A fascinating, bittersweet profile of the silver-tongued fashion guru and long-time Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland.
Documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel recounts the life of legendary Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, often referred to by a fitting soubriquet, ‘The Empress’. Memories of the fashion doyenne striding into her office and hurling her coat at her quaking assistant are recalled by one-time employee Ali McGraw. But although the styleicon-as-tyrant has become a cinematic staple since The Devil Wears Prada (and can be dated back to William Klein’s 1966 satire, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, which features an imperious editor based on Vreeland), directors Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Fréderic Tcheng don’t surrender to stereotype.
While acknowledging the flaws in her character, the film also celebrates a larger-thanlife original who gutsily invented herself according to her fantasy, and encouraged other women to follow suit. Snippets from interviews with Vreeland in her famous red living room (dubbed her 'garden in hell’) are repeated by voice-actors. Even though it’s obvious that they’ve been staged, these recollections in her words are a nice touch, especially as she tended to her own image so assiduously.
Born in Belle Époque Paris and establishing herself in New York during the roaring ’20s, Vreeland displayed a preternatural gift for absorbing surrounding luxury. Bored by school, she was raised on Russian ballet. Ridiculed by her socialite mother as ugly, she became determined to stand out in the world. And stand out she did, making herself up kabuki-style with rouged ears, and gaining notoriety for her famous 'Why don’t you…' Harper’s Bazaar column – a Depression-era, escapist call to lavish acts such as, ‘wash[ing] your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France’.
While Coco Chanel revolutionised style with practical simplicity, Vreeland never lost a taste for the extravagant. This attracted derision (while flagrant spending contributed to her eventual dismissal from Vogue), but raised the bar on artistic vision for magazines formerly preoccupied with how to please husbands and cook pies.
Exotic shoots in far-flung continents brought exuberant fantasy into female lives. Women had looked down on work as a sign of poverty, but Vreeland made having a career chic. She challenged beauty conventions, shooting Barbra Streisand like a Renaissance statue to celebrate her nose, and favoured personality, drawing on rock hedonism and becoming the first to picture Mick Jagger in the fashion pages.
The film’s soundtrack – featuring the Stones’ ‘She’s a Rainbow’ – echoes her whimsical grandeur. Lisa Immordino Vreeland never met her grandmother-in-law, and perhaps this focus on Vreeland’s professional side comes from respectful reluctance to pry. There are ample hints, however, that Vreeland used fashion as armour for emotional vulnerabilities. While her marriage to handsome banker Reed Vreeland lasted 46 years, she admits always feeling shy around him (though his well-documented infidelities aren’t mentioned).
Among an avalanche of interviewees from the fashion world – Anjelica Huston, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik and photographer Richard Avedon – Vreeland’s two sons tentatively confess they wanted a ‘normal’ mother who paid them more attention. Only Vreeland would instruct her children to be either top or bottom of the class – anything but the middle.
Diana Vreeland was extravagantly larger-than-life. Can her director granddaughterin-law find a fresh approach amid a slew of recent fashion bios?
Buoyantly whirls along, capturing the fun, transformative side of an often maligned industry and one of its empresses.
With whimsy and wit to match the woman herself, this documentary transcends stereotype to celebrate a complex, vibrant and influential figure.