If it’s true that fashion documentaries are very much in vogue – and Valentino: The Last Emperor, The September Issue, Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton, Bill Cunningham New York and L’amour fou suggest as much – then Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel arrives at the perfect time. Had director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Diana’s granddaugher-in-law) waited much longer, she would have risked the film getting lost in a sub-genre so saturated (What’s next? A doc on Karl Lagerfeld’s cat Choupette?), it’s close to losing its cachet.
That’s kind of how fashion works, and Diana Vreeland, the industry-altering editor, understood as much. There’s a famous Vreeland line that writer Bob Colacello recalls in the film: “You’re not supposed to give people what they want; you’re supposed to give people what they don’t know they want yet.”
Vreeland, despite her reputation for being an irritable boss, is an instantly likeable protagonist. Maybe it’s her jolie laide looks. Maybe it’s the croaky voice or the red-on-red-on-red backdrop of her living room, which she told decorator Billy Baldwin to imagine as a “garden in hell.”
The fact that Vreeland lived from 1903 to 1989 means a film about her life also chronicles – and overlaps with – great events of the 20th century. She was born in Paris, but her family moved to New York before the First World War. In the film, she insists she saw Charles Lindbergh fly over her Upstate New York home en route to Paris and that Wallis Simpson stopped into her London lingerie shop before meeting with Prince Edward. “My little lingerie shop brought down the throne!” she says.
For fashionphiles and pop culture vultures, there’s much to devour. We see the Chanel atelier where Vreeland would go for fittings; her controversial push to feature the bikini in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar; epic editorials shot on location in Japan and Egypt; and footage of Jacqueline Kennedy, who sought style advice from the admired editor.
Predictably, Immordino Vreeland wrangled a who’s who of friends and former colleagues. A partial list includes Anjelica Huston, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik, Diane von Fürstenberg, Joel Schumacher and supermodels Veruschka and Penelope Tree. But the list is as notable for who’s absent: Jack Nicholson (apparently a close pal) and current Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editors Glenda Bailey and Anna Wintour.
Sons Tim and “Fecky” (Frederick) Vreeland provide personal anecdotes, and there’s some brief commentary from grandson Alexander (the director’s husband). Among the film’s most charming moments is when great-granddaughter Olivia reads nuggets from Vreeland’s tongue-in-cheek “Why Don’t You …,” column that ran for years in Harper’s Bazaar. “Why don’t you rinse your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold like they do in France,” says the eight-year-old, who seems to realize the absurdity of the advice.
But it’s clear the director’s proximity to the family stopped her from going into uncomfortable territory. We never learn much about Vreeland’s husband or how his wife’s high profile and dedication to work affected their relationship.
Vreeland also seems to be a pro at putting up walls. The film constantly cuts to old interviews conducted by Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley, who ask questions that Vreeland deflects with intimidating charm.
She was also an aphorism machine. Consider this one: “There’s only one very good life and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.” Or this: “Style helps you get up in the morning; it helps you get down the stairs. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody.”
But Diana (pronounced Dee-anna) devotees would have already been familiar with many of these lines from D.V., her 1984 autobiography. As the industry demands relentlessly from all its players, the question to ask of the film is: So, what’s new?
But maybe this was not the director’s intention. In an interview with Italian Vogue, Immordino Vreeland said she wanted to expose the younger generation to an iconoclast who directed so much of the visual culture we accept without questioning today. After all, if we’re living in Youthquake version 4.0, we might as well learn about the woman who coined the word. And we learn, of all things, that she envied the lives of surfers. “Water is God’s tranquilizer,” she explained. And certainly, there’s the high that comes from riding a wave.