A life on fashion's frontline
Fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar Diana Vreeland (L) in the documentary about her life and work The Eye Has to Travel.
Diana Vreeland, the American fashion editor who became one of the most culturally influential women of the 20th century, died in New York at the age of 86 in 1989, but more than two decades on, memories of her still loom large.
In the documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, many of those interviewed, whether former staff or successful designers such as Manolo Blahnik, refer deferentially to the fashion maven as Mrs Vreeland. Even the film's director does so - and she married into the Vreeland family.
''Mrs Vreeland suits her, as she was definitely an imposing figure,'' says Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the debut filmmaker who married Diana's grandson, Alexander. ''I don't know what she would have made of me. I don't think I have enough pizazz to have impressed her.''
A belief in pizazz was just one of Diana (pronounced Dee-Anna) Vreeland's many trademarks. She was fond of pronouncements - ''fashion is a way of life'' - and presented an image that became familiar through social pages and several decades of lively television interviews: the jet-black hair framing a sharp gaze, the husky smoker's voice, the prominent rouge and the exaggerated hand gestures.
''Her persona was better known than she was, which meant that while people recognised her, they didn't know her story,'' Immordino Vreeland explains.
''For me, it was only after doing the film that I understood who the true woman was.''
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel reveals a woman with an instinct for fashion's tug between the aesthetic and the intellectual. As an editor, she had a natural inquisitiveness and a love of striking photography. As fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar in the 1940s and '50s she introduced the bikini, blue jeans and Lauren Bacall, alongside timeless black-and-white imagery from Richard Avedon, among others. In the 1960s at Vogue (a previously tepid magazine whose pre-eminence she helped establish as editor) there were the vivid colours and youthful British energy of David Bailey and Twiggy.
Vreeland was a workaholic who preferred to issue memos than hold a meeting, and had a knack for leaving frazzled assistants in tears. Her toughness was in part a reaction to her socialite mother, who freely lamented having an ''ugly little monster'' of a daughter.
''The life that she had with her mother really toughened her up; she developed a shell to deal with the world,'' Immordino Vreeland says. It also established an ambition and emotional self-sufficiency: the concept of what was permissible for a young woman who came of age during the 1920s didn't much matter to her.
''There's only one really good life and that's the life you know you want, and you make it for yourself,'' Vreeland says in the film, and one of the central threads of the story is how she built a career based on doing what she was drawn to and how along the way she changed the perception American women held of themselves. Whether through the freedom conjured in fashion spreads or socially perceptive articles, Vreeland helped usher in the modern woman.
''She was just doing what she loved and along the way she brought all of us with her, whether we were readers of her magazines or people who attended her museum shows,'' Immordino Vreeland says. ''She wasn't a Gloria Steinem, out there on a soapbox. Diana Vreeland was just showing in an elegant way how a woman could have a successful career and a home life. She did it her own way.''
Immordino Vreeland, who built her own career in the fashion industry, working in marketing and public relations with major fashion houses in the US and Italy, had to show some of the same determination and independence when she set out to explore Diana's legacy. At first her husband's extended family thought her research was just a personal project, but after her book of the same name came out last year with a collection of essays, vintage pages and archival images, they paid more attention to the documentary.
Immordino Vreeland secured Diana's diaries from the New York Public Library, as well as recordings of interviews between Vreeland and writer George Plimpton conducted for her 1984 autobiography, D.V. There were also interviews with Vreeland's two sons, Timothy and Frederick, who discussed the difficulties of having a famous workaholic mother.
''I had never made a film before and I just imagined that I could get away with it,'' Immordino Vreeland says. ''But after directing and producing the film I've realised what a massive undertaking it was.''
As the film moves from the festival circuit to international release, Immordino Vreeland says her chief satisfaction is the feedback from family friends and fashion veterans.
''A lot of them adored her, and they recognise the woman in the documentary,'' she says. ''It's the Mrs Vreeland they knew.''
■Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is at selected cinemas from Thursday.