You’ve probably seen and enjoyed Vicky Tiel’s work for years, without even realizing it. She has designed and made clothes in Paris for 40 years, longer than almost any other designer.
Tiel conjured up the incredible red dress Julia Roberts wore to the opera in the movie Pretty Woman, and has remade the same, aptly-named Torrid design in different colours for Joan Collins, Emma Samms and Catherine Zeta Jones – just to name a few. The dress still sells well, but that isn’t the half of it.
Vicky Tiel and her partner Mia Fonssagrives launched the miniskirt and lace panty hose in Paris in 1965. They wore miniskirts in New York years before they were seen in Europe. And Mia and Vicky – as their label was known — showed their mini collection a full season before Mary Quant, who is often credited with the sexy design.
If you think Diane von Furstenberg invented the wrap dress – think again. Vicky Tiel credits American designer Claire McCardell with creating the modern wrap dress in the 1950s. But Vicky and her partner sold many of their patterned mini-wrap dresses in the 1960s long before Diane’s famous dress. The designs were adorable and featured in top fashion magazines. I remember my grandmother making me dresses that resembled those designed by Mia and Vicky. She copied them from the magazine pictures I would bring her. I felt fashion’s pull from an early age. I loved the cute colourful baby-doll style minis and tights.
As I read Tiel’s fabulous new autobiography, It’s all about the Dress: What I Learned in 40 Years about Men, Women, Sex and Fashion, I was stuck by two things: First, how much she had influenced fashion with her minis, wrap dresses, cat suits, and hot pants; And second, how fearless she is. This is one woman who makes the most of life and continuously reinvents herself.
Tiel’s story is riveting. She states she was born obsessed with fashion. She recounts how after high school her father explained to her the importance of making her own money so she would never have to submit to, or beg from, a man. After high school, Vicky attended Parsons School of Design where she met her future partner Mia Fonssagives.
Like Vicky, Mia was rebelling against the formal structured designs of the 1950s that were still being taught. The young women made form-fitting, sexy, modern clothes that would come to define fashion in the following decades.
Although the two women could not be more different, they were soon fast friends and began designing together. Vicky was independent and scrappy, as well as a born entrepreneur. A Greenwich Village hipster, Vicky had already been selling her own designs for $125 each — serious money in the early 1960s. Mia was the product of a sheltered and privileged upbringing. She was the daughter of super-model Lisa Fonssagives and her stepfather was the famous photographer Irving Penn. Her family was very famous, private, and over-protective. They were also very well connected in the world of fashion.
Upon arriving in Paris, the famous super model Dorian Leigh gave Vicky and Mia an immediate entrée into world of couture. Dorian had married several wealthy and influential men. She taught Vicky how to move through European society and how to cook French food.
Shortly after making a splash in the papers with the launch of the Mia and Vicky fashion line, Vicky met and fell in love with her future husband Ron Berkeley, who was Richard Burton’s makeup man as well as the top makeup artist at MGM studios.
From then on, Vicky and Ron were a couple, and part of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton entourage. Through it all, Vicky kept designing and selling clothes, first with her partner Mia as "Mia and Vicky," and later under the Vicky Tiel label (Mia ultimately left the business to pursue art). Elizabeth Taylor was her partner when she opened her own shop.
Vicky designed clothes for the movies and dressed the stars and society. She made her dear friend Liz Taylor’s dresses for years and even designed the actress’s famous caftans. She also dressed Joan Collins, Bianca Jagger, Goldie Hawn and even Kim Kardashian. Her sexy body-conscious gowns and dresses are still selling today at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
As I read her book, I was struck by how Tiel adapts and learns from life. She shares her personal philosophy as well as basic, but good recipes. She is a remarkably resilient woman who meets disappoint, infidelity, and other disappointments with optimism.
Tiel shares stories of meeting the legendary Coco Chanel and winning her over. Chanel taught her never sell the rights to her name or perfume, two lessons that have served her well. Chanel was very bitter over having sold her valuable perfume line. Vicky later shared this wisdom with her friend Liz Taylor, who made millions from perfumes that still sell today.
Tiel recounts her meeting with the legendary costume designer Edith Head early on in her career. Edith taught her how to find a niche and defend it. Tiel’s book is full of similar meetings and a subsequent list of tips – all of them valuable.
It’s all about the Dress: What I Learned in 40 Years about Men, Women, Sex and Fashion is a riveting, gossipy read. The pages are littered with bold –type names and amusing and outrageous anecdotes from the swinging sixties and sexy seventies. It is also smart book, written by a savvy successful woman. I love this book because Vicky Tiel talks about being successful in non-corporate ways on her own terms. Throughout all the fun romps, she always works and builds business. She is always on the lookout for an opportunity to change, grow, and learn. Vicky Tiel is fearless in her pursuit of the good life and success.