Vicky Tiel’s 40-Year Career in Fashion

IF you are famous for dressed-to-spill goddess gowns beloved by women like Joan Collins and Halle Berry — steel stays radiating pitilessly from the diaphragm — then deciding what to wear to pick up a reporter at a train station in upstate New York might pose a challenge.

The designer Vicky Tiel, who is 67 and barely 5-foot-2, met it gamely one sticky afternoon last month. Hurrying across the esplanade outside the ticket office in Hudson, she wore a jeans jacket with huge patches cut out along the front shoulder, leggings and a tank top from Miley Cyrus’s line for Wal-Mart. The top, embellished with beading left over from one of Ms. Tiel’s custom $28,000 evening dresses, highlighted her generous bust line.

“I have a man,” Ms. Tiel announced briskly as she drove across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to her cabin in Greene County. “I dress like this to show other women how to get one. The strapless gowns, this outfit: they’re me, what I’m all about.”

She elaborates on this strategy in a dishy new memoir, “It’s All About the Dress: What I Learned in 40 Years About Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion,” recently published by St. Martin’s Press. In the book, Ms. Tiel posits that there’s nothing wrong with playing the geisha and giving your man a good foot massage (“and a good whatever he likes most”) in a see-through negligee, as she was counseled by Kim Novak before both were dumped from the movie “Eye of the Devil.”

Another tip: forgoing underwear entirely, a habit Ms. Tiel picked up from Ursula Andress, for whom she designed the memorable knitted “snakeskin” cat suit the actress wore in “What’s New, Pussycat?” in 1965.

Even in the book’s most regressive I-am-woman, you-are-man moments, Ms. Tiel’s remarkable innocence, to all appearances sincere, and a certain daffiness buoy the reader. As does her confessional tone: among her many conquests, she asserts, were Warren Beatty and Paul Newman.

She also writes about a wrap party for “Pussycat” at which Woody Allen, the film’s writer, won a night in bed with Ms. Tiel in a contest. On the appointed day, she was introduced to Elizabeth Taylor’s studly makeup man and lost track of time; poor Woody, she writes, was left tapping his toes in a Paris hotel room. (When asked about the event, Mr. Allen said he had a vague memory of it but assumed he was bidding on a porcelain vase.)

In between liaisons and her unlikely friendship with Ms. Taylor and Richard Burton, Ms. Tiel became the greatest designer you never heard of, claiming credit for innovations such as the miniskirt; the pouf, wrap and mummy dress (never mind what Christian Lacroix, Diane Von Furstenberg and Emanuel Ungaro might have to say about that); lace pantyhose; hot pants; the diamante bra as street wear, and the draped chiffon bustier frock Julia Roberts wore in the opera scene in “Pretty Woman.”

Whether she is inflating her reputation or not, Ms. Tiel retains loyal fans. “Whenever I wear them,” Sherry Lansing, the former Paramount Pictures chairman, said of Ms. Tiel’s garments in a phone interview, “I get compliments I’m not sure I deserve.”

Shirlee Fonda said her husband, Henry, “was always crazy about me in Vicky’s clothes. I was certainly photographed a lot in them.” Ms. Fonda said that she has perhaps 40 Tiels she can no longer wear but that she “wouldn’t give them up for anything.”

After living the swinging 1960s to their immoderate fullest — dirty dancing at Castel’s in Paris, skiing holidays in Cortina, orgies in Rome, a heartbreaking romance with Hollywood (Sandra Dee was to play Ms. Tiel in a movie of her life that never materialized) — Ms. Tiel flourished as a designer in the ’70s. In New York, her clothing was first sold at Henri Bendel; business there was so good that in 1980, Dawn Mello of Bergdorf Goodman swept across the street and raided her, along with several other designers.

“Vicky had a cult following that wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Ms. Mello said. Though Ms. Tiel gave her dress company to her No. 2 last January, she still makes appearances at the store to do fittings, and will sign books there on Fashion’s Night Out.

Beyond the innovations she claims, one wonders what else Ms. Tiel might have come up with had she been clean and sober.

“In any town, in any club, in any port, on any yacht, I was there, cocktail in hand,” she said, sitting in her country cabin (with hot tub and quaint “His” and “Hers” terry guest towels), sipping iced tea and eating peanut-butter cookies. Ellen DeGeneres’s show was playing silently in the background.

“That whole two-year period with Elizabeth and Richard when I was skipping around the world as part of their entourage,” Ms Tiel continued, “the drugs were all in neat little bags, one for speed — we called them ‘jet lag pills’ — one for downers … ”

Ms. Tiel insisted that she and Ms. Taylor were “just a pair of old-fashioned party girls” with a taste for beluga caviar and Château Margaux. “When we finished a bottle, there was no mood change,” Ms. Tiel said. “When friends told me I had to stop drinking, I went to AA. But I was still doing pot.”

In “All About the Dress,” she asks, “Was I an addict, or just another ’60s girl who had too much fun?” To play it safe, she quit everything.

Ms. Tiel, whose stepfather was a high-level administrator with the I.R.S., had an “Ozzie and Harriet” childhood in Chevy Chase, Md. Her high-school yearbook, the memoir recounts, is filled with inscriptions from fellow cheerleaders promising to “see you in Paris where I’ll buy your dresses.”

By 1962 she was living in New York and attending Parsons School of Design. Ms. Tiel’s teachers were Norman Norell, James Galanos and Rudi Gernreich. Her best friend and classmate was Mia Fonssagrives, daughter of Lisa Fonssagrives, the leading model of her day, and Fernand Fonssagrives, a noted French photographer. Mia was also the stepdaughter of the photographer Irving Penn.

Mia’s family was more than useful to the girls when they arrived in Paris in 1964. The first person they contacted was Dorian Leigh, another legendary model. At Ms. Leigh’s wedding they sat beside the couturier Louis Féraud, who improbably invited them to model their designs in his next runway show. Ms. Tiel ran up a severely short denim coat lined in lime fake fur.

She met the Burtons (and Ron Berkeley, who caused her to miss her rendezvous with Mr. Allen and whom she would marry, have two sons with and finally divorce) when she was designing the costumes for “Pussycat” and they were shooting “The Sandpiper” at the same studio outside Paris.

In 1967, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Burton invested $50,000 in a new French company, Mia-Vicky. (There is a bit of old Pathé newsreel of Mia-Vicky models dancing the frug between the tables among the Art Nouveau boiseries at Maxim’s, Queen Elizabeth holding court with her bodyguards and grinning like a parent whose children have just come home with good report cards.)

The first collection of Ms. Tiel and Ms. Fonssagrives was a haute-hippie festival of cut-velvet piano shawls, bias ruffles, minis that barely covered the rump, fringed fedoras and, more than 25 years before Alexander McQueen introduced the bumster, bikini bottoms revealing several inches of divide.

In the book Ms. Taylor, repaid in caftans, appears charmed to be giving her young protégé an all-access pass to her vagabond life. Ms. Tiel was always grateful to the actress for grabbing her by the foxtail-trimmed poncho — saving Ms. Tiel from being sucked into oblivion — when a door blew off a doddery World War II helicopter they took to meet Mr. Burton for lunch. She returned the favor by smuggling Ms. Taylor’s Shih Tzus into England. The customs officer in Calais, France, was, she writes, more than happy to look the other way after Ms. Tiel flashed him.

Mia Fonssagrives briefly wed Mr. Féraud, pulled out of Mia-Vicky in 1969, married the New York real estate developer Sheldon Solow and became a sculptor and jewelry designer. Ms. Tiel, at loose ends romantically and, she said, trolling the docks of Key West, Fla., for love, found it in 1987 with a fisherman-turned-chicken-farmer 14 years her junior, Mike Hamilton (or Big Mike or Hammerhead).

Ms. Tiel thought it would be nice if her husband saw Paris, where she still has her shop and an apartment, but one trip there was enough for him. The cabin is also Mike-free. “He told me he’s never leaving Florida again,” said Ms. Tiel, who lives there part of the year.

She stays in a hotel when she lectures at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she was such a hit last year, turning her dresses inside out to show the boning, that she was asked back as a critic.

“The kids were fascinated,” said George Simonton, a professor. “They loved her. She has so many stories.”

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