Fashionable Life: Designer to the Stars Vicky Tiel Shares Life & Style Advice

by Erica Moody

Tiel dishes out words of wisdom in her new book, “The Absolute Woman.” 

Vicky Tiel with her first two books, including her latest “The Absolute Woman”

“If you want to go out and find a man, I recommend you wear a red dress,” fashion designer turned author Vicky Tiel told me over lunch at Cafe Milano. The Chevy Chase native was in town to promote her second book “The Absolute Woman: It’s All About Feminine Power,” a new work of nonfiction that’s part-memoir/part self-help guide to living your best life, filled with dating advice, healthy eating suggestions and style tips.

Tiel knows all about the power of a red dress. She designed the iconic red off-the-shoulder gown worn by Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” Her version of the dress has sold for more than 30 years at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, a longevity that’s almost unheard of in the ever-changing world of fashion.

The designer, now 75, seems to have been born with a work ethic and business savvy that’s continued throughout her life. At age 12, fueled by a desire to make her own money, Tiel sold her first piece for $25, a caftan to a wealthy classmate. With that money, she bought her own phone line so she could continue her business without the impediment of parents. After attending Parsons School of Design, she moved to Paris with business partner Mia Fonssagrives. Their designs were as bold as a red dress on a first date, and it wasn’t long before they were invited on the Johnny Carson Show to reveal their game-changing miniskirts. She became a costume designer and it was on the set of “What’s New, Pussycat?” (her first credited film) that she designed the first-ever zip-up jumpsuit. In 2012, she joined the Home Shopping Network to produce a line of affordable dresses which soon led to sportswear, handbags and fragrances.

Jill Biden, Oprah Winfrey and Catherine Zeta Jones in Vicky Tiel

Tiel attributes much of her success to her resolve not to “dance with crazies.”

“When you don’t dance with crazies, you get a reward. When someone is mean to you, this is what you do: roll your eyes, look away, smile and do nothing,” she said. “If you don’t dance, if you walk away, that stops everything. We should teach that to everyone, including politicians.”

Tiel’s wisdom comes from more than five decades of dressing some of the world’s most powerful women. Martha Stewart taught her to always be a lady, to never give up and to compliment people who do a good job. Princess Grace taught her to dress in timeless fashion and in clothes that flatter you (“Never wear ugly, ill-fitting clothes, like baggy t-shirts and big, sloppy shorts even if it’s on the cover of Vogue”). Oprah Winfrey taught her the importance of generosity. And Elizabeth Taylor taught her that “being powerful is the opposite of being prejudiced.”

It’s also important to have mentors, Tiel said. Elizabeth Taylor, her lifelong friend and Paris housemate (Tiel’s first husband was Taylor’s makeup artist) advised her to start a perfume line. Now, Tiel’s fragrances sold on HSN are a significant source of income.

Elizabeth Taylor and Vicky Tiel

And it was Taylor who prompted Tiel to give up alcohol 25 years ago. After drinking together for more than two decades, it was time to make a lifestyle change. When Taylor went off to the Betty Ford Clinic, Tiel checked in to an ashram and hasn’t had a drink since.

“For breakfast every day, Elizabeth and I had a special mimosa – one third Dom Perignon Champagne, one third Russian vodka and one third freshly squeezed orange juice in a crystal goblet over crushed ice,” she said.

“I attribute my long lasting career to the fact that so many other fashion designers drink,” Tiel said. “And it’s a very stressful job.”

When she gave up alcohol, she changed her diet along with it. Tiel eats “French style,” she explained, with no pre-packaged food, no artificial sweeteners and no red meat, but leaves room for a small portion of dessert every day. A practical grocery list and typical day’s menu is included in the book.

Tiel has another suggestion for staying healthy and happy.

Vicky Tiel in a suit she designed on her wedding day to Mike Hamilton

“Marry a younger man,” she said. “My second husband is 15 years younger. If you can get a younger husband, I truly recommend it. Because we stay young! If your marriage breaks up, go younger.”

Tiel hopes that her advice will reach twenty and thirty-something women who are struggling on the dating scene.

What’s the biggest mistake women make when they’re looking for love? I asked.

“Chasing after a man that doesn’t love them,” she quickly responded.

Her book emphasizes the importance of women making their own money, something Tiel can proudly say she has done all her life.

“In my years of measuring women and talking to them in the dressing rooms, women would break down and tell me about their lives,” Tiel explained. “I was shocked at how many women married to powerful men were mistreated, and I came to the conclusion that they had to have their own thing. They had to have their own job, their own money, something to make them feel powerful instead of sitting in the house all day contemplating the jewelry they want.”

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