By Lisa Marie Burwell
From Paris with Love
Meet a renaissance woman who created and defined her own destiny, reaching pinnacles of success and glamour usually only found in movies. High fashion and beauty icon Vicky Tiel knows all about how to live a “real” life, and she has the stories, victories, and photos to prove it.
Her life spans eighty years of seizing the day to the absolute fullest, from traversing to NYC to attend Parsons School of Design in the 1960s to being lauded by Parisian ateliers a year later when she debuted the “minidress” (her co-creation with Mia Fonssagrives, a classmate she befriended at Parsons who is now an acclaimed sculptor). Tiel flunked out of fashion school, and she and Fonssagrives became business partners and moved to Paris to make their mark on the world. And that they did. Once in the City of Light, the dynamic duo got busy doing what they knew it would take to be successful in the fashion biz: making connections. Their tenacity, vision, beauty, and style paid off, and the best friends-turned-entrepreneurs were invited to model their vibrant minidresses in famed Parisian designer Louis Féraud’s runway show in 1964.
Tiel and Fonssagrives instantaneously became a sensation as “it girls” after the debut of their miniskirts and hot pants on the Paris runways. LIFE magazine penned a five-page article on them after the show. Eugenia Sheppard wrote a headline in the International Herald Tribune that “Anyone in Fashion Over 25 Might as Well Be Dead.” The pair also appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to show their fashions, with Tiel even bringing her beloved terrier along on set. What an amazing comeback story after being kicked out of one of the best fashion design schools in NYC. Tiel would later teach at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she preached to her students to always believe in themselves and create in a way that would help others. She says her fashion designs were always intended to help women feel good about themselves and to attract the attention of suitors (and everybody else, as well).
An opportunity to make costumes for Woody Allen’s What’s New Pussycat? came next, and Fonssagrives and Tiel created styles for Ursula Andress, the lead actress in the film. Many movies thereafter included Saturday Night Fever and Pretty Woman, in which Tiel’s design inspired the unforgettable strapless red dress worn by Julia Roberts—an all-time movie showstopper. Now known as “The Pretty Woman Dress,” it was initially designed in 1977 as a strapless dress for French actress Anne Parillaud to wear to the Cannes Film Festival. The red silk jersey version with draped sleeves, featured in the 1989 film’s Rodeo Drive shop windows, was copied for Julia Roberts to wear in perhaps the most iconic Pretty Woman scenes as Edward takes Vivian out to the opera. Who could forget her walking into the room wearing that dress? Tiel’s inspired designs have graced the silver screen countless times before and since then. The list of actors and musicians who have worn her designs also boasts names like Brigitte Bardot, Goldie Hawn, Whitney Houston, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Oprah, to name just a few.
“The list of actors and musicians who have worn her designs also boasts names like Brigitte Bardot, Goldie Hawn, Whitney Houston, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Oprah, to name just a few.”
This success was only the beginning of a life filled with all-night glamorous parties, yachts, private islands, fabulous trendsetting clothes, and hobnobbing with celebrities as she danced the night away. Tiel and Elizabeth Taylor became fast friends, and they remained so for twenty-five years until Taylor’s death. Tiel and her then-husband, Hollywood makeup artist Ron Berkeley, were part of Taylor and Richard Burton’s entourage. Taylor also financially backed Mia-Vicky, the duo’s boutique on the Left Bank of Paris. Tiel then ventured into creating fragrances after a fateful day when she had the rare chance to attend a luncheon at Coco Chanel’s home as Taylor’s guest. Chanel told Taylor she needed to create her own perfume line, which Tiel collaborated on, et voilà—White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor was born and proved widely successful.
Tiel also intently listened and heeded the advice for her own brand. Chanel insisted clothes and fashion styles come and go, but perfumes would last forever. Tiel knew she had heard a good thing and created her line of twelve perfume fragrances with names like Tickled Pink, 21 Bonaparte, and Sirène. It’s obvious she has an innate understanding of women and is a marketing connoisseur herself.</p
Today, Vicky Tiel fragrances are sold via Perfumania, Home Shopping Network, and retail stores nationwide. “I think of myself as a beauty expert,” she says. “Fashion doesn’t come first, you know. The whole point of my clothes is to make a woman’s body look beautiful.”
In 1971, Mia Fonssagrives left the business, and Vicky Tiel became the brand. She evolved from the “youthquake” Sixties designer to a glamorous Parisian couturier. A People magazine article about Tiel’s business in 1986 catapulted her solo career even further. Her sexy, fitted dresses were so in demand that Bergdorf Goodman opened a custom Vicky Tiel couture salon, the first at the luxury retailer since the 1950s.
“Her sexy, fitted dresses were so in demand that Bergdorf Goodman opened a custom Vicky Tiel couture salon, the first at the luxury retailer since the 1950s.”
Tiel reminisces about how she dressed the recently departed Jane Birkin in hot pants, thigh-high boots, and diamond-studded bras, and they, too, become friends. “Jane was an English girl who lived near me in Paris and danced with me in her youth at Chez Castel. She was more French than any French girl, and Jane led the way to inspire the worldwide fashions of the Sixties.” Tiel continues, “So many people I knew and loved have passed away, and it’s hard to believe. When you live to be eighty years of age, you see that a lot, but I’m still happy and creating,” she says with a beaming smile.
The designer’s life took a surprising turn after her marriage to Berkeley ended in 1986. The couple had two sons together. She met her current husband, a merchant marine officer, Captain Mike Hamilton, in Key West and married him about a decade later. They moved to a farm in the Florida Panhandle between Pensacola and Alabama. Tiel splits her time between farming there and designing gowns in the same studio she’s maintained at 21 Rue Bonaparte in Paris since it was Mia-Vicky.
I read Tiel’s 2011 autobiography, It’s All About The Dress: What I Learned in Forty Years About Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion, when it came out, and was intrigued by her story—a well-written page-turner that I could not put down. How she went from Parsons to Paris within a year’s time blew my mind. When photographer Jack Gardner, with whom I’ve worked on projects over the past two decades, reached out to us about publishing a story about Vicky Tiel living in a nearby tiny, rural town in the heart of the South in Baker, Florida, I could not believe it.
We met Tiel in our office a week later, and this force of nature bubbling over with smiles, stories, and sheer exuberance made me smile. She truly empowers you to believe in the American dream and, more importantly, in humanity. A colorful, glamorous, bold, and brave life deserves to be recognized, but what I admired most about her when meeting with her in the conference room of our offices was how much she cared about people. She is still curious about each person she meets, and if she can help them, she will. I asked her to sign my copy of her book, and while signing it, she asked me to look at her a few times as she quickly sketched my face. My heart melted. Merci, Vicky!
““Don’t let anybody put you down or make you feel bad. Just spend your whole day working on doing what you want to accomplish and being happy.””
She is still creating today, with plans to air a twenty-six-episode HBO series about her life. With the writer’s strike underway, we can only hope this sees the light of day, as it would be fascinating to watch.
I leave you with a quote from Tiel herself: “The most important thing is to be happy,” she says. “Don’t let anybody put you down or make you feel bad. Just spend your whole day working on doing what you want to accomplish and being happy.”
Visit VickyTiel.com to learn more, read Tiel's blog, and locate perfume retailers.
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