After Hours: Vicky Tiel
Text and interview by Laura McLaws Helms
So much of what I am seeking to learn about in these interviews is how cultural creatives have molded their lives and careers by following their passions—what choices they’ve made, where it’s led them, how they created the lives of their dreams. The paths my interviewees have taken are quite diverse but they are always driven by a depth of curiosity and enthusiasm that is outside of the normal constraints of society and business.
Recently I had the chance to meet with fashion designer Vicky Tiel, who truly exemplifies this ardor for life. As with Norma Kamali, it was wonderful to speak with a female designer who built her business from the ground up and maintained complete control of it the whole way. In our conversation Tiel details the business strategy she followed—sell five dresses then use the profits to make 10 dresses, and build from there. That ensured her (and in the early years her partner, Mia Fonssagrives) total control of the product and finances. Licenses and (later) perfume deals were used strategically to gain capital and build brand awareness, but the core of Tiel’s business was always a demi-couture line produced in workrooms near her shop in Paris.
Growing up in affluent Chevy Chase, Maryland, Tiel was a vivacious cheerleader with a passion for the artists and fashion—her mother was a painter, and as a teen Vicky began sewing and selling clothes in her high school. She continued this side business when she arrived in New York to study fashion design at Parsons in the early 1960s. Living in Greenwich Village, Vicky was a central character of the downtown scene—going by the name “Peaches La Tour” she passed the hat in folk clubs and hosted raucous parties while wearing miniscule outfits of her own design, which she soon began selling to up-and-coming singers and other downtown denizens. When Vicky and her good friend at Parsons, Mia, were told by a teacher that their clothes were too far out to ever sell on Seventh Avenue, the pair decided to try their luck in Paris. Armed with Mia’s parents’ connections—her mother was the legendary model Lisa Fonssagrives and her step-father the most important photographer in fashion, Irving Penn—they arrived in Paris in 1964 and went straight to the home of another legendary model, Dorian Leigh. Their outrageous clothes and brash American manners made the 20-year-olds immediate sensations there. Quickly featured all over the French press, at a nightclub they were snapped up to be costume designers on the film What’s New Pussycat?—Mia and Vicky were in charge of the wardrobes for the female leads Ursula Andress, Paula Prentiss, Capuchine and Romy Schneider (check out the clip below to see a scene with Andress). While shooting that movie, they met 31-year-old Elizabeth Taylor who was immediately embarrassed by the matronly couture suit she was wearing and ordered from them a closet full of mini-dresses and patterned tights. Tiel struck up a lifelong friendship with Elizabeth while falling in love with Taylor’s makeup man, Ron Berkeley (who she was later married to from 1971 to 1986). The Burtons helped Mia and Vicky put on their first fashion show at Maxim’s in Paris in 1968, which included a few designs by Elizabeth, and also helped purchase the building for their first “Mia-Vicky” boutique at 21 Rue Bonaparte—this was done in return for “clothes for life” for Elizabeth and later her daughter.
Though Mia left the business in 1970, Vicky maintained a shop in that location for over four decades. She successfully maintained the boutique, wholesale clients worldwide and several more costume design credits, while partying around the globe with the Burtons and Ron throughout the late 1960s an early 1970s. She continued designing and creating in the 1970s while also raising two sons in Paris. In 1981, Tiel helped establish the couture salon at Bergdorf Goodman. The 1980s were particularly successful for her, as Tiel’s tight, ruched “mummy” dresses became a favorite on the red carpet, at society galas and in editorials. Celebrities and the wives of titans of industry flocked to her BG couture salon—fittings were done there but all production and sewing was completed in her workrooms in Paris. In the late 1980s Tiel married again—this time to a fishing boat captain in Florida, and began splitting her time between Paris, Florida and New York. Vicky launched her first perfume, “Vicky Tiel” at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1989.
After 48 years in fashion, Tiel closed her company in 2011 to focus on her perfumes (her 12th fragrance, “1964”, was launched in 2014, to celebrate Vicky’s 50 years in fashion) as well as selling on the Home Shopping Network. With such a interesting and memorable life, Vicky began recording her stories and a memoir—It’s All About The Dress: What I Learned in Forty Years About Men, Women, Sex and Fashion—was published in 2011. A follow-up, The Absolute Woman, will be launched in the fall on HSN—in our interview she reads a list for living a wonderful life that she includes in this book. After a lifetime helping women in dressing rooms—fitting bodices while listening to their fears, dramas and successes—Vicky has found that writing and presenting on HSN provide her the same fulfillment. A natural confidante, she provides advice for women on love, life and beauty. Full of enthusiasm, Vicky was a delight to speak with – she’s an intriguing mix of a keen businesswoman, a hopeless romantic and a great girlfriend that you want to dish all your troubles to.
If intrigued by this interview, I heartily recommend that you check out Tiel’s memoir, It’s All About The Dress—a light, enjoyable read full of incredible stories from her life.