Diana Vreeland Ruled the Fashion World by Changing It

Posted on 16 July 2014

Diana Vreeland in the New York City she shared with her husband Thomas. Mrs. Vreeland had Billy Baldwin decorate the apartment exclusively in red. She said, "I want this place to look like a garden, but a garden in hell." Photo courtesy Guild Hall.

Diana Vreeland in the New York City she shared with her husband Thomas. Mrs. Vreeland had Billy Baldwin decorate the apartment exclusively in red. She said, “I want this place to look like a garden, but a garden in hell.” Photo by Horst P. Horst.

By Tessa Raebeck

For half a century, Diana Vreeland, the longtime editor of Vogue magazine, was at the helm of the fashion world. She played a major role in transforming the industry from commonplace, conforming trends that rotated by the decade into iconic statements that helped celebrities blossom, recognized international contributions and enabled women to wear—and show—their personality.

“The fashion world changes all the time. You can even see the approaching revolution in clothes; you can see and feel everything in clothes,” Mrs. Vreeland, who died in 1989, once said.

In “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” a 2011 documentary being screened at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Monday, July 21, Mrs. Vreeland’s life and career is celebrated through a fitting selection of celebrity interviews, groundbreaking images and her trademark outlandish statements.

“She was about ideas and about the magic of fashion,” art critic John Richardson says in the film.

Diana Vreeland's office at Vogue. Photograph by James Karales.

Diana Vreeland’s office at Vogue. Photograph by James Karales.

The documentary was directed and produced by Mrs. Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frédéric Tcheng. It was honored as an official selection at both the Venice International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.

“I wanted to understand Mrs. Vreeland’s relevance,” first-time director Ms. Immordino Vreeland wrote in an email July 12. “As someone who worked in fashion for many years, I always knew about her, but only knew about her extroverted personality. What I discovered was a woman that had such depth and used fashion to communicate a philosophical message.”

Often called the “Empress of Fashion,” Mrs. Vreeland ruled the fashion world during some of its most transformative decades—which were transformative in large part due to her contributions. Her work coincided with the civil rights and women’s rights movements; she launched Twiggy, advised Jackie Onassis on her signature style and featured in Vogue the first portrait ever taken of Mick Jagger.

“Mrs. Vreeland really brought us into a modern period and knew that fashion and the world were on their way to something much more global,” fashion designer Anna Sui says in the film.

“Diana was just so far ahead,” writer Bob Colacello adds. “I mean, it wasn’t just about fashion; it was about art, it was about music and it was about society—it was all woven together.”

“She would say, you’re not supposed to give people what they want; you’re supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet,” he added.

After moving to New York City in 1936 to follow her husband Thomas’s banking career, Mrs. Vreeland began working as a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar, a job she was asked to take on after the editor Carmel Snow noticed her style.

She stayed at the magazine until 1962, and then went on to join Vogue, where she was editor-in-chief until 1971. Following her stint leading the world’s premiere fashion magazine, Mrs. Vreeland was a consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She died in New York City in 1989 of a heart attack.

“There is no one in fashion who is like Mrs. Vreeland or anyone historically who can come close to her,” Ms. Immordino Vreeland said. “Her success in the world of fashion was the ability to give a message to people to seek for an inner meaning in life, not to accept the status quo and to push themselves to dream about the impossible. She encouraged curiosity and wanted people to be driven to passion. There are many very famous and iconic names in fashion, but none who continue to inspire people like Mrs. Vreeland.”

The film uses transcription from tapes George Plimpton recorded of his conversations with Mrs. Vreeland when they were preparing her autobiography as narration.

Mrs. Vreeland had a skill in finding the special and unique qualities in people and, rather than hiding them in the name of societal obedience, celebrating and emphasizing those distinctions.

“She saw things in people before they saw it themselves,” fashion designer Diana Von Furstenberg says in the film.

“She celebrated Barbara Streisand’s nose. She would push their faults, make it the most beautiful thing about them,” added Joel Schumacher, a director, screenwriter and producer known for films like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.”

Mrs. Vreeland spent time at the Factory and Studio 54, rubbing elbows with Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Cher.

“All these people invented themselves,” Mrs. Vreeland says in the film. “Naturally, as the editor, I was there to help them along.”

“Vreeland inspired them, she had a very strong impact on them,” Calvin Klein says in the documentary.

Angelica Huston adds of her friend, “She made it okay for women to be outlandish and extraordinary.”

“Mrs. Vreeland, in a very unique manner, used fashion to dictate a way of life,” wrote Mrs. Immordino Vreeland. “For her, what was paramount in life was the freedom to ‘dare’ and she wanted everyone to do that. For her, the “outlandish and extraordinary” was an expression of the ability to be free and brave enough to do what you dream about doing.”

“Mrs. Vreeland believed in the celebration of life and in taking on everything,” the director added. “She felt that the impossible was possible to conquer if you had the belief in yourself and you had the possibility to dream; that was her motivation…She used fashion to tell a story of being unique, of standing out and of believing in oneself.”

In Mrs. Vreeland’s own words: “There’s only one really good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself.”

The film will be screened at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street in East Hampton, on Monday, July 21, at 7 p.m. A panel discussion with filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland and China Machado will follow. For more information or tickets ($15; $13 for members), call (631) 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.

 

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