Designer Combines Sex Appeal With Her Business Savvy

Times Staff Writer

"I wear see-through blouses to see bankers when I want loans. I have special outfits--things that show cleavage--to distract the people at customs when I don't want them going through my luggage."

Early mornings, when Paris is still sleeping, designer Vicky Tiel is going over her curves with a measuring tape. She likes to make sure that she hasn't expanded by even a centimeter. If she has, she focuses her exercises on that particular area and abstains from bread, alcohol--all carbohydrates. Then she heads off to swim laps in an Olympic-size pool en route to her atelier in St.-Germain-des-Pres.

This petite designer, who uses herself as a fitting model and travels the world functioning as her own best promotional tool, is an oddity in the world of Paris fashion.

Combination Works

She is a woman toiling in a field dominated by men. And she is an American. But Tiel has made the combination work for her, learning sex appeal from the French and business savvy from the Americans.

"I'm tough like an American business person," she says firmly. "I have more demand than supply, and my dresses rarely go on sale. American designers have enormous overhead, enormous staffs, dozens of assistants and enormous waste. I have 30 employees. One of my dresses that sells for $1,500 is of better quality than the $3,000 dress made in America."

Tiel also understands that if her body isn't exactly her temple, then it is one of her most important business assets. Like the women she designs for, she prides herself on her figure.

"My whole business is about having a certain kind of body," she says.

Turning Heads

In town for an appearance at Charles Gallay in Beverly Hills, where she is one of the store's best-selling designers, Tiel enters the Polo Lounge like a '40s movie star. At breakfast, she is swathed in a leopard-skin coat and zipped into one of her new tailored jump suits that reveals just enough cleavage to keep the bankers at bay. She is already turning heads.

"American fashion is Calvin Klein and boxy. French is sexy," she explains. "We always unbutton one too many buttons on our blouses. I wish I could get Americans to understand that."

Her dresses fit like a suntan.

"They show off your best assets," says actress Ann Turkel, who has been a customer for years. Many dresses are made with shaped bust lines reinforced with dozens of bones.

"I think they're sexy," another customer, Alana Stewart, says.

Tiel describes her clients as she might describe herself. They're women who like men.

"The 28% who don't want to cuddle," Tiel laughs, alluding to the Ann Landers sex survey.

"Half of the women I dress are actresses, people in the arts, gallery owners, journalists. I also dress really hot lawyers."

The other half, she says, are "wives--courtesans in the sense that they never intended to work. Women who don't bring home the bacon. A courtesan is brought up to give a great party. They are wonderful wives for successful men. In the old days they were paid off with jewels. Now they get to redecorate every five years. Unfortunately, the husbands of my women are extremely busy making deals. I think my clothing helps distract the husbands."

Tiel is aware that her comments often get her "in trouble with the feminists. But what I do is about aesthetics. It has nothing to do with being equal to men. As far as I'm concerned, I am a man. Every way they behave, I behave. The only difference between us is the sexual instruments. To look beautiful and desirable is positive. Men use every weapon they've got, so I use every weapon I've got."

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Born in Chevy Chase, Md., the daughter of an architect, she was a high school cheerleader ("Goldie Hawn and I were the queens of cheerleading," she injects) who moved to Paris upon her graduation from Parsons School of Design in 1964.

With her friend Mia Fonssagrives, the daughter of Lisa Fonssagrives and stepdaughter of photographer Irving Penn, she set out to become a designer. But when the two got to Paris, they decided not to work in a couture house. "We were picked up by a producer in a nightclub and became costume designers on films in Europe."

Opens Fashion House

Meanwhile, Tiel married American Ron Berkeley, who was makeup man for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1971, Tiel says Taylor put up $40,000 to back a boutique called Mia and Vicky. But Mia "left to marry a millionaire," Tiel says, and Tiel went on to open her own fashion house. Her customer list today runs the gamut of Hollywood stars, including Taylor and "best friends" Shirlee Fonda, Suzanne Pleshette and Hawn.

Tiel, who carries her customers' measurements around with her in a book, bemoans the fact that many of them have taken to jogging and weightlifting. She maintains that such forms of exercise make their skin tough and add inches rather than subtracting them. After having two children, Tiel worked her own body back into shape by swimming, and she is convinced that it is the only way.

"The desirability of women through history has been to have a soft body," she says, "not to be like a boy."

Indeed, Tiel prides herself on being the total woman and the total man. She is a tireless worker whose role models are designers Gres and Chanel.

Biggest Rebel

"Chanel was the biggest rebel and crazy lady of them all," she says.

"Ask anybody," Tiel says of herself, "I'm always glamorous. I haven't bought a pair of jeans since I was in high school. My only tennis shoes are pink satin. On Sundays at home, I wear satin nightgowns and kimonos and stay in bed. I never go to the supermarket. At my country house in Normandy, I either wear bathing suits or I'm naked.

"And I love, love, love to eat, but I never do the labor. I give orders to other people," Tiel says.

"I have to save myself for my work."

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