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Diana Vreeland: Firing Up the Legacy

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is breathing new life into the legendary fashion editor's legacy with a new documentary and a coffee-table book.

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Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Photo By George Chinsee

Diana Vreeland

Photo By Conde Nast Archive

Diana Vreeland

Photo By Conde Nast Archive

The film begins with Vreeland talking about her early years growing up in Europe. “The first thing to do is arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows quite naturally,” said Vreeland, in her pipe-organ voice. She explained that her mother never thought she was pretty and that was something she carried with her throughout her life. “We were not sympathetic. [She would say] too bad you have a beautiful sister, and you’re so extremely ugly. I was always her ugly little monster,” said Vreeland.

She invented her over-the-top personality that embraced life as an adventure, whether she was witnessing the coronation of George V, riding horses with Buffalo Bill in Wyoming or viewing Charles Lindbergh flying over their house in Brewster, N.Y. In the documentary, she speaks about her schooling and how she left Brearley after three months, having made no friends and developing a stutter. She enrolled in a Russian school, where she was happy to do nothing but dance.

During the Twenties, she decided to make herself “the most popular girl in the world” and would hang out in Harlem, where the music was great. “I never felt comfortable about my looks until I met Reed Vreeland.…It was love at first sight. Nothing could spoil my happiness. Reed made me feel beautiful,” said Vreeland. After they married, they moved to London, where they started a life full of romantic trips around Europe in their Bugatti coupé. “The best thing about London was Paris,” said Vreeland, saying that is where she really learned about clothes and became friends with all the couturiers in Paris. She even ran her own lingerie business in London. “One day Wallis Simpson came into the shop and ordered three nightgowns for a very special weekend. She was off to a rendezvous with Edward, the new King of England, and the rest is history.”

Once the Vreelands returned to New York City, Diana became serious about her career. “I was going through money like someone goes through whiskey if you’re an alcoholic,” she said. “We never had that much money. I’m really basically quite lazy.” But Carmel Snow, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, saw her dancing at the St. Regis and offered her a job. “I’ve never worked before, and never dressed before lunch,” she said. She started writing the “Why Don’t You?” column, offering advice on a variety of subjects, and soon was tapped as fashion editor. The film points to many of her discoveries, such as launching Twiggy, advising Jackie Kennedy on matters of style, and coining some of fashion’s most eloquent proverbs, such as “The bikini is the biggest thing since the atom bomb.” She also discovered Lauren Bacall. “She came smiling into my office with a wide Russian face. Betty couldn’t take a bad picture. After I put her on the cover, she got a call from Hollywood,” said Vreeland.

Seemingly reminiscent of “The Devil Wears Prada,” Ali MacGraw is interviewed in the film about her experience working as an assistant to Vreeland after graduating from Wellesley College, and how demanding a boss she was. “She’d start barking orders, ‘Get me a pencil!’ and gave her assistants a very hard time, and they always cried during the day,” recalled MacGraw, who described one incident where Vreeland “chucked a coat” at her, so MacGraw instinctively chucked it back. “Diana was pretty annoyed,” she said.

Vreeland explained after 26 years at Harper’s Bazaar and making $18,000, she got a $1,000 raise. “When Alexander Liberman [editorial director of Condé Nast] called to see me, I made up my mind to listen to him.” She jumped ship to Vogue, where she eventually became editor in chief. Those were great years for her. “It was her period, with the social, political, civil rights, ‘black is beautiful’ going on,” said Joel Schumacher in the film.

After Vreeland was fired from Vogue in 1971 — which she attributed to “they wanted a different sort of magazine” — she lost her way for a while. “She was not the autocratic, sure-of-herself star. I could see some brokenness,” recalled McGraw. But within the year, she got a call from the Met, which wanted to hire her as a consultant, and a new chapter in her life began. Vreeland’s annual exhibitions at the Costume Institute, which started with “The World of Balenciaga” (1973) and included “Hollywood Design” (1974), “The Glory of Russian Costume” (1976) and “Vanity Fair” (1977), galvanized audiences. Her exhibitions drew almost one million visitors a year and made the museum a center of fashion excitement in New York and the world. “It became an event. The show was a very big deal,” said Calvin Klein in the film.

“I believe in dreams. I think we only live through our dreams and our imagination. That’s the only reality we only really have. I can’t stand these shows being taken down. I become very attached to them,” said Vreeland.

Immordino Vreeland said what she found fascinating about Vreeland was her different way of looking at the world. She acknowledged the costume shows she put on at the Met weren’t always historically correct. “But she wanted people to get the feeling of the era,” she said. “If it wasn’t the view she wanted it to be, she altered that view. It was the word ‘faction.’ She created a fantasy of her life experience and everyone else’s. There’s something factually incorrect about it, but it’s a wonderfully positive way to look at the world.”

Asked what she believed Vreeland’s biggest contribution to the world of fashion was, Immordino Vreeland replied, “I think fantasy and originality and a unique vision of what the world should be. She was tough to work with at times, but had a positive outlook, and I think that’s so important. She had multiple layers, and she had this life that was so textured, and she gave it to us, and I think that was a great gift. It was this curiosity for life that she had. She had this vision of the world that had no barriers.”

 

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