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Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

By KAREN MARTIN SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published December 28, 2012 at 12:20 a.m.

— As chic as a Chanel suit, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is tailored to display the irrepressible spirit of a fashion magazine editor whose imagination and vision were unrivaled during her 50-year career.

Filmmakers Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law), Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng deftly craft the documentary to present a picture-perfect photo shoot of Vreeland, with only the briefest glimpses behind the scenes that hint at her being a none-too-committed mother of sons Tim and Frecky (Frederick) and the effect of the death of her beloved husband, banker Thomas Reed Vreeland, on her almost overwhelming self-confidence.

Much of the information in the film comes from staged conversations taken from 35 hours of taped interviews with George Plimpton, who was working with Vreeland on her memoir D.V. in 1983. The conceit works well, enabling the inclusion of signature Vreeland remarks such as “The first thing to do, my dear, is to be born in Paris — after that, everything comes naturally.”

Born in 1903 in the City of Light to an American socialite mother and British father, Vreeland went to New York with her family when she was 10, where she found it hard to fit in because she could barely speak English.

Life came together for her in the Roaring ’20s in New York, she explains in a series of archival video interviews, some of them conducted by Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley and Dick Cavett.

She married Reed in 1924, moved to Albany, N.Y., where they remained through 1929, just before the stock market crashed. They moved to London, where Diana operated a lingerie business whose clients included Wallis Simpson (Vreeland was nothing if not a name-dropper). She often visited Paris, where she would buy her clothes, mostly from Chanel, whom she had met in 1926. “The best thing about London was Paris,” she says.

Returning to New York with her husband in 1937, Diana’s stylish attire drew the attention of editor Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar, who offered her a job. Vreeland started a column called “Why Don’t You,” her first step in becoming a fashion editor who approached her position with a zeal unmatched at other publications.

“She simply didn’t think like other people,” fashion editor Barbara Slifka says.

Using sharply edited clips from films such as 1957’s Funny Face and 1964’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo (both films had characters based on Vreeland), the filmmakers skillfully reveal how Vreeland’s unerring accuracy at predicting fashion trends took her to the top of her profession.

“She had the vision,” says shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, recalling how she advised him to go into shoe design to set himself apart from other designers.

After 26 years of making $18,000 a year at Harper’s, “I got a raise — $1,000,” Vreeland says. So she left in 1963 to become an editor at Vogue, employing an unprecedented global focus to propel the publication forward through the 1960s. Fashion shoots involving hundreds of participants — from stylists to stars — were organized in exotic locations all over the world.

Vreeland was among the first to use celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand and Cher as models, and contributed to the transformation of runway models such as Lauren Hutton, Twiggy, Veruschka and Penelope Tree into cultural superstars.

But superstars and photo safaris are expensive, and Vreeland was not the sort who awaited permission to do what she wanted. She got sideways with management and was fired from Vogue in 1971.

Her new-found freedom didn’t suit her, so she took over the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she transformed the formerly staid institution into a social hot spot.

“You couldn’t get in to the openings; there were lines around the block,” a museum official says. “Opening night was a celebrity event.”

Following a career that included orchestrating the fashion relationship between Jacqueline Kennedy and Oleg Cassini that made Kennedy an American style icon, Vreeland died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 86. Photographer Richard Avedon said at the time of her death that “she was and remains the only genius fashion editor.”

The film struts with utmost confidence through the stages of Vreeland’s life. A few more onscreen markers of dates and names would have been helpful, and it’s hard not to wonder what this woman was like when she wasn’t playing the role of Diana Vreeland. But fashion isn’t always about who you are. It’s about the image you present to the world, and Vreeland, though not a beauty in the traditional sense, knew how to present herself.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

88 Cast: Documentary with Diana Vreeland, George Plimpton, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Lauren Bacall Directors: Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen

Perlmutt, Frederic Tcheng

Rating: PG-13 Running time: 86 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 12/28/2012

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