One is terrified, of course, but the lobby seems ordinary enough, for a Park Avenue apartment house lobby at 5 o'clock on an autumn afternoon; the kind of day that New York City should find a way of preserving inside glass globes, like paperweight snow-storms.

Terrified: Actually it's a few minutes before 5. One wants to be precisely on time, a l'heure , for this woman, Diana Vreeland, a.k.a. Madam Vreeland, who has been known to bark "On the double! On the double!" to her staff at the Metropolitan Museum, where she went to assemble one smashing costume show after another when Vogue magazine throttled back its style to a bit more safely middle class in 1971, and fired her as editor. . . Vogue, which Madam Vreeland didn't so much edit as command during its great years, the 1960s, as if it were an army marching out to civilize the heathen.

"Hey, is she in?" one doorman says to the other. "I don't think she's in."

How could he not know? Truman Capote once compared her to "some extraordinary parrot -- a wild thing that's flung itself out of the jungle and talks in some amazing language. . ."

Nevertheless, he opens the elevator.

One ascends, armed with her new book, "Allure," in which she has placed a lifetime (this may be her 80th autumn) of her favorite photographs -- snapshots, fashion pictures, anonymous wire-service transmissions of Garbo or the Duchess of Windsor or Fred Astaire . . . along with her tape-recorded commentary.

Thus armed, one is left by the doorman in a hallway where the air is so heavily incensed it ebbs and flows in the nostrils like talcum powder. Standing by the famous Chinese-red door -- Diana Vreeland always has Chinese-red doors -- is a round little ladies' maid in mufti.

"Madam says to tell you she is so sorry she is late, she is getting dressed, she was taking a nap . . ." she says as she leads the way through the red door into the famous red apartment.

Famous: Still, who can be prepared for how small it is? It's an L-shaped room that seems almost as high as it is long, but that might be the effect of the lacquered cream ceilings . . . and how red : a strange chalky mid-range of reds, exotic rose and coral, blood-orange red, tattoo red, exiled-nobility red, hickey red, jellyfish red. Prints and stripes, curtains, chairs, pillows, rug, even the pencils on her desk, the most starling combinations, such as the little red couch with a tartan blanket on one arm, a whiff of her Scottish ancestry amid this style-for-style's-sake baroque; plus dozens, even scores of Scottish powderhorns everywhere, from the size of your thumb to the size of your calf.

There are also 19 blackamoor figurines standing on the floor, or mounted on the walls, some bearing powderhorns and others holding conchs and nautiluses, which abound, pearly glints in the incensed murk; plus lots of tortoises, and ashtrays an arm's length from wherever you're standing, with little boxes of wooden matches set on edge, a touch which suggests that everything, every last detail, is intended . Terrifying.

Then, she does not so much enter the room as appear in it, as if she'd been there all along, and one wasn't quite astute enough to notice.

"I'm so sorry, but you see I went to the oculist this morning, mmhmmm, and he put these drops in my eyes, so disorienting . . . mmhmmm . . ."

First impressions: tiny, charming, bony; beaked nose; beautiful hands -- fingers like knotted scarves that go on and on and on, mmhmmm, this mmhmmm being her way of punctuating the conversation as she leads the way to two little chairs in front of the couch. She walks in a high-fashion pelvis-shot glide, her torso leaning back so far it looks as if she were suspended by a wire screwed into her sternum; or as if she might put her hands on her hips and break into cheerleader's kicks at any second.

She wears: "A white flannel shirt from St. Laurent, and this is a pair of charcoal gray pants from Hardy Amie in London.I think my shoes are divine," she says, lifting one to be inspected. "They're Roman. They're, well, you see them on men in, whatcha call, 18th-century and 17th-century paintings, with the rosettes, you know? Pumps, you put them on like a pump. But I like the satin with the leather heel, you see. I'm mad about leather." A Melange of Accents

A match blossoms in the ruby gloom, and she lights a cigarette, a Lucky Strike.

"I smoke ," she says, in her famous baritone. "I don't play around with tissue paper or whatever paper they use . . . they say, 'It won't do you any harm,' and I say, 'I'm not even afraid, what would I be afraid of? I've been doing this since I was 14 years old, the same brand."

She hangs the Lucky Strike from the corner of her mouth, gangster style: "I like the way the French smoke Gitanes. Mmmm, like this," she says, puffing away and squinting through the smoke. "They go on, the day goes on, and they're still smoking, I think that's great, great."

She nearly leaps from her chair with enthusiasm, or is it just her voice that conveys that impression, a wild melange of accents: English country gentry (droppin' the Gs), and a hint of New York tough guy, punching out the consonants, and a bit of a soft R, Barbara Walters style, though she'll confute that in the next phrase with a great washboard of a Scottish R, and she pronounces occasional words in French for no apparent reason, all of it in the baritone cured by a lifetime of Lucky Strikes.

She settles back into a bony languor again, those fabulous hands gliding back to roost alongside her long, long neck. She was born in Paris to an American mother and an English/Scottish father, a stockbroker, hence the strange juxtaposition of accents.

And hence her celebrated eye and style, which were educated by seeing Isadora Duncan, Pavlova, Nijinsky; Vernon and Irene Castle doing the Castle Walk; the coronation of George V in 1911. "I realize now I say everything then," she says in "Allure," which is a new coffee-table book containing her favorite photographs, mostly of well-dressed women, along with her commentary.

"Then . . . when my family moved from Paris to New York, I discovered the Ziegfield Follies! It was entertainment . . . and talk about splendeur!"

She sees things. "I see all sorts of things that you don't see. I see girls and I see the way their feet fall off the sidewalk when they're getting ready to cross the street but they're waiting for the light, with their marvelous hair blowing in the wind and their fatigued eyes. . . I've seen pink grass, for instance, and green sky and a scarlet sea when a certain light would come across my eyes."

Are these epiphanies important?

"Veeerrryyy!" she cries. "Veeerrryyy! It's for oneself. You like something private . . . only private things are important."

But how does she see them? Why did she lionize Mick Jagger, for instance, back in the '60s when there were dozens of cute Brits singing in front of rock 'n' roll bands?

"You couldn't miss rock 'n' roll in the '60s," she says. But this explains nothing. In "Allure," she states that "Just as Mick Jagger, for me, was the creature of the '60s, Bardot was the creature of the '50s. She prepared the way for the '60s, and made the '60s alluring rather than just ugly. Her lips made Mick Jagger's lips possible."

As Truman Capote was quoted as saying in Rolling Stone: "She's a genius but she's the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it. Otherwise you just think she's a rather foolish woman." 'Why Don't You. . .?''

She knows exactly what she wants, says everyone who knows her. And she knows everyone. Or she knew them: the duke and duchess of Windsor, Mick Jagger, Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, Chaliapin, Cecil Beaton, Maria Callas, Balenciaga, Cole Porter, everyone.

Field marshall, arbiter, high priestess of fashion: The case can be made that in the '60s she was the woman most responsible for American women turning out in craftans, wigs, monokinis, tons of costume jewelry, hot pants, see-through blouses, all in keeping with Coco Chanel's maxim that it isn't the clothes you wear, it's how you look . And her own maxim: "There are worse things in the world than bad taste."

And this came after 2 1/2 decades as fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, an age in which designers' and editors' iron whims moved hemlines up and down, hats on and off, lapels in and out, terrifying. . .

"I once sent her 50 different shades of turquoise and none of them was right," says designer Kenneth J. Lane.

She is particularly famous for her sense of color.

Once she asked an art editor to find the green "that saved America."

What?

"Oh, you know, it's the green that's like a billiard table in broad sunlight."

Her most frequently quoted statement is: "Pink is the navy blue of India."

And on a day when her apartment had never looked more beautiful, she says in her new book "Allure," it "looked like the inside of a ruby."

Exactly!

This room, with these reds, and the air so dark and incensed as to be conspicuously translucent, embodies all of the fiercely deliberate eccentricity she schooled American women in when she wrote her famous "Why Don't You" column for Harper's Bazaar, starting in the '30s. Witness the oft-quoted: (why don't you) "rinse your blond child's hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France? . . . Knit yourself a little skullcap? . . . Consider for your beauty the creams made by Brother Carolus of Salzburg, who is an apostle of the Apollonian creed, which advocates bodily beauty as the first duty to God? . . ."

She sees things. The Jolliest Soldier

Of course, not all the epiphanies were pleasant.

A photograph of her at age 7 or so shows a grimly plain little girl with her hat strapped securely under her chin -- a budding mathematician, you might think, or a future headmistress.

"I was very aware of it," she says now. "At the time, particularly for that period, I was very ugly. You see there was a sort of classic look of a short nose, and, mmmm, I don't know, I just know that I've never had one feature that was anything like . . . but I look back on pictures of myself and I'm the jolliest soldier you ever saw in your life, buy you know, I was kind of on my own, I wasn't paid much attention. I never spent a lot of time trying to be differnt, but I was differnt, that was the awful thing, I was very ashamed of it."

How was she different?

"I have no idea, no idea, no idea. But I know that that used to haunt me.

How can I be like other people? So much simpler to be nobody. What does Emily Dickinson say . . . the pond . . . you're a frog in a pond, I've forgotten the poem, I love it, you know the one I mean, mmhmmm?"

She loved to dance, she says. "I loved to tango, go way downtown, used to go to these places where they played South American tangos, and none of this was very chic, this was not where a lot of people were going. This was before it all got chic in the early '30s." And there was the Bunny Hug and the Turkey Trot, which, she says now, was danced: "Fast, fast, fast, FAST! FAST!" And her voice gets louder and louder, rasping like a fingernail on a windowscreen.

She was unhappy, she says, until she married a banker named Reed Vreeland in 1924 (he died in 1967) and they went back to Europe to live, lived in London where she "read a novel every afternoon," and had two sons, and "lived all over Europe . . . and then I was happy . . . because I was seeing such marvelous things. . ."

And she was married to Reed, a wonderfully graceful and handsome man, to judge from a drawing on the wall. He wears the look of a fashionable man between the world wars, somehow tentative and deadly certain at the same time.

"See," says Diana Vreeland, with a strange horizontal pout, a sideways moue that may be unique to her. "So I couldn't have been too bad. And I think of that all the time. I couldn't have been that bad."

Augustus John drew her, the picture is on the wall, all angles, a certain Bloomsbury fatigue to her. And in the hall, by the Chinese red door, is a huge painting of her by William Acton, which makes her look like a swan, says Andy Warhol, another friend.

She and Reed went everywhere, knew everyone: Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker, Elsa Maxwell, the Aga Khan, Evelyn Waugh. . .

And everything was wonderful. Since then, she has never gotten depressed, she says. "I can't. There's no time. That's for people who don't work."

She, Reed and their two sons returned to America in the mid-'30s, and in less than a year she was working at Harper's Bazaar, writing the why-don't-you column and being the fashion editor, a position of such unassailable power that the fashion and media worlds were stunned when she moved to Vogue in 1962.

By then, of course, she was sui generis, self-defining, an oracle -- simply Diana Vreeland, the incarnation of haute couture.

As her friend Cecil Beaton wrote in "The Glass of Fashion": "Her own excess is as completely natural as that of a great actress. . . Altogether she is one of the most remarkable creatures who has lived and worked in the zany confines of the fashion world. A combination of Madame de Sevigne and Falstaff, Mrs. Vreeland graces the world with her presence. . ." 'Only Ornaments'

But what explains her presence, her power and career? Why is she Diana Vreeland, and we aren't? Why do we listen to her?

She has never articulated some great theory of fashion, outside of statements that everything is "stillness and movement," or "line and dash." All attempts at prying some great weltanschauung out of her founder in a sea of detail, Mick Jagger's lips, or Cole Porter's yacht in Hong Kong harbor, or Ida Rubenstein sweeping into her girlhood house in Paris in "black suede boots, black cloth coat with black fox, black fox, and her hair was in medusa curls covered in black tulle so it would blow, you know? She was deeviiine, deeviiine!"

We listen to her because she has seen things.

In "allure," for instance, she says that diamonds "almost make me cry. When I see diamonds in a north light, on a little velvet pillow . . . I die."

Or her two sons, when boys: "They were so good looking, very English scarlet cheeks, marvelous hair, beautiful clothes. They were so amusing. Mmhmmm. I remember walking into the dining room one afternoon with some friends of ours from New York who were coming for tea, and the little one was standing there, and he had these kind of slippers . . . but in loafers, gray loafers with gold buckles, and little whipcord shorts, silk shirt. Imagine, being able to dress your children like that, I mean . . . it was extraordinary . . . and they were admiring his slippers which of course he adored.

"He said, 'Of course they're totally deforming our feet, but you see, we're really only ornaments,'" she says, and rocks back and forth on her chair with silent laughter, and a cigarette burning.

"Out children loved to take up a new word like 'ornament.' Suddenly found that's the place to be in this house, an ornament. I supposed he was about 6." She laughs again. "'We're ornaments.' Their feet were being deformed, you can imagine. . ."

And she saw herself, one presumes. Saw herself as the plain but jolly little soldier of a little girl transformed herself until, as designer Kenneth Lane has said, "after you've been with her for five minutes, she's the most beautiful woman in the world."

And indeed, she is wonderful to look at.

So simple. So extraordinary. Her eyelids aren't painted, they're greased till they look lacquered. When she worries, just now, that she doesn't have enough lipstick on, she pulls out a lipstick and puts more on without dropping a beat. And she has rouged not only her cheeks but the back of her jaw line, the sides of her forehead, and her ears. Her ears?

"It sort of widens the face. Don't you think? Mmhmmm? C'est merveilleuse." An Epiphany

Is it that she has made herself into a beauty, or has she so changed the eyes of the rest of us, that our taste, which abhorred her great Anglican nose at the beginning of the century, now finds it beautiful?

After a long look at her book, at her collection of faces which have had "allure," it seems that if you took most of the women's pictures and somehow averaged them together, the flying-bridge cheekbones, the arched noses, the frail backwards flouches, all of this being the mating of the beautiful and the drastic, the droll and the severe, you might come up with a face that looks something like . . . Diana Vreeland's.

"They all looked a little like me at the end, you think? Mmhmmm?"

The brown eyes become motionless, the Vreeland stare, the mythological beast incarnate.

"Including Marilyn Monroe, of course. And Eva Peron."

Is she serious? Teasing? Demanding?

She narrows her eyes to a lapidary gleam, and lowers her voice to offer a confidence. It's tone that implies that what she's saying might just be The Answer. In any case, after a lifetime of seeing things, of telling us how to see each other, ourselves, and her, it's so simple when she says it. It's the ultimate fashion epiphany, its tragedy, and the logic behind it all. She says: "You never know what you look like."