12 Dec Vicky Tiel
Photo: Courtesy of Vicky Tiel
From the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, Elizabeth Taylor or royalty, fashion designer and author Vicky Tiel dressed them all! Mrs. Tiel tells us about her friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Coco Chanel as well as what it takes for a woman to be successful and live life on her own terms. A delightful conversation with a lady who still has sparkles in her eyes.
By Victoria Adelaide | DEC 11. 2017
Victoria Adelaide: You designed and sold dresses at 12 years old. Did you always know what you wanted to do?
Vicky Tiel: I started liking clothes at 5 years old; I was always into fashion. By the time I was 10, I had to be the most beautifully dressed, then I decided to learn to sew and I started sewing. My father told me I couldn’t have my own telephone, so at 12 years old, I started selling skirts that I embroidered, put fabric on and then I made a caftan, my first caftan. Then I sold caftans to the rich girls of my neighborhood, in Washington DC where everybody’s father is in the government. I was able to buy my own telephone so everybody could call me and buy my clothes. By the time I was 16, I had a business. When I was in college, in my apartment in New York I made men’s leather pants and leather skirts for women. I was the first person to make a fringe leather skirt and the matching bag, with fringe and beads in the fringe. We were hippies so we started that trend, but the leather mini skirt was my first big success. I Made a lot of money and with what I earned, I had enough to go to Paris and get my first apartment. I started to sell items as a very young girl, because I liked to have my own money, to be independent, I didn’t want to ask my father or my mother for money, I wanted to buy anything I wanted.
VA: As a young woman who was your role model and biggest inspiration when it came to fashion?
VT: In my high school Year Book, in 1961 at my graduation, one girl wrote down “To Elizabeth Taylor Tiel, fellow cheer leader and future fashion designer, also most beautiful cheer leader. Have a wonderful summer ~ Linda R”. Elizabeth Taylor Tiel, they called me, in my high school Year Book, 3 years before I met Elizabeth. Elizabeth Taylor to me was the symbol of a powerful woman and I wanted to be powerful like her; she looked beautiful, powerful and she did not submit to men. Then the other person I admired was Audrey Hepburn; she was elegant and chic in “Breakfast at Tiffany”. I loved the fact that she was a European and I decided to become a fashion designer in Paris, because of Audrey Hepburn. And lo and behold, I went to Paris with my best friend Mia Fonssagrives; we were 20, I guess, and I went to work with Elizabeth Taylor. Unbelievable. I have loved her since I was a child, I would draw her face all the time and on my first job, she was in the studio and we became friends. So I believe everything is placed in front of you in life, what is meant to be happens.
VA: What was it like to be in business with Mrs. Taylor and to be her friend?
VT: Elizabeth worked with me from 1964 to 84/87, and then she stayed in California when Richard Burton died and I stayed in Europe. My children were going to school so I didn’t see her as much for the last 20 years but I still had a job “making clothes for life”. She invested in the company I had with Mia, then Mia left me after 5 or 6 years; at the time, she was married to the couturier Louis Féraud, but went off to marry a builder in New York and Elizabeth stayed my partner. Elizabeth wasn’t a financial partner, she invested in the shop in exchange I would made her dresses for life, as well as for her daughter that I continued to dress when I wouldn’t make the clothes for television. Elizabeth’s father was an art dealer in Beverly Hills; he was a Brit, an Englishman, who opened a fine art gallery in Beverly Hills, carrying great art, Van Gogh, Picasso; he carried the greatest art as a dealer in the 1930s and 40s. His daughter was beautiful, he put her in movies, he was a very clever businessman. Elizabeth was brought up in a world of art, nobody knew, but she could draw; she could draw dresses. I even have a sketch of a wedding dress she drew when we opened the shop. I have it in my first book. She would sometimes take the pencil out of my hand and draw what she wanted. It was fun; she was a very talented woman in many ways. She couldn’t sing, but she could dance, she could draw, she loved music and she loved art, and so she was not just a sex symbol. It was a wonderful partnership throughout my life. I married her makeup man, a Hollywood makeup artist, my first husband. He was also Richard Burton’s makeup man and he had been with Elvis Presley before, so I got to know Elvis and his wife Priscilla.
VA: Then you had to take care of your family
VT: Yes, in the 80s my children were 10 and 12 years old. I was my husband’s third wife and he went on to have five wives. I wrote in my first book that in the 80s I couldn’t be married to someone who was just a Romeo; he was gorgeous and very seductive, so I divorced him. I think I caught him messing around or getting trashy photos from Lauren Hutton. So I divorced him and I remarried a man 15 years younger than me. So my first husband was 15 years older and my second husband is 15 years younger. My second husband, was a fisherman in Key West, the total opposite. He was not fancy, he walked bare foot, he wore no underwear, he just wore jersey shorts and no shoes (laughs). And I did the opposite and then he took me to Florida; we have a boat in Key West, and I’ve been with him for 30 years. I advise women to marry older men first and younger men the second time (laughs). So he took me to a farm, he grows vegetables, he is a naturalist, he doesn’t eat meat, he is vegetarian, his health is incredible. So I have a nice life in nature, and in my next book I’m writing about that.
VA: So, your next book, what will it be about?
VT: Feminine Power! The feminine power that I’ve learned about from being in Hollywood for 25 years. I started as a very young girl, working on movies with big, important movie stars, in LA, in Europe, in Cinnecità in Italy, in all the studios in France and England. I worked for 16 films and then I went into perfume. Once I started my perfume business I couldn’t do movies and “Haute couture” for Bergdorf Goodman New York at the same time. I stopped working for the films industry in the 80s, I started the couture business in Bergorf Goodman and in Neiman Marcus in 83 and the fragrance in 89. These women, the actresses that I worked with, really taught me a lot. Brigitte Bardot in France, Sophia Loren, Romy Schneider, incredible actresses, they’re very powerful women. I’ve also learned from men in the films industry. So, I learned to be a very good at giving advices from when I became a couturier in Bergdorf Goodman. The women that I dressed in Bergdorf Goodman were very rich but they had never been connected to the films industry, and the powerful women who were in Hollywood and in politics. I dressed the court of the Shah of Iran, his wife Farah Diba, royalty, in my shop in Paris, so I met very powerful women and I would teach women in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus when they bought my dresses how to look powerful. They would tell me their problems, so the opening of my book says, “When the women take their clothes off they tell me everything they’ve been advised, and I give them advice. I’m not a professional psychiatrist, therapist or whatever, but I’ve seen women undressed to their underwear and they tell me everything and I give them advice because I have heard everything. I would dress 8 to 10 women a day so with 8 to 10 women a day, very few couturiers do that. The only person that I know who did this was Coco Chanel. She taught me this; she became my friend.
VA: So you befriended Coco Chanel?
VT: Yes, through Elizabeth Taylor. I’m one of the only people who met her. Karl Lagerfeld never met Coco. Only because she loved Elizabeth Taylor. Coco said, “If you want to meet me you must give me 10000 dollars, come to Cambon Street, I’ll make you a dress”. Otherwise she met nobody in the last part of her life. But Elizabeth convinced Coco to have diner with me and we became friends. Coco Chanel told us both to make perfume and she explained this to us, how to do it, what to do. One night she told us everything about perfume and both of us made perfume. And at the end of her life Elizabeth lived off her perfume and I do as well.
VA: So it’s thanks to Coco Chanel that you came to perfume!
VT: Absolutely. Coco Chanel was my mentor, she was everything to me, she was everything.
VA: How did she inspire you and what is your vision when you create your fragrances?
VT: Coco explained to Elizabeth and I, that when you’re an actress you only have a life for a short time and then afterwards it’s over, and a fashion designer’s life is even shorter; I was lucky. She said “A perfume is forever, a perfume goes on and on, when I’m dead they’ll be selling my perfume, they’ll be making my perfume, so I love you both, you both promise me you’ll making perfume”. So we promised, we shook hands, we hugged her, we said we would make perfume. And she explained, “A perfume represents who you are, a perfume is you, however you feel about yourself you must have that in the perfume, everything about the perfume must be sincere, it must reflect who you are, if you do that your perfume will last forever”. In other words, if someone comes to me with a package and says, “Put your name on this I’ll give you 50000 dollars”, I’m not going to put my name on it, that isn’t a perfume. A perfume has to represent who you are, so you have to learn what you like, what you feel, who you are, the top, the middle, the bottom, you have to understand how perfume is made. And then it is who you are and it lasts forever. People have been buying my perfume for 25 years now. Unbelievable (laughs).
VA: Apart from your obvious talents, do you think your personality also had to do with your success?
VT: You’re born that way, you’re born who you are. My parents were from Russia, they were communists, they didn’t believe in God, and as a child at 10 years old, I told my parents “I’m sorry but I’m not like you”. My father told me, “You chose what you want”, and at 10 years old, I made my choice and I became a Buddhist. We were hippies in the 1960s and I was friends with all of the Beatles. I dressed the Beatles once, and the Rolling Stones. I dressed Bianca Jagger for her wedding, and I became friends with these people; we all became as we called it “Rich Hippies’. But in that period of time we all became Buddhist, and I stayed that way. We believe in reincarnation, we believe in karma, you have to behave in a certain way, you can’t kill living beings, you can’t kill animals. I’m still that way and most of the people from the 60s are that way, we never changed. We may not have long hair, but that was an incredible period of time, a transformation in society. So I was born who I am, I was born that way. However, people today with the internet and computers all learn new things all the time and get advice easily. That’s why my life’s job now is giving advice and telling everybody, the most important thing is to be happy every minute of your life; every second of your life be happy. If something is bad, if someone is mean to you, if something doesn’t work out, it’s meant to be. Find what was meant to be, find that lesson and move on. If people are not nice to you, ignore them, don’t pay attention, just think they are crazy. I wrote a big chapter in my book, “Don’t dance with crazies”. If someone is not nice, you don’t have to be upset, you don’t have to react; don’t react, don’t dance with them, just move on and dance with somebody else. You let them be and you don’t think about it. Be emotionally detached and be happy always. When I’m on television and I sell my perfume, I tell people that I was blessed to meet Coco Chanel and because of her I make perfume. But I own myself, nobody else owns that. I own my own perfume. Coco said, “Don’t ever have anybody own you; nobody ever bought me, own your own perfume”. And when I sell my perfume on television I tell the people who watch me, “When you spray this perfume, you are spraying on feminine power, I’m passing this on to you, I’m passing on to you happiness for every second. There’s power and happiness in every bottle. Every time you spray it, you think of me and this message to always be happy and to always be powerful”. It works. I have been selling on TV for 6 years now. The fragrance is beautiful, they all are.
VA: You said, “I decided to listen to my dad and not depend on any man for my success or security”. Could you say that this is one of the best pieces of advice you may have received in your life?
VT: Yes. My father told me that, and I have a chapter in my first book called “No sex for shoes”. And I only had sex with men I found gorgeous and beautiful and who completed me because I can’t build houses, I can’t fix things, I can’t plant vegetables. It’s too hard to dig, all the men that I’ve been with, including the two husbands I have had are the kind of men who can do what I can’t do. But the very rich men that are powerful and could have power over me, I’m not going to have sex with them, because they are generally interested in women they can afford to buy. So I don’t like that. I’d rather have the money myself and have a man who completes me. I don’t tell them what to do, I don’t like those kinds of men, I like independent men, strong men. I’m safe in a farm with a big man. But I like to make the money (laughs).
VA: You said that today you are the longest surviving female fashion designer in Paris, more than 40 years. That you have experienced great glory moments being a “fashion favorite” then being dismissed as a “has been” and finally being rediscovered as the designer everyone copied. You said you have had wild times followed by reflective times, which led you to growth as an artist and as a human being.
What were the wild times, the moments of reflections and in the end, what did all of that add to your life?
VT: That’s the same thing. Another thing I tell everybody and this is so important, it that there are two types of people; there are people who are concerned about other people and there are “me me me” people. If you’re concerned about other people, and someone is a “me me me”, something bad happens that is upsetting, if you’re a “me me me” person you’re going to kill yourself. You know many fashion designers kill themselves because they get a bad review, or actresses start drinking terribly because they get a bad review. Everyone’s reading the review. If you’re a pharmacist and you get a bad review, no one’s going to read it, not everybody. Now with the internet people do read. But in our profession we have 4 collections a year, sometimes 8; like Karl Lagerfeld, he even has 12 collections a year. 12 times a year for 50 or 60 years they criticize him and he couldn’t care less, he is so strong. Many people when they have bad reviews, they want to kill themselves and they do in fashion. They jump out of windows, they hang themselves, Mick Jagger’s fiancée hanged herself, because she received bad reviews and she had to give the money back to Mick Jagger, she couldn’t, and he didn’t want to fund her anymore because it’s hard to be successful in fashion. These people are the most sensitive people ever. I teach at the university of fashion, I give lectures on videos and I tell young students, an artist gets reviewed every 5 years or every 2 years, for a singer it’s every year, for a fashion designer it’s 4 times a year, 4 times a year they’re going to destroy you. And how do you cope with that? By becoming drunk, by becoming crazy? What do you do 4 times a year? You don’t care, you just go on. Like Coco what ever happened, through the war, she did what she had to do to stay alive, they criticized Coco, “Oh you have rich boyfriends”, she couldn’t care less! All she cared about was selling another dress, “You want to meet me at Cambon Street, you give me 10000 dollars I meet you”. I didn’t do that; I went to Bergdorf Goodman and I met everybody and I’m the only person that ever did that, nobody did that. And that made me happy and I didn’t care if I got reviews or not, eventually I stopped having shows. I just went to Bergdorf Goodman. And there you go, 25 years! (big laughs)
VA: Where are your dresses made and how did the market change over the years?
VT: There initially were 25 stores that worked for me and now I’m down to 6. The 6 that I have left are in Paris and Portugal. But “couture” is dead, it’s dead. I went from selling 330350 Vicky Tiel dresses a month in one store, at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan, down to 80! I did that for 2 years. I’ve waited and waited, it never comes back. So it was over. In France it’s very hard to pay people, very difficult with the social system, I had one employee for 45 years, I had to let her go. Now I sell on television. Everything has changed, people don’t buy expensive clothing anymore. Women now wear the same clothes as their children; we wear stretch pants and tops. We wear athletic wear, “athleisure” as we call it. And that’s what everyone’s wearing, so making dresses and suits and soap dresses with beautiful coats it’s over; “C’est fini”.
VA: You also worked with Woody Allen.
VT: Woody and I stayed friends for 25 years until he married the young girl he’s married to now. She would not allow him to stay friends with me. But I was friends with him through all his marriages and all his wives until the last 15 years. So I’ve known him for a long time; he’s been a very very close friend of mine and I’ve loved him very much.
... the most important thing is to be happy every minute of your life; every second of your life be happy``.