Raising Hemlines

Raising Hemlines

How Vicky Tiel’s fashion legacy continues to empower and encourage today’s designers.

Words by Anne Hunter

Photos by Jack Gardner

Coco Chanel was her mentor. Elizabeth Taylor was her friend. Julia Roberts wore her famous red dress in the movie Pretty Woman.

Stories flow freely from the lips of Vicky Tiel, the best-selling author, perfume mogul, and illustrious dress designer whose renegade spirit defined a generation of women. The first names of celebrities in her circle drip from Vicky’s tongue in a syncopated staccato that flashes you back in her melody to the early 1960s, where the head of school at Parsons School of Art and Design forewarned the aspiring young artist, “You have no future in fashion.” 

Vicky Tiel would go on to prove Parsons wrong, time and time again. First, by transforming the streets of New York City into a catwalk for her creations, including her infamous mini-skirt, which she creatively crafted using leftover leather from a vest she had designed to impress a folk-singer named Steve Denaut, with whom she was smitten. “I bought four soft, black leather skins and made a vest and a matching shoulder bag with fringe and beads. There was a tiny bit of leather left over and I made a skirt stopping two inches above my knee, which I kept cutting shorter and shorter, thus the birth of the mini!” 

Next, Vicky would take on the world by donning every iconic woman born of fashion’s most glamorous golden era in her gown designs. Now in her seventies, it’s no surprise that the designer’s best-selling books are on their way to becoming a 10-episode television series. Tiel’s adventures are page-turners, weaving a cinematic thread through her celebrity life and taking you along for the ride to relish in her miraculous moments - many of them too taboo to mention here. 

Vicky is the muse behind the muse. She is the brave woman who empowered hundreds of influential women to feel fearless during a time when a damsel in distress was the preferred penchant for the entertainment industry. To wrap yourself in one of her dresses was to embody her cavalier spirit that said No to the institutions that set out to silence her, and Yes to embarking on the path that would embolden millions of women and girls to imagine their own potential. Cloaked in Vicky’s designs, Hollywood heroines busted out of their casted roles to personify the possibility of a power brewing beneath the surface that would not erupt for another 50 years, with the advent of social media. Trending ahead of her time, the pioneering powerhouse sought solace and advice from her cadre of creative counterparts, including the likes of Coco Chanel. 

“Coco told Elizabeth and me that we needed to begin shifting our careers from acting and designing, to perfume,” says Tiel. “We needed to secure our future income.” That slice of advice turned Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career into a billion-dollar perfume bottle brand and grew Vicky Tiel fashion couture into a fragrance line through which Coco’s protege would share her scents with women around the world. 

In her book, It’s All About the Dress: What I Learned in Forty Years about Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion, Vicky reflects on her success as an “it” girl of the 1960s and her four-decade career designing clothes for superstars. “When I was in my 30s, I thought about the enormous role luck had played in my life. In the beginning, I was lucky to go to Paris with Mia Fonssagrives, with her family’s connection to the world of high fashion. And when I was only 20, what luck to have met Elizabeth Taylor, who turned out to be a great mentor. And thanks to Burton’s, I was lucky to be introduced to Coco Chanel, my idol, and imagine that she was passing the torch to me. In my 40s, I was wise enough to realize that luck had definitely played a role, but so did my own chutzpah.” 

She would ultimately settle down with her second husband just one hour north of the Gulf of Mexico on a 44-acre farm in Baker, Florida, while Vicky’s “chutzpah” would continue to flourish from her shop in Paris and in department stores in New York City. Now, decades later, as the designer crescendos into the finale of her creative career, she looks ahead to support the next generation of creative women. “One of the inevitable results of surviving is that you are surrounded most of the time by people quite a bit younger than you are. Keep an open mind and heart, and you’ll find that youth is contagious,” she advises. 

Today, the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico glisten as her driver drops Vicky off at the Seaside Post Office for lunch with Nicole Paloma, an up-and-coming fashion designer who is making her indelible mark in the American streetwear and couture scenes. She steps into Paloma’s new retail store in Seaside, the world’s first new urbanist town blazed by Daryl Davis, the innovative entrepreneur who co-created the gulf-front hamlet where the two generations of fashion designers now come together in the kinship of their shared language—fabric. In the moments that pass, Vicky silently passes Coco’s torch to Nicole. A torch that is not so much about the threads of talent that these three women have woven with their creative eyes and industrious hands, but more about those women they clothe everyday—who are seen in the dark, emanating its light. 

On her drive back to Baker, Vicky celebrates her life coming full-circle. “Always ask for what you need,” she says. “Every morning, I come out the front door where the sun rises on my farm in Baker, and I do a yoga position. I ask God for what I need and count my blessings. At the end of the day, I go to the back porch of the pool and I thank God for the beautiful day.”