Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011) is like Marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it. Those who fall into the latter category will, in all likelihood, not understand what all the fuss is about and find the woman at the centre of this documentary sharp, obnoxious and hard to swallow – much like the aforementioned savory spread. Those on the other hand who revere Mrs Vreeland as one of the supreme ‘Queens of Fashion’ – up there along side Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Harper’s Bazaar’s late Liz Tilberis – will let every morsel of this tangy documentary cocktail linger tantilisingly on their palate.
Watching this 86 minute film, directed and written by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Brent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frédéric Tcheng, feels like a fast flick through one of the glossy magazines Vreeland became famous for editing. Spliced with archive interview footage of the woman herself discoursing on her colourful life and career – from her early Parisian childhood at the opening of the 20th century to her life in New York and career first at Bazaar and then its arch rival Vogue, before her rebirth as the doyenne of fashion historians at The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute – this film is a fascinating insight into one of the true legends of fashion.
However it is also a mesmerising photo-album of many of the defining moments and images which shaped culture in the 20th century and beyond. As the stars who contribute memories to the film – from Ali McGraw, Angelica Huston and Penelope Tree to David Bailey and Richard Avedon – testify, Vreeland may have been a nightmare to work for but she had an uncanny ability to capture the essence of the moment and put her finger on the pulse of style. In the recent documentary The September Issue (2009) that other fashion legend Grace Coddington grudgingly admits that her boss at Vogue, Anna Wintour, was right when she started the trend of putting celebrities on the cover of the magazine. However after watching Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011) you will see that it was Vreeland who went one better by discovering (and creating) the celebrities, such as Lauren Bacall, in the first place.
Like many famous people, particularly those who become defined by their jobs, their families often take second place and suffer as a result. Though she clearly adored her husband Thomas Reed Vreeland, her sons Tim and Frecky, who contribute to the film, appear to have had a distant relationship with their mother – most likely due to the fact that she virtually lived for her job. Nonetheless those, including her sons, who are interviewed, all remember Vreeland with the affection and respect one would have for an eccentric yet beloved old aunt.
Some years ago I studied fashion journalism in London, and though my writing career took a different path, films like Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011) and its vibrant and colourful subject, remind me why I, like many, will always have a hankering after the world of glossy fashion magazines and the exotic lifestyles of those who create them.