Lunch with Vicky Tiel & Jean Shafiroff

Vicki Tiel, Diane Clehane & Jean Shafiroff

Oh, Michael’s, how I have missed you. It’s been over a month since I’ve been at 55th and Fifth for my regular Wednesday lunch because I’ve been sequestered in my office working on a top secret new project. (I can’t wait to tell you about it!) It felt like a homecoming walking into the dining room this week as I made the rounds catching up with the regulars and hearing the latest buzz from some of my favorite movers and shakers. That’s what I love about this place. It’s like a private club without the pesky dues. (A weekly serving of the Dover sole doesn’t cost nearly as much as a membership to the much less interesting Core Club.)

I was joined today by Vicky Tiel, the fashion industry legend whose life needs to be made into movie right this minute. The American born designer launched the mini skirt in Paris in the swinging sixties (I bet you thought it was Mary Quant did that – Nope!) when she opened a boutique on Rue Bonaparte with her Parsons classmate Mia Fonssagrives (whose parents happened to be model Lisa Fonssagrives and Irving Penn). In December 1964, Johnny Carson invited Vicky and Mia in their mini dresses on the “Tonight Show”.

Vicky then met Coco Chanel who became her mentor. (More on that later). Oh, and Vicky was great friends and business partners with Elizabeth Taylor. Vicky married Elizabeth’s make-up artist, her first husband, Ron Berkeley. She’s been married three times and is now happily the wife of Mike Hamilton, a fishing boat captain.  See I told you. It’s a role Cate Blanchett was born for!

Vicky invited me to lunch to talk about her fabulous new book, The Absolute Woman. I was up late into the night finishing it the day it arrived. Told in a very unique ‘girlfriend’ tone, the book is one-half memoir and the other a guidebook on female empowerment (with some great health and fitness advice thrown in for good measure). There’s also charming sketches of Vicky’s clients including Jean Seberg, Christie Brinkley, Oprah, Goldie Hawn, Halle Berry and Sarah Jessica Parker among many other luminary ladies of today and yesterday that introduce each chapter. “I wrote the book to tell women there’s a life part-two job,” Vicky told me as we settled in for our chat. “Life starts over again at fifty.”

We were joined by Vicky’s new client, philanthropist and author (Successful Philanthropy) Jean Shafiroff, who is also one fascinating woman. Jean is a tireless champion of many different causes and organizations (the night before she’d just hosted a party for the Red Cross in her Manhattan apartment) and is a fixture on Manhattan’s benefit scene.

There are literally thousands of stunning images of her on Getty and Patrick McMullan. (The woman can’t take a bad picture.) Vicky and Jean met not long ago (but neither can remember how) and now, after decades in the couture business, Vicky has decided to design exclusively for Jean. Not a bad decision considering there isn’t a woman in New York City who is photographed in couture gowns more often than Jean.

Today, Jean was wearing an exquisitely tailored red dress by Alexander McQueen that I have seen on Kate Middleton. Instead of a fascinator and clutch, Jean accessorized hers with a matching crimson colored Hermes Birkin bag – and an orthopedic boot that she is wearing while she recovers from a recent mishap at her home in Southampton. (The night of her Red Cross party, she wore a gown over the boot so as not to draw attention to it. “I didn’t want to talk about it all night!” she said.)

“If you want to attract a man, wear a red dress!” proclaimed Vicky who was wearing a red wrap dress of her own design when Jean arrived. There’s a chapter in Vicky’s book that goes into this in more delicious detail.

Once we ordered lunch (Dover sole for Vicky and me; kale salad with grilled shrimp for Jean), we got down to business. I was first and foremost intrigued by Vicky’s close friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. “She was my business partner,” Vicky told me. “She didn’t want money, she wanted dresses for life – and that extended to her daughters.” Those caftans (“They showed off her bust”) and many of the Oscar winner’s most memorable looks were Vicky’s designs. Elizabeth returned the favor by teaching Vicky all about “feminine power.” Makes sense, doesn’t it? “The number one thing I learned from Elizabeth was marry the man who loves you the most,” says Tiel. “Don’t chase after men.”

And speaking of unforgettable dresses, Vicky designed one particular dress that has had an incredible life of its own. Remember the spectacular red gown Julia Roberts wears in “Pretty Woman” in that scene where she is getting ready to the opera with Richard Gere’s character and he snaps the jewelry box on her gloved hand when she reaches in for the diamond and ruby necklace? That’s Vicky’s dress. It turns out the costume designer of the movie bought one and had it remade to Julia’s exact measurements and voila – an iconic fashion moment was born.

Fred Heyman put the red dress in the window of his Beverly Hills boutique and pretty soon every A-list actress is town was wearing it. (That was back in the day when it wasn’t scandalous to wear the same thing someone else had been seen in.) “The Pretty Woman” dress sold exclusively in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus for thirty-two years (which is a record for the company).

I was surprised to learn that having been both a couturier and an HSN brand (and still is – her signature fragrances are best sellers) that except for her couture creations for Jean, she’s not interested in designing anymore. “It’s over!” she said. And, it seems that isn’t the only thing that Vicky is done with. “The [fashion] magazines are over! Conde Nast is over! Life is about what’s next.”

The conversation took a bit of a U-turn (Sorry, but some of the best parts are OTR) when Jean mentioned she might be going to London next week to attend a party for Prince Harry honoring his work with wounded service personnel. Most of you already know when I’m not at Michael’s it’s all royals reporting, all the time with me so, my ears perked up. We all exchanged our theories on the latest news about a possible Meghan-Kate feud. Not surprisingly, Vicky had an intriguing royal connection herself.

“Elizabeth was friends with the royal family – [Queen] Elizabeth and [Princess] Margaret. They would come to Elizabeth’s suite at The Dorchester,” said Vicky. “Elizabeth hated snobs,” says Tiel. “She thought everyone was someone you can talk to. At dinners in her suite, she’d seat her driver next to Princess Grace and they would dance. Everyone would dance with everyone. This was in the sixties and she taught us to see everyone as equal. She believed in civil rights.”

Then, like her book, Vicky veered off into another topic entirely talking to me about how important it is for women to feel empowered and strong and also regaled me with tales about her Chinese doctor who has cured people of serious ailments using herbs. “I never get sick!” she told me. All of this in her book as well as chapters entitled “Happiness is a Choice,” “The Ten Points of Feminine Power” and “The Power of Philosophy” – Vicky is a believer in “doing nothing” when something bad befalls you. She’s a firm believer in not getting down and dirty trying to get even. “It’s a form of Buddhism,” she explained. Her motto: “I don’t dance with crazies.”

I got the feeling I could have sat there and talked all day to Vicky and still not heard enough about her extraordinary life. She told me she pored “everything I’ve learned in my fifty-three years in fashion and beauty” into her new book and after reading it, I can’t imagine she left anything out. She is currently at work on her third book – a timely tome for men because “men need help too.”

As we finished up our cappuccinos, when I thanked her for a lively lunch, Vicky said, “Thank Coco Chanel, she’s the one who told me I’d be better off doing perfume. Coco paid for our meal!”

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Discovery’s president and CEO David Zaslav with Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff and Kerry Kennedy on Table One … Mickey Ateyeh with fashion guru Hal Rubenstein who was trying out a fabulous new business idea on a few of the dining room’s savviest media mavens like Euan Rellie, who was lunching on Table Eight but stopped by to say hello and offer some sage words of advice… Paul and Ed McDonnell on Table Three.

What were Tommy Hilfiger and former J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler talking about on Table Four? Inquiring minds want to know … Marketing man and political analyst Robert Zimmerman on Table Five … Dr. Gerald Imber and ‘The Imber Gang’ at their usual perch on Table Six … On the way out the door, I stopped by to chat with The New York Post’s media man Keith Kelly and Tom Allon. I complimented Keith on his story written with colleague Alexandra Steigrad about the rumors swirling about Anna Wintour’s future at Conde Nast now that Bob Sauerberg, its chief executive for the past eight years is exiting as it merges its US and overseas operations. With Sauerberg, who has always been the Vogue editrix’s staunch supporter out of the picture, rumblings about Wintour’s exit are growing louder. Seems the folks at Conde Nast didn’t love the story. Hmmmm.

Moving on … Joan Jakobson on Table Eleven … Amy Kliger who was kind enough to introduce me to author Deborah Burns whose new book, Saturday’s Child, is getting great buzz when I stopped by Table 14 for a quick chat … It was also good to catch up with Galerie’s Cindy Lewis and Mallory Andrews on Table 15 … We didn’t see Author Wednesday Martin, but we’re told she was on Table 20.

See you at Michael’s next week!

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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