A Singular Sensation

New York Fashion Week formally begins on Thursday, and so does yet another month long fashion cycle. There will invariably be too many shows (many of which should not be staged in the first place), and too many designers (a good many of whom will inevitably fade into oblivion). When you get right down to it; the number of designers who really make a difference, represent something, have a singular vision, and leave their indelible mark on fashion are few and far between. Assuredly, the late Sonia Rykiel was one of them.

The legendary, rule breaking designer who passed away at the age of 85 following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, was laid to rest in Paris last Thursday.  Among those luminaries who came to pay their respects: Alber Elbaz, Peter Copping, Sidney Toledano, Didier Grumbach, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Anouk Aimee, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Sonia Rykiel poor boy sweater on the cover of French  Elle in the 60’s

Undoubtedly, there are many designers who would love to lay claim to a long, prolific highly influential career such as Sonia’s, and like her, would love to be identified by just one item. Say the name Sonia Rykiel and you immediately think of a sweater, specifically a striped or colorful long sleeved, skinny rib knit poor boy sweater like the one that initially put the “Queen of Knitwear” on the map. Best of all those sweaters will never look dated; they look as modern today as they did decades ago.

Sonia was so known for her red hair and for her  sweaters,
a model resembling her, came out on the runway

In fact, she had such a singular look (her flame red hair and swatch of black clothing) and was so identified with her sweaters , that in October 2008, a model walked down the runway wearing a flame red wig, a black sweater, wielding a pair of oversized knitting needles.

American born French fashion designer Vicky Tiel guest lectures at FIT and teaches a class (The University of Fashion, www.universityoffashion.com) on how to start a fashion business. She always emphasizes to her students the importance of “standing for something” and she never gets tired of pointing out that in order for a designer to be “really good and really be memorable, they have to create something that is theirs alone”. As she puts it, “When you say their name and close your eyes, their design, or designs (in several cases) should pop up immediately” otherwise they are just “journeymen” (such as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, etc.).

With the upcoming spring summer 2017 runway shows on the horizon, I got to thinking about how few designers (past or present) meet Vicky’s criteria. Or are likely to do so. Among those who did make the cut (as you can see it’s a short and rarified list):

Yves Saint Laurent lace up safari tunic worn by  Veruschka photographed
by Franco Rubartelli French Vogue

Yves Saint Laurent: the saharienne (safari), le smoking, the Mondrian, the Russian look.
Coco Chanel: the boxy cardigan jacket, the quilted bag, tweeds, the boater hat, the cap toe pump, pearls, the striped boat neck mariniere, jersey.
Christian Dior: the ankle length full skirt with fitted flared jacket.
Andre Courreges: the orange mini with center seam white trim; the cropped vinyl jacket with white snaps and the unmistakable AC logo.
Paco Rabanne: the paillette mini; chainmail.
Rudi Gernreich: the topless swimsuit; the nude bra.
Azzedine Alaia: the bandage dress; the flared knit dress.
Thom Browne: the shrunken pantsuit
Ralph Lauren: the polo shirt.
Donna Karan: the bodysuit; 7 easy pieces.
Bonnie Cashin: the Noh coat; metal turn lock closures.
Norell: the sequined sheath.
Norma Kamali: the sleeping bag coat.
Miuccia Prada: luxury nylon (the backpack, outerwear).
Thea Porter: patchwork caftans.
Fortuny: pleats.
Mary McFadden: the short pleated 2 piece.
Issey Miyake: his experimental, technology driven pleated designs for Pleats Please.

Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons Fall 2016 RTW
Photo: Vogue.com

Then there’s the one and only Rei Kawakubo, a visionary who is in a class of her own. Her singular avant garde designs are at once startlingly strange, beautiful, often 3 dimensional, art inspired and hers alone. This explains why she will be the sole focus of the Met’s upcoming Costume Institute exhibition. It also marks the first time in over 30 years, that a living designer will be so honored (Yves Saint Laurent had the honor back in 1983).

Vicky Tiel designed red dress worn by Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman

I should point out that Ms. Tiel, who has the distinction of being the longest lasting female fashion designer in France (52 years), also makes the list. She is known for the “Pretty Woman red dress”, she created the one piece zip front jumpsuit later worn by Ursula Andress in Woody Allen’s “What’s New Pussycat?” and she designed the bias cut wrap four years before Diane von Furstenberg made it famous. Along with best friend and partner Mia Fonssagrives, she put miniskirts on the map.

Vicky Tiel and Mia Fonssagrives in Life Magazine 1965
wearing their hand made Floppy Hats

The talented duo was discovered by Louis Feraud in Paris and their careers were kick started when their Mia-Vicky mini dress was included in his couture show in Paris in 1964. It prompted Eugenia Sheppard, the famed International Herald Tribune writer to headline her review with this startling caption: “Anyone in Fashion Over 25 Might as Well Be Dead.” Life Magazine subsequently wrote a five page profile of the young talents, “Two American Girls Show in Paris” and they became instant stars. Johnny Carson even invited them to appear on his show with their ‘daring’ creations.

Vicky Tiel and Mia Fonssagrives on The Tonight Show
with Johnny Carson in 1964

FYI, while there may be some question or confusion about who first invented the mini (some think it was actually Mary Quant or John Bates for Jean Veron in London), Vicky (who has periodically written a blog on fashion and style for The Huffington Post) tackled that question in her 2012 article,”The Mini Wars” (See article).

And two years ago, she penned an article about a poignant encounter with Sonia Rykiel (they were “fellow St. Germain girls”), Emmanuelle Khanh, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Berge, with the provocative title, “If You Love YSL And Paris Fashion You Must Read This Juicy Story” (See article) She may have been in attendance at Sonia’s funeral had she not been in New York preparing for her first New York fashion showroom located in the iconic garment center on 38th Street off 7th Avenue.

She is doing a pret-a-porter line, called “Vicky Tiel”, with Kashion, a Chinese company that up until now, had only manufactured for French companies. She is their first brand. Their design offices are in Paris, located near her home (she also has residences in upstate New York and Florida). She has not sold her name but has licensed it to do a collection of “Paris style sportswear and dresses for mass stores” (nothing will retail over $300); somewhat akin to her perfume which is everywhere.

It was Coco Chanel who inspired her to create fragrances along with her designs (they, along with her fashion, have become great sellers that have enabled her to enjoy a wonderful life). In fact, she once said, “I think of myself as a beauty expert. Fashion doesn’t come first, you know. The whole point of my clothes is to make a woman’s body look beautiful.” She has created 15 fragrances in 25 years and they can all be described as “feminine and seductive” just like her clothing. Her first was called “Vicky Tiel” and launched in 1989 and her latest, “1964” launched in 2014 and celebrates Vicky’s 50 years in fashion. “Bonaparte 21” is the oriental floral created in 2013 named after the address of the dress boutique in Paris Vicky co owned with Elizabeth Taylor who was a close friend. Vicky still owns the real estate but it is no longer a retail shop.

Her couture evening dresses and gowns are available at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. Vintage websites like 1stdibs feature her signature form fitting designs and she has a collection which is available on HSN. She is so identified with her dresses that she named her memoir, “It’s All About The Dress: What I learned in Forty Years About Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion” which was published in 2011 by Saint Martin’s Press. Given the fickle industry we are in, the fashion world’s well documented short attention span, and the never ending revolving door of designers, this makes Vicky’s staying power and longevity nothing short of miraculous.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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