As an original of the species, fashion editor Diane Vreeland was a brash, larger-than-life, sometimes fantastical giant of 20th-century style. Now Lisa Immordino Vreeland has made a movie setting the record straight about her grandmother-in-law. She talks to DONALD CLARKE
THINK OF A FASHION editor. Chances are you haven’t imagined a benevolent fat gentleman in a cloth cap. It is much more likely that you’ve conjured up a female stick insect with a patrician voice and terrifyingly sculptured features. We see versions of her in films such as Funny Face and The Devil Wears Prada. Anna Wintour, current editor of American Vogue, carries the persona forth to the real(ish) world.
Such stereotypes can often be traced back to one influential ancestor. The strange, exotic, gloriously forthright Diana Vreeland was surely progenitor of all these creations. Born in 1903 to posh parents, she went on to carve out a career that served as a commentary on 20th-century fashion. Working for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s, she claimed to have discovered Lauren Bacall (mind you, she claimed a great deal). As fashion editor of American Vogue, she turned Angelica Huston into a model, helped the magazine engage with the 1960s and dug up signature mannequins such as Lauren Hutton. Then, in a surprising epilogue, she transformed the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Art Museum from an obscure annex into a star attraction.
“Well I think that she did define that role,” Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Mrs Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, ponders. “There really wasn’t any concept of a fashion editor before that. She made it a serious role. Before that it was just society women. This was the real thing.”
She goes on to gently bemoan the changing times.
“Celebrity wasn’t that important when Diana left Vogue. She is the ultimate fashion editor. You have all these others. And then Vreeland stands alone. Not even Anna Wintour can step into her shoes.”
Ms Immordino Vreeland, wife to Diana’s grandson, Alexander Vreeland, has just directed a delightful documentary on her distinguished in-law. Inspired by her book of the same name, Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel paints its subject as charismatic, generous, unreliable and endlessly funny. In the course of the picture, we catch sight of both David Bowie and Andy Warhol. Watching Mrs Vreeland giving forth in elegant mid-century sentences – her home a blast of colour – it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, like those men, she created an extravagant public persona to conceal the real human being.
“I think you can see the real person when she is being interviewed,” Lisa says. “What we are seeing is a woman with multiple layers. We see a century of experience on her face. It is all there. I have become so familiar with the interviews that, when I see them, I want to reach out and squeeze her. There is something so malleable about her face.”
We may see the real woman, but can we trust what she says? Mrs Vreeland – whose poor old husband barely gets a look in – tells us a story that, at times, sounds like a first draft of The Great American Novel. Born in Paris, she claims to have encountered Charles Lindbergh, Adolf Hitler and Buffalo Bill. Later on, she helped dress Jackie Kennedy and hung out at Studio 54. The film casts some doubt on the stories covering the early years of her life.
“I think she had an extraordinary set of experiences,” Lisa says. “Yes, she did have Diaghilev and Nijinsky in her living room. Did she meet Buffalo Bill? I think she did. But I am not sure how often they rode together. There is just this slight exaggeration all the way through.”