In 1978 Jean Rosenberg of Henri Bendel walked into my Paris shop at 21 Rue Bonaparte and promised to create a floor of European dress designers on the 2nd floor of Henri Bendel’s. I was invited to join. I said yes.
My dream as a Parson’s student had been to copy Coco Chanel, how she worked selling dresses, and how she had custom-fitted all her clients (of course, they had to pay her $1000 first!)
I flew to America, began designing for Bendel’s, and stopped designing for movies. In 1982 Dawn Mello walked into our Bendel’s shop, a space I shared with Jean Muir. Dawn offered me my own boutique (more than a wall) on the 2nd floor of Bergdorf Goodman. I was given a “store” by a French salesman, Serge de Vatedski, and off I moved across the street.
My shop opened with a cocktail party by Martha Stewart (her first in Manhattan). Mr. Goodman and his blond wife came to the cocktail opening, and she wore my dress.
Bergdorf was considered an old lady’s store (except for Halston hats), but Dawn, with the backing of the “boss,” Bert Tansky, was determined to make it the most fabulous store on Planet Earth.
I soon moved to the 4th floor, which they called the Designer floor. Every top designer in Europe eventually had a “store” stocked with clothes, and I was given a big room called the Couture department where women could walk in and get gowns made of their fabric choice and with their ideas.
I would fly to America from Paris each month, meet the top fashion ladies, sketch their dream dresses, measure them, and they would choose their dress fabrics from my vintage embroidered suitcase of French fabrics.
Each dress was unique for them. It was a huge hit. I had my own dressing room, and my sales went from $20,000 a month in 1982 to $330,000 a month in 2008 (before the 2008 recession).
The dresses all started at $500, and after 30 years, I eventually sold a dress for $28,000 to a woman in Washington who owned pharmacies. In 2010 after the recession, my sales dropped to $80,000 a month, and I decided to go to HSN and sell thousands of $100 dresses. Bye-Bye, BG, with a tear. Hello TV.
For 30 years, BG had created a home for the world’s wealthiest women to meet and greet in the tres chic top floor dining room, or they could shop with devoted personal shoppers and have food served in the poshest dressing room where Dom Perignon champagne was served in crystal glasses, and caviar could be enjoyed as major jewels and handbags were brought up to sell from the ground floor.
All that was missing was a bed. I was one of the only designers (not an assistant) who met these famous women in the “secret movie star dressing room” of personal shoppers. Unlike most designers, I ate in the employee cafeteria (often with Mr. Tansky), a secret I learned from Elizabeth Taylor — “always eat near the power.”
Dressing the naked crème de la crème of the world, you need to know how to give advice:
“My husband and his new wife will be at our daughter’s wedding. Ignore her or be lovely? And what shall I wear.”
“Do I need to lose weight? How?” I taught the 5-7 red, blue and purple fruits, and vegetables a day diet of Dr. George Wong plus French Carte Noir coffee, black and green tea.
“My boyfriend is 15 years younger; what should I wear to meet his friends?” My husband was 15 years younger, so I knew.
Our salesgirls had seen everything. Two very different beautiful women with the same man’s credit card came in. They were the wife and the mistress in the couture department at the same time — both got my dresses. We all celebrated.
The wildest moment was when a client who didn’t like her gown, attacked her much older, very elegant salesgirl knocking her to the floor trying to strangle her, and three of us had to pull her off. The police took her away.
The worst moment was when another female designer was having a show on the fourth floor and heard I was there too. She demanded that I be thrown out, or she would leave her show as I was hiding in the movie star dressing room measuring a top society lady who just had a fitting. I ran around the dressing room to a back staircase to exit.
The sweetest moment was when a customer told me she had saved all her life to buy a Vicky Tiel “Mother-of-the-Bride” gown.
I had begun my couture career in my Paris shop when one of my first customers was Brigitte Bardot, who never wore underwear, something I learned well. Measuring her was a memorable moment, so I had my first crazy customer experience in 1969.
But my favorite story was when a simple middle-aged woman in very casual sportswear with no jewels, no hairdo, or any big makeup comes into couture, and no one will run to help her.
She had entered Bergdorf couture with two very badly dressed oversized men. Having made 16 movies, I recognized bodyguards. I ran up to the very simple woman and asked if I could help dress her. I then made a $10,000 dress for the wife of one of the world’s wealthiest men to wear to one of his new gambling casino openings. I think he was in the top 10 in money in the USA.
To sell directly in a posh store with no assistant, designers must have nerves of steel and live to help women. It’s not about them; it’s all about HER. I started selling at 12 years old, and I just sold two dresses last week at the age of 79 from my office on my farm.
Selling dresses for 67 years is a long time helping women, advising them not to drink soda pop and not to eat steak as it adds to the bottom of the hip (where the beef is injected in the US, but not in France).
If you are a dress designer reading this and you do what I did at BG, be sure your best friend is a therapist, and they teach you woman’s therapy. I was even once asked, “My son hasn’t spoken to me for six months, but I’m paying for his wedding. What color gown should I wear, Mrs. Tiel?” and I replied, “BABY PINK.”
After becoming the leading department store in the world (along with HARRODS in London and LE BON MARCHÉ in Paris), Bergdorf took the most incredible window dresser we ever had, Linda Fargo, and made her the brain of the store. Today, she created a magical palace to match the magical dressing room where it all started in the secret spot on the fourth floor.
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