Standing in the tiny workshop in the rear of her boutique on Paris' fashionable Rue Bonaparte, Vicky Tiel shimmies into a slinky, body-hugging silver lamé gown with her trademark folds. She studies the mirror, then tugs at a piece of fabric that crosses from her bust line to her shoulder. "This has to move," she tells her seamstress firmly. "If you don't see this," she adds, poking at her ample cleavage, "then it just isn't sexy enough."

Sexy. The word is Tiel's fashion mantra. The unofficial Queen of the Strapless Dress, Tiel has created a collection of 160 designs that constitutes a paean to the female form. Tiel's philosophy is simple: What you have, flaunt; what you don't have, she'll give you; what you have that you shouldn't have, she'll hide with a piece of strategic stitching. Declares Tiel: "The whole point of my business is making the body look good."

Tiel, 41, has parlayed her dressed-to-spill line (gowns range from $1,000 to $4,000) into a $4 million-a-year business, securing a place in the highly competitive French fashion world. On her way up, she has caught the eye of such notables as Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Raquel Welch, Diana Ross, Goldie Hawn, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins. "They all like the way the dresses are constructed with eight bones [support inserts] that hold the boobs perfectly in place," she allows.

Her most sizzling seller to date is a draped jersey number called, appropriately, Torrid, which she designed in 1984. Fawcett's appearance in a polkadot version that year triggered a sales spurt that has yet to subside. Anjelica Huston has one in a leopard print. Princess Stephanie has one in black, Maria Shriver in hot pink. Last March, Catherine Oxenberg and Emma Samms were aghast when each turned up in a different shade of Torrid at the People's Choice Awards. "You'd think it was the only dress I made," sighs Tiel.

Her creations have inspired great loyalty. "They make you look sexy without feeling tarty," says Oxenberg. When Paris couturiers showed lower hemlines in 1983, Ivana Trump, wife of New York real estate whiz Donald, snubbed the new length and called Tiel to order shorter ones. "She told me, 'Donald didn't marry me to cover up my legs,' " recalls Tiel. Sums up Joyce Kessel of I. Magnin in Beverly Hills: "There just aren't many clothes you can put on that make you feel like Aphrodite."

Tiel normally doesn't have to wait for her goddesses to come to her. She averages eight trips a year to the U.S., where she holds coast-to-coast trunk shows for major customers, and her clothes are sold in 200 tony stores worldwide. She also keeps her clients' measurements in a computer so that handmade creations (she employs 41 couture-trained seamstresses) can be ordered by telephone.

Tiel is no stranger to such classy shopping methods. She grew up "spoiled and privileged" in affluent Chevy Chase, Md., where her father was a building contractor and her mother an artist. She began designing her own clothes at 14 and two years later moved to New York, found a Greenwich Village apartment and enrolled at Parsons School of Design. Known as a fashion maverick, she took to wearing her skirts six inches above her knees four years before the invention of the miniskirt.

After graduation in 1964, Tiel and school chum Mia Fonssagrives headed for Paris. Designer Louis Feraud asked the young women to contribute to his 1964 collection. One of their designs was a purple-leather mini T-shirt dress and a wide snakeskin, hip-hugging belt worn over orange lace stockings. That creation brought notoriety, and before long the two were thinking up clothes for films such as What's New Pussycat?, Thunderball, Casino Royale and Candy.

It was during the years 1965-69 that Tiel first rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty. "My favorite moment was measuring Marlon Brando when he was young and beautiful," she recalls. It was Elizabeth Taylor who, in 1969, became an investing partner and helped Tiel launch her shop, which became a hangout for pals such as Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, Donald Sutherland and Ringo Starr, who, Vicky confides, "came to meet girls."

Give a lot credit to Ursula Andress, however, for influencing Tiel. "She really knows about her body," says Tiel. It was Andress who taught Tiel where to put the seams that enhanced the bust and diminished the waist and hips. The Swiss sexpot also forced Tiel to measure herself daily because "weighing yourself is not enough." Tiel, who begins fasting the moment her tape measure shifts, keeps in shape on an Exercycle in the boudoir of her eight-room Left Bank apartment. (Separated from makeup artist Ron Berkeley, her husband of 15 years, Tiel lives with sons Rex, 11, and Richard, 8.) Ever the glamour broker, she works out in satin pajamas and matching mules with maribou trim.

Come fall, Tiel's collection takes an uncharacteristic plunge: Her newest design, Undercurrent, dips not in the front but in the back, ending five inches below the waist. "I call it sex after the strapless," says Tiel. "A woman's back can be gorgeous." In the end, Tiel's ultimate appeal may lie not in turning an artful fold but in turning a man's head. "Women want to seduce men more than ever because there are so few of them," proclaims Tiel. "In my clothes, you will score your man."

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Andriotakis.