For someone who was the editor-in-chief of Vogue for nearly a decade, it’s amazing how well Diana (dee-yahhh-na) Vreeland lived out the philosophy that the best things in life are free. In Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a dazzling fashion documentary directed and produced by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Diana’s legacy is shown to have more to do with imagination, personality and a bit of lunacy than with anything sold on her pages.
In a phone interview, Lisa explained that after marrying into the Vreeland family (her husband is Diana’s grandson, Alexander), she knew that her grandmother-in-law, who many say invented the role of the modern fashion editor, had to be captured and passed down to future generations before she faded from the cultural zeitgeist. Her first thought was to write a book, but after hours spent burrowed in the Paris libraries of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue poring over issues Diana styled and conceived, she realized that bound pages would not suffice. The only way to honestly capture Diana was by letting viewers hear her voice and see her work.
Lisa was prepared to discover a different side to Diana other than her eccentricity and hyperbolically glamorous fashion spreads (think models in couture gowns scaling the sides of Russian cathedrals). But what she didn’t expect was how open Diana was to other people and ideas from low culture as well as high. In a flurry of nearly 30 interviews laced throughout the film, fashion bigwigs like Manolo Blahnik and Diane Von Furstenberg, as well as former employees and family members who knew her on a more quotidian level, recount her inordinate amount of creative vision and the power she had to inspire others.
That isn’t to say financial success wasn’t important. As Diana herself say, “Money is vital! VITAL!” After all, she started her career in magazines not because she was well educated—she never made it past middle school—and not because of her professional experience—she had never worked a day in her life—but because Camel Snow, the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, noticed what she was wearing out dancing one night. “Chanel, of course,” Diana chimes at the end of one of her many personal anecdotes taken from interviews she did with George Plimpton (who edited her autobiography). Thus began her journey from New York party girl to fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar to editor in chief of Vogue (and beyond).
The film hops, skips and jumps through blips in Diana’s childhood and highlights of her career, but Lisa has a knack for tying things together. Diana’s role in creating the fashions of the ’60s with the likes of Twiggy, Lauren Hutton and blue jeans reflects her love for the freedom of the ’20s, when she used to spend nights dancing in Harlem and gallivanting through Paris. Her flaunting of people’s faults—she is responsible for the fame of Barbra Streisand’s nose—stems from her own lack of conventional beauty that (a lack that was reinforced throughout her childhood by her mother). And the fabulous stories Diana told, in life and in the pages of her magazines, were often extremely exaggerated versions of the truth or simply made up, reinforcing Diana’s fundamental belief that the vision of the world she had in her mind was the way it should actually be. Whether her dreams were realistic was no matter—she strove to make them come true regardless. These themes through the fast-paced film keep it cohesive, and storytelling is clearly a gift of Lisa’s. (Perhaps she learned it from Diana.)
It can be hard to keep up at points—not with the plot, but with the amount of inspiration that Diana can still strew over an audience. As for Lisa, when asked to sums up Diana in a word, she says, “rebel,” as everything about Diana from her voice to the rouge she applied on her ears was unique and without apology. There’s just enough negative, such as her shortcomings as a mother, to keep her human, but the film is as much a tribute as a documentary. The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” plays through the opening credits. In hindsight, the choice a pretty appropriate for someone whose life arched over the fashion industry: a colorful constant that never failed to amaze.
Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Writer: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Starring: Diana Vreeland
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2012