An American (designer) in Paris

Fashion focus: Patrick Kelly, Peter Kea, Gregg Snyder and John Arthur Speight, April, 1992

There was a time when Americans never dared think of selling clothes to the French. After all, we were always considered to be lacking in taste, particularly in our dress. As times and attitudes have changed, fashion has become more international, less localized. The spectacular success of the late Patrick Kelly, for one, has lured others to test the waters this side of the Atlantic. Currently there are Americans working freelance, as assistants, and these four entrepreneurs who’ve dared to start their own businesses.

“I came here at such a young age, most people think I’m either French or English,” laughs Vicki Tiel, the pioneer of American designers in Paris. “They figure if I’ve made it in Paris, I couldn’t possibly be American.” Eccentricity, tenacity and a keen sense of how many women really want to dress have been the key elements in Tiel’s success. “By nature I’m too stubborn to stop.
“I make non-fashion couture dresses. Making fashion is counterproductive because those garments will always be dated, whereas my clothes are forever. Basically I concentrate on making clothes that flatter women.” The party dresses she sell to stars like Kim Basinger and numerous others are a far cry from what she did upon her arrival 27 years ago.

“By the time I finished school I was designing miniskirts and braless tops. I wore fishnet stockings and see-thru tops. I studied costume design in New York. My teachers hated me.” Tiel arrived in Paris at an exhilarating time, when French ready-to-wear was in its infancy stages and lots of exciting changes were occurring. “When I got here, I created this look. My partner and I designed and sewed our own clothes, then paraded around everywhere in them, including nightclubs. We were always photographed, which was wonderful publicity.” An introduction to Louis Feraud resulted in an invitation to show off their kicky short styles at the same time as his show. “Our fashions ended up on the pages of Life magazine that fall.

“We made our [real] start by opening a shop with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1968 we opened our shop but were primarily making costumes for Euro-films. Through working with actresses, I was more conscious about making figure-flattering clothes and garments that camouflage the flaws and play up the good points. It wasn’t until 1971 that I began making clothes to be sold in stores. About three or four years ago I decided to expand into perfume.” Tiel’s fragrance was launched last year in the States and last month at Printemps in Paris.

“I don’t want to be negative but I really don’t like to encourage other Americans to try and make it here. It’s so discouraging. You can’t get a job, there’s so much red tape involved [in starting a business]. It took me ten years to find a way to own my own company. I’ve stopped telling people to come over because what worked for me isn’t for everyone.”

“I’m Peter before I’m anything,” emphatically states Boston-born Peter Kea. “It helps that I’m American but it’s really not something I exploit.” Kea has had an easier time than most others in carving a niche for himself here. He was practically an overnight success. However that instant success cost him dearly.

Scarcely had he arrived in 1985 than Kea, who had already launched a menswear line in New York, was asked to be part of the American cartel of designers showing at the French menswear fair. His oversized shirts, a patchwork of varying prints and colors costing anywhere from from 1800F in his own boutique to $600 at Bergdorf’s, were hot items, attracting an impressive number of buyers as well as press. Formed with a small group of friends, Kea’s company experienced a startling success within a short period of time. However, this tiny company, unequipped to handle the flood of orders that poured in, choked on its own laurels and ultimately cost Peter his name.

“When I first arrived in Paris, I naively signed over the rights to my name in exchange for someone financing me,” says Peter soberly. “Things worked out at first, but the orders grew much too big for a small structure. Manufacturing became more important than creating and everything fell apart.” In 1988, Peter left France for Italy, designing under a new label. His former backer continued putting out collections created by someone else under the Peter Kea label, which led to a costly court battle lasting three years. Kea won his case, is once again owner of his name and is based in Paris once again.

“I’ve grown up a lot,” admits Peter. “We have a more sound structure now, complete with a banker, lawyer and an experienced business consultant.” Kea has also returned with more affordable clothing that still has soul. The mixing of prints (his trademark) is omnipresent, but executed more simply, particularly with the launch of his mass market line, “Metissage” where shirts run about 300-400F.

“I look at how young and not so young people are dressing these days. I look at how they mix handmade clothes, how they put together what they have. I’m also influenced by art, which is where some of my patchwork comes from. I’m doing things that are more personal. In fact, the pieces that sell best are those looking more homemade and less pretentious.”

“After you’ve been here for a while, you really don’t think of yourself as being American,” admits Gregg Snyder, who moved here in 1984. “I think of myself more as an international designer.” In his own way, Snyder, who hopes to open a boutique in the near future, is following in the footsteps of Vicky Tiel.
After growing up in Portland, Oregon, and taking basic clothing courses in New York, Snyder came to Paris to study couture. “I learned the kind of draping techniques you can only learn in Paris. What interested me about couture was the notion that nothing is either impossible or too expensive to make. If it’s beautiful, it’s art.” Especially when breaking into the French industry, Snyder admits, “I think the worst thing to be is American, out of all the nationalities. It’s really hard. In the beginning when I was working at Givenchy, everyone was afraid I’d design turquoise synthetic ballgowns. But once they saw what I could do, they thought it wasn’t so bad.” Snyder sneaked onto the fashion scene by staging tiny shows in his apartment, at first for friends of friends, then to the press at large. Escalating prices for mounting collections and fashion, along with the morose climate hovering over retailing has forced Snyder to change his business strategies in favor of building a private clientele. Does his Yankee background ever show through? “I feel I was lucky to have grown up under the influence of the American media, Cher, and I Love Lucy.’ French people who study couture rarely do their own thing. There’s always too many obstacles, whereas, at least in my family, I was brought up with the belief that you can do or be anything you want. And that’s typically American.”

“I work all the time because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” says John Arthur Speight, a self-proclaimed workaholic who does odd jobs on the side to help finance his business. At 6’4″ tall, clad in sneakers, black denims and a crewneck sweater, Speight looks more like a basketball player than a fashion designer. Nevertheless he’s the latest arrival on the scene. “I came to Paris on vacation and ran out of money. I slung burgers at Cactus Charly’s before returning home. I married a French girl in New York, then moved back to Paris. I really wasn’t planning on starting my own business. I worked at Castelbajac and Yorke & Cole for a total of three years before deciding to do my own thing.” With only two seasons under his belt, it’s too early to predict how Speight will fare in these lean, mean ’90s. But in his first collection Speight’s clothes have already made a splash, attracting press and major stores in the States and Italy. “In France, you really can’t just sit back and hope for a lucky break. I think those days are over. You have to make your own breaks.”

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