She was a true original, a daring diva with a face that could stop traffic but a talent that couldn't be suppressed.
Born in 1903 into a wealthy family in Paris, Diana Vreeland got an early, well-shod toehold into high society. Her parents frequented the Ballet Russe with her, and Diaghilev and Nijinsky were dinner guests.
Yet her childhood wasn't all magic and charm. Her mother was a great beauty who cruelly and honestly told Diana she was homely. Perhaps that was what drove her to overcome her looks and develop a curious mind and magnetic personality that forced people to see beneath the surface.
A new documentary of her life, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel was directed and produced by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who married the grandson of the larger-than-life personality, yet never met her subject.
Much of the film is told in Vreeland's own words, as she reclines in her chinoiserie-red living room and is interviewed by George Plimpton for the memoir he helped her to write. It's supplemented by TV interviews of Vreeland; montages of magazine spreads she conceived; film clips of movies she inspired (including Funny Face); and interviews with designers who knew her, including Anna Sui, Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein, and Manolo Blahnik. And it's all punctuated by Mrs. Vreeland's eccentric pronouncements.
Her provenance was impeccable: After studying classical dance in Paris, she served as an apprentice to Coco Chanel, and eventually wound up in New York working for a lingerie manufacturer.
Vreeland is best known for her stint as fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar ("I wasn't a fashion editor, I was the one and only fashion editor"). There she communicated style and beauty, whimsy and drama for twenty-five years before becoming editor-in-chief of Vogue. During her tenure, she advised the new first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, on assembling a chic wardrobe.
The editor also had an eye for nascent talent, being the first to champion everyone from Lauren Bacall to Twiggy to Mick Jagger. She also pushed photographers to go further and try harder, yielding iconic images such as Dovima with the Elephants by Richard Avedon for Harper's Bazaar.
The film also skims over Vreeland's personal life, including the 46-year-long marriage to her strikingly handsome husband Reed. "I never felt comfortable about my looks until I met him," she admits. Two sons issued from the marriage, and from their time onscreen, it seems Mom was more diva than devoted.
Fired from Vogue in 1971, Vreeland didn't fold and didn't look back. "I was only 70. What was I supposed to do… retire?" she later said.
Instead she took her encyclopedia knowledge of fashion to the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and began creating shows that drew crowds and celebrities unlike anything the museum had seen before. There until her death in 1989, Vreeland mounted a total of 14 shows that celebrated styles ranging from designer haute couture to China's Ch'ing Dynasty.
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