much advice as a mentality: The importance of honesty and standing your ground and being assertive. When you’re busy with personal clients and appointments, there are people constantly coming at you with requests. She’s really instilled in me that you can say no and you can say yes, but make sure it represents the business, and advocate for yourself and the company.
What makes you good at your job?
Organization is key—her office is meticulous. And you have to be thick-skinned. There are always people coming with requests, questions, and demands, and you need to be to shake things off and keep moving.
What’s your dream job?
Eventually, I want to use my undergrad degree in public health—right now there isn’t a public health/fashion correlation. A goal of mine is doing something with corporate social responsibility with fashion houses. They impact so many countries and people, from cultivating the fabrics and the production, and there are so many ways to give back. So being some sort of liaison between these fashion companies and various NGOs and nonprofits. There’s so much wealth in this industry, I would love to help that trickle down.