She never went out of fashion
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, September 28, 2012
Anyone who has lamented the difficulty of teaching old dogs new tricks could learn something from Diana Vreeland. Although she died in 1989, the fashion maven and iconoclast no doubt loved the idea of contradicting that trite old adage, as illustrated by the documentary “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.”
Paris-born Vreeland didn’t begin her career until her mid-30s, when she began working at Harper’s Bazaar, and one could argue that she really hit her stride in her 60s as editor of Vogue, filling its pages with fantastical photographs and fashion’s up-and-comers. After she put her indelible stamp on that magazine and was subsequently fired, she considered her next big adventure. At age 70, retirement seemed a bit premature, so she went to work transforming the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute from an under-the-radar exhibit space to a venue fit for the annual Met Ball, a magnet for everyone who’s anyone in fashion.
The film, written and directed by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, mainly rests on the strength of its subject. Fortunately for her, Lisa Immordino Vreeland doesn’t need much more in her first film outing. The documentary features numerous high-profile interview subjects, including Angelica Huston and photographer Richard Avedon. There also is archival footage of Vreeland keeping television interviewers on their toes and some voice-over from transcripts in which Vreeland and writer George Plimpton prepared material for her 1984 memoir, “D.V.”
The film pays close attention to Vreeland’s unpredictable nature. She appears to have been Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s inspiration for intimidation, referring to assistants (including actress Ali MacGraw) as “girl” and making them cry. Yet she had an expansive sense of humor and a taste for the lowbrow. She called her ostentatiously decorated living room “a garden in hell,” proclaimed herself naturally lazy and used her husband’s death as an excuse to buck convention, wearing white to the post-funeral gathering. Even as she was credited with spreading the popularity of bikinis and blue jeans, she also trumpeted Diane Von Furstenberg and Missoni.
What was perhaps most interesting about Vreeland was her aversion to anything that might be considered vanilla, and the film succeeds at demonstrating her taste for the outlandish. She very well may have been the first person to choose models with what others might call flaws. She put Barbra Streisand on the pages of Vogue, playing up her “Nefertiti nose,” and discovered Lauren Hutton and her gap-toothed smile. Called ugly by her mother as a child, Vreeland put a premium on personality over looks even while working in such a highly visual field.
The documentary mostly steers clear of Vreeland’s home life. Little attention is paid to her husband or her children, and that may be partly because Vreeland didn’t seem to have much time for them, according to interviews with her two sons. Still, with a director with so much access to Vreeland’s relatives, it would have been interesting to hear a few more stories about her home presence -- or absence, as the case may have been.
Of course, Vreeland’s professional life offers more than enough fodder for a documentary, not to mention a valuable life lesson: There’s no such thing as too old.