I met Elizabeth Taylor in October of 1964 at the Billancourt Film Studios in Paris. I had gone to Paris in May of the same year after graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York with my best friend and dress designing partner, Mia Fonssagrives, the daughter of Swedish model, Lisa Fonssagrives, and step-daughter of the Vogue photographer, Irving Penn. Mia and I had been credited with the first miniskirts in Paris, and in the early sixties, we were creating quite a stir with our four-inch above-the-knee leather skirts, snakeskin lame bras worn as tops, black lace and printed pantyhose, and bedroom slippers with marabou puffs as day-time shoes.
I was dating Woody Allen, the actor-writer of the first film I costume-designed for, What's New Pussycat?, and Mia was dating the couturier Louis Feraud; both men having been seduced by the newcomers, young fashion students from New York, simply with our less than less skimpy fashions. At that time, there were good girls and bad girls and our style was in the Pigalle mode, Very Bad Girls.
Elizabeth Taylor, having stolen Eddie Fisher and then dumped him in spectacular fashion for Richard Burton, was ironically always dressed like a very good girl. Her personal clothing when I first saw her off the set of The Sandpiper that fall in Paris was very Jackie-O -- a simple boxy sleeveless, knee-length sheath with tons of double top-stitching and personalized by a mega over-the-top diamond and emerald brooch over her left breast, and an Audrey Hepburnesque Pucci scarf tied around her chin, walking a puffy pooch on a pink leather and diamond leash.
I would change all that! One day in the hallways of the Pussycat set, Burton came by to chat with his pal Peter O' Toole, who formally introduced him to me. Richard loved the dress I was wearing, especially my black lace stockings, and ordered a mini-dress plus stockings for his bride of one year. "November 4th is our one year wedding anniversary," he said in that booming Shakespearean voice. "Elizabeth presumes I find her knees quite ugly, so I want a very mini mini-dress to show off her magnificent ugly knees." I was seduced!
I designed my ideal mini for her, a cream silk crepe dress with raglan bell sleeves edged in four rows of quarter-inch pearls on the sleeves and the hem, and matching crème lace panty hose. We had the couture sewers at Feraud produce the dress and I hand beaded the seed pearls on the stockings myself.
Elizabeth loved the dress, and wore it with long diamond and pearl earring drops and gold Chanel pumps. A photo of her and her ugly knees made the French press, the Tribune announced "fabulous Elizabeth Taylor wears the mini," and our mutual adoration began.
Mia and I made Elizabeth's clothes for years and I made her clothes after Mia left to become a sculptress. The last dress I made for Elizabeth was in white lace over a corset top with a draped jersey skirt during her marriage to Larry Fortensky, the same dress Martha Stewart wore on her first book Entertaining, but in black. A sexy power dress if ever there was one.
Elizabeth loved to design and would even grab the pen from my hand and yell, "No, like this, Vicky." She signed a drawing that appeared in the French papers of a wedding gown since she had a lot of experience in that area, and together we created "Elizabeth's caftan," a garment she would wear for the rest of her days. It was perfect for hotel life. The design was one width of jersey folded over to the floor with a slit for the head. She loved it in see-through chiffon over a white cat suit, and designed this for a bride, the chiffon covered in silk roses.
When I opened a shop on Rue Bonaparte with Mia, Elizabeth was our partner. I found caftans on trips to the Middle East and Elizabeth found Nelly's in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to create our caftans in candy colored cotton voiles with big white flowers embroidered on the sleeves. Nelly Woolf's husband was the mayor of this quaint village and we had all the sewers we wanted.
The caftan became a beach dress and later it had its formal moment when Elizabeth talked herself into a small part in Richard's film Doctor Faustus, shot in London, where she portrayed Helen of Troy in a long see through chiffon caftan sprinkled with gold beads and feathers in important places. She convinced my husband, Ron Berkeley, her make-up man, to cover her face with gold crystals. She was shot and immortalized by Norman Parkinson in Vogue and no other mention of that obscure film has ever come to light.
In the sixties, I made a combination of the mini and the caftan for her; the gown's hem was just below the panty-line and covered in powder pink plumes of 10" ostrich feathers. Elizabeth wore it at a UNICEF gala awards in Paris at the Trocadero theatre with Burton onstage. A very short Rudolf Nureyev kept being poked in the eye and the nose with the feathers as he tried to dance with Elizabeth. The gossip papers had funny photos of her with the ballet dancer holding him away at arm's length with a funny grin. This was the shortest dress of her life.
The things we had the most fun designing were the swimsuits for our first collection, and we got a contract with Rose Marie Reid to produce our black bikinis with cut out derrieres and the first string bikinis with totally bare bottoms. To guarantee a hit with the press, Elizabeth personally called Harry Winston, who brought over one million dollars' worth of diamond brooches that we could put in hot spots on the swimwear, especially above the buttocks and covering the crotch.
Elizabeth taught me not to follow "fashion," but to create dresses to please men no matter how powerful you are. As a woman, pleasing men in every way is part of the sex act. Being your beautiful best, dressing with excitement and personal style even when going to the supermarket -- which she didn't and couldn't do -- and "expressing yourself," was the lesson Elizabeth Taylor taught the world of fashion years before Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Her personal touch and her total involvement in everything she did were exceptional for such a large star. She was so giving: she introduced me to Edith Head in Rome so Edith would sponsor me in the Costume Designers Union; and to Coco Chanel in Paris in the last year of Coco's life, arranging for us to spend a private evening with Chanel so that she could give me some advice on fashion and designing. We both came away from the meeting with Chanel wanting to create our own perfumes, and both did. That night Elizabeth did not tell Coco that she wasn't wearing the recently created Chanel #19, that she never wore the infamous Chanel #5 (it was Marilyn's signature scent), or that she wore her favorite perfume Bal à Versailles everyday and even tried to evoke that scent in her first perfume, White Diamonds.
Elizabeth's death has caused me tremendous sorrow, sorrow reflected all over the world, for her family and close friends who adored her and her pets who loved her lap. I will always be blessed that I knew her and loved her, and hope she is at last reunited with "her Richard" out there somewhere.
VICKY TIEL began designing clothes forty years ago in Paris and still owns a boutique there, as well as dedicated mini-boutiques in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. In fall 2010 she launched a line of cocktail dresses and special occasion wear sold through department stores nationwide. Her memoir, IT'S ALL ABOUT THE DRESS: What I Learned in 40 Years about Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion will be published by St. Martin's Press in August 2011.