Fashion’s first editor in chief

Diana Vreeland in her office at Vogue magazine. The editor’s famous phrase was “Give ’em what they never knew they wanted.”

Before Anna Wintour, there was Diana Vreeland. A new documentary reveals the life of one of Vogue’s most famous editors.

FASHION documentaries are quite the stylish commodity. Recent offerings such as Valentino: The Last Emperor, Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston and Bill Cunningham New York all have one thing in common — the cult of personality.

In an industry prone to extremes, such effulgent personae are more than just popcorn fodder for the Saturday sartorialist. Their role as creator is what ultimately captures the public’s imagination. Given the current taste for tastemakers, it’s no surprise then that fashion editor Diana Vreeland, aka, ‘the Empress of Fashion’ would become the next subject committed to celluloid.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel debuted on Sept 9 at New York Fashion Week, having previewed at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.

Co-directed and produced by Lisa Immordino, Vreeland’s granddaughter-inlaw, the film creates a fast-paced pastiche of talking heads, archival TV footage and interviews with biographer George Plimpton, captured by actress Annette Miller’s uncanny voiceover.

So just what is it that makes this 86-minute moving monograph more than just a frothy love-in? In a word — vision.

As fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, editor-in-chief of American Vogue and consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vreeland was more than just fashion’s flamboyant figurehead; she was its 3-D lens.

Immordino, having never met Vreeland, successfully manages to portray the early years of the Paris-born socialite without lapsing into sentimentality.

Despite an urbane upbringing between Belle Époque Paris and New York City, Vreeland’s unconventional Pharaohic looks and poor academic nous led to her mother’s alienation; a stigma which propelled the outsider to become outstanding through a process of self-editing and reinvention.

By fashioning herself as an iconoclast in personal style and mixing with the ‘who’s who’ of the Roaring Twenties, Vreeland would marry and later move to London with her husband and two sons where she ran a lingerie business, counting among her friends Wallis Simpson and Coco Chanel.

Her outrageous fashion sense grabbed the attention of Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, who upon Vreeland’s return to New York in 1937, offered her the position of editor. It was at Harper’s that Vreeland penned the flamboyant advice column, Why Don’t You?.

Outré lifestyle suggestion such as: “Why don’t you wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?” created a frisson among the fashion elite. Although charmingly absurd, her ability to see the world with a fresh eye would fast become the lynchpin to her success.

“I wasn’t a fashion editor; I was the one and only fashion editor,” she insists in the film. It is this dogged singularity that fired her legendary pioneering instinct.

She was the first editor to make stars out of models and models out of stars, launching the careers of Lauren Bacall, Cher and Anjelica Houston; while mentoring Jackie O on matters of style.

She redefined traditional concepts of beauty by making people’s faults into assets from Barbara Streisand’s nose to Lauren Hutton’s gap teeth.

She collaborated with leading photographers like Richard Avedon and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, introducing the far-flung photo shoot and the fashion ‘story’ while creating ‘the New American Look’ a naturalist style that would revolutionise fashion photography.

Her vivid personality and talent for coining words and aphorism (‘divine’, ‘pizzazz’) made for an incomparable communication style that manifested itself in her Vogue-era blog-like staff memos: a sometimes hilarious stream-of consciousness from freckles to knee socks and Barbarella.

But it wasn’t all about fashion. Vreeland’s real talent lay in her oracle-like ability to not simply predict the zeitgeist but to create it.

After 26 years as editor of Harper’s, she added ‘in-chief ’ to her title at a then sleepy social magazine called Vogue. It was 1963 and the youth quake had begun.

Studio 54 and The Factory were in full swing; hems reached new heights and a lanky 16-year-old called Twiggy became a face to be reckoned with.

With this she transformed Vogue into a cultural behemoth, photographing the Beatles and Mick Jagger with David Bailey and Cecil Beaton, chronicling global macro trends in art and society, weaving them all together in her most famous catchphrase: “Give ’em what they never knew they wanted.”

For her readers, her eye transported them to a place more exotic than Russia or the Orient; she showed them how to imagine.

“You get a real sense of her in the title of the film because she clearly transcends fashion,” says Immordino.

“Her ability to look at the world, to look at it with this very unfettered eye — she didn’t have this sense of snobbery; she had this openness where she could just take things in and then sew it up and show it to us in her way which is just not exactly 100% historically correct but it didn’t really matter because we got it.”

Ironically, it was this unbridled pizzazz that led her to be let go from Vogue when readership figures began to fall.

Hired soon after as a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vreeland famously transformed the simple clothing displays into a creative experience for visitors by adding music, filtering perfume through the vents and hosting openings that were not unlike that of any New York nightclub.

The ultimate auteur, an 81-year-old Vreeland collaborated with biographer George Plimpton to publish her memoirs, DV. “There is only one very good life and that’s the life that you know you want and you make it yourself,” she states.

It’s this postmodern mentality; the art of ‘becoming’ that makes The Eye Has To Travel so much more than just a fashion film, according to Immordino.

“For me,” she asserts, “this is a story about life. It’s about pushing yourself and having that confidence. For her it wasn’t about the dress you wear but about the life you lead in the dress.”

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel (StudioCanal) plays in the Light House Cinema in Dublin from next Friday

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up