The mini skirt. The wrap dress. Julia Roberts’ red dress in Pretty Woman.
Fashion designer Vicky Tiel lays claim to creating all these iconic looks. At 75, she says she is the oldest living female designer in Paris. In addition to maintaining her own studio, Tiel has designed for Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, Goldie Hawn and Catherine Zeta Jones.
And throughout her star-studded career, she befriended Elizabeth Taylor, received advice from Coco Chanel and met Salvador Dalí, the details of which she’ll discuss at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
Tiel has been selling her line of fragrances and apparel through St. Petersburg-based HSN. Someone from the network brought her to the Dalí Museum, where she met Peter Tush, the museum’s curator of education. Tiel told Tush about her connection to Dalí: she’d hired his muse, the sexually-ambiguous model Amanda Lear, to walk in her first fashion show.
“My designs have been exhibited in five museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art” Tiel said. “But the idea for me to be speaking and exhibiting at the Dalí Museum is something that very few fashion designers get to do.”
Fashion is fluid and “invention” depends on who you ask. Other designers have claimed the mini skirt and the wrap dress, Mary Quant and Diane von Furstenberg chief among them.
But this is Tiel’s version of events.
Raised among the political elite of Chevy Chase, Md., Tiel realized early on that she could use clothes to express herself creatively. She went to the Parsons School of Design after graduating high school, but found her aesthetic deviated from the boxy constructions being taught there.
She favored revealing, provocative clothing that would accentuate the female form. In 1962, she started designing skirts with a hemline four inches above the knee. She paired the skirt with lace stockings and a see-through top.
Tiel is unapologetic about her approach to women’s fashion, which has been to attract men.
“I never stopped being feminine and using my body to excite men,” she said. “Because if a woman is interested in a man, she should dress in a way that a man thinks is beautiful.”
Tiel met fellow student Mia Fonssagrives at Parsons the following year. Tiel and Fonssagrives, whose stepfather is the photographer Irving Penn, clicked and decided to become partners. They made their way to Paris and through connections debuted and modeled their colorful minidresses in designer Louis Feraud’s runway show in 1964.
They were an overnight sensation, instant it girls. They were dubbed the Ye Ye Girls and hired to make the costumes for Woody Allen’s What’s New Pussycat?, including Ursula Anders’ cashmere, snakeskin catsuit. The pair collaborated on an updated, sexy version of the wrap dress, a garment that had been around since the 1940s.
Tiel also says she introduced Paris to hot pants. The clothes defined the Swinging ‘60s look in Europe.
Among the many celebrities Tiel met and dressed, Elizabeth Taylor was perhaps the most influential. For 25 years, Tiel and her husband, the Hollywood make up artist Ron Berkeley, were part of Taylor and Richard Burton’s entourage. Taylor financially backed Mia Vicky, the duo’s boutique in Paris’ Left Bank. They ventured into their own fragrance lines under advice from Coco Chanel. Their friendship lasted through the end of Taylor’s life.
In 1977, Tiel designed the Torrid dress for actress Anne Parillaud. The silhouette was so popular, a decade later she was still selling the dress while designing for Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. Costume designers from the movie Pretty Woman spotted the red version at Giorgio Beverly Hills and nabbed it for the movie. Tiel claims she’s never received credit for it by film producers.
Tiel’s life took a surprising turn after her marriage to Berkeley ended. She ended up in Key West in 1987, where she met her current husband. They moved to a farm in the panhandle between Pensacola and Alabama. Tiel splits her time farming there and designing gowns in the same studio she’s maintained at 21 Rue Bonaparte in Paris since it was Mia Vicky.
Her father taught her to be financially independent. When she came under fire by feminists in the late 1960s because of her penchant for revealing clothing, she pointed out that her own company employed 25 women.
She’s complied these life lessons in a recent book, The Absolute Woman: It’s All About Feminine Power. She credits Taylor’s advice that “you can’t dance with crazy” as the most important lesson of the book — don’t react when someone tries to bait you into a negative situation.
As for style tips, it’s important to stay current on fashion, hair and makeup trends,Tiel said. She never checks a bag when flying because luggage gets lost. She’s mastered the art of packing.
And one bit of her advice will never go out of style.
“The most important thing is to be happy,”she said. “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.”
Contact Maggie Duffy @[email protected] Follow @maggiedalexis.
If you go
Elizabeth Taylor, Dalí, Amanda Lear and Me
6-7 p.m. Thursday in the Dalí Museum’s Will Raymund theater. A Q&A and book signing will follow the talk. One Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg. (727) 823-3767. thedali.org.