A new look at a fashion icon

A few years back I hunkered down in the FIDM library in downtown Los Angeles with a stack of American Vogues from the 1960's. My purpose was research for a piece I was writing on photographer Irving Penn, whose images often appeared in the magazine along with other star fashion photographers like Richard Avedon and David Bailey. I did get a good dose of Penn, but I was also struck by what a magical era that was for Vogue, whose editor at the time was Diana Vreeland. The magazine was larger in format and the photographs and layouts felt more experimental and dynamic than its current incarnation. Celebrities appeared in features and fashion layouts, but they blended with other content instead of being used as a device to promote the magazine, as they are today. There seemed to be an unlimited budget for travel when it came to fashion layouts. Models and photographers went all over the world to satisfy Mrs. Vreeland's obvious desire for fantasy and exoticism. It was also clear that she reveled in the 60's, making the most of the explosion in pop culture. She clearly admired film, music, and dance and regularly integrated them into her pages.

So of course I jumped at the chance recently to view the new documentary about Vreeland's life "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel" at LACMA . The Museum's Costume Council held the screening as its first event of the year . The film was produced and co-directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who is married to Vreeland's grandson Alexander.

vreeland-from-site.jpgBorn in Paris and raised in New York, Diana Vreeland's journey from an "ugly duckling" childhood to the top of the heap of the fashion world is utterly compelling. Living in Manhattan in 1936, the wife and mother with no work experience was offered a job at Harper's Bazaar after Bazaar editor Carmel Snow spotted her in a nightclub and admired her style. She worked at Bazaar for 25 years, and after being passed over for the top editor spot, moved to Vogue as editor-in-chief in 1962. Vreeland's reign at Vogue lasted 10 years. As the 70's approached, the powers-that-be at Conde Nast became more and more disenchanted with Vreeland's editorial approach. Spending was over the top and they wanted to inject the magazine with more practicality, both in budget and editorial content. Vreeland, however, was to have a brilliant third act as special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although she initially bumped up against some of the museum's curators because of her lack of academic credentials, it is because of her influence, originality, and bravado that the Met's costume exhibits are today some of their most popular and successful.

The documentary contains footage of Vreeland's interviews with Diane Sawyer, Jane Pauley and Dick Cavett. There are on-camera interviews with photographers (Bailey, Richard Avedon), models (Penelope Tree, Marisa Berenson, Lauren Hutton, Veruschka, and China Machado), designers (Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta) and family members. For me, the film's most important message was that Diana Vreeland invented the modern fashion editor. Before her, fashion magazines were run by and aimed at society ladies whose main concern was how to please their husbands. Vreeland introduced a global perspective; embracing the arts, individual personalities, and change. I can't deny that I was entertained by the eccentricity of Vreeland's personality and approach, but there was more than that. Immordino-Vreeland shows us that her legendary grandmother-in-law, although highly flawed , was a visionary who inspired, mentored, and influenced many -- and that is reason enough to learn more about her life by seeing this film.

"Diana Vreeland:The Eye Has To Travel" will be released in Los Angeles on Sept.21.

More by Judy Graeme:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed