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Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel Reviewed
Nadia Attia , September 17th, 2012 08:17

Nadia Attia delves into the world of 20th century fashion icon Diana Vreeland, the subject of a new documentary in cinemas this week. Portrait by Horst P Horst, 1979, courtesy photographer's estate / Art + Commerce

Diana (pronounced Dee-anna) Vreeland once said, "Style is everything... style is a way of life. Without it you're nothing." And mostly, when Vreeland spoke, everyone listened – sometimes they would have no choice. Dubbed the 'Empress of Fashion' during (and beyond) her fifty-year career, she was a tastemaker within the fashion world but her bright, manicured fingers also fondled the tresses of art, music and film.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel is a great introduction to this colourful character. It benefits from being made by her granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, herself a fashion professional, who had access to audio memoirs, talent and archive footage that she knits together seamlessly. Thankfully, the familial connection doesn't steer this profile into sycophancy. Instead, it retains an even keel throughout as a thought-provoking tribute to a remarkable lady.

The title is from another of Vreeland's phrases (she was an infinitely quotable woman), and refers to the eye of the reader travelling across the pages of a magazine and into a journey of the imagination. The documentary itself feels very much like a foray into its subject's frenetic imagination: given her ability to put on a good show, you're certainly not disappointed with where she takes you.

Vreeland's Paris-based parents were a society couple, mingling with the stars of Ballets Russes and purveyors of haute couture, At a young age her mother - who was herself particularly glamourous - described Vreeland as her "ugly little monster". The girl seemed to channel this into a source of strength and a dazzling new persona. Painfully aware of her less attractive features, prominent nose and gangly gait, Vreeland only found her footing through dance, after moving to the USA. She gained self-confidence by subverting contemporary norms of appearance and conduct, styling herself instead with distinctive traits: rouge on the ears, large coiffed hair, white makeup, a cigarette holder poised between deep red lips.

It was in this way that she caught the eye of not only of future husband Thomas Reed Vreeland, but also of the powers that be at Harper's Bazaar, landing her first magazine job as fashion editor at the age of 33. Her career is dissected by a variety of talking heads, including Diane Von Furstenberg, Manolo Blahnik, Anjelica Huston, Joel Schumacher and David Bailey. Each has a glowing anecdote about the "crazy old aunt". Perhaps the best recollection is from photographer Bailey, who once propositioned Vreeland with the blunt one-liner: "If you were 20 years younger I'd do you." To which she replied: "If I were 20 years younger you'd have no choice."

Vreeland's rambunctious persona even sashayed onto the silver screen as inspiration for Maggie Prescott in Funny Face, Ms Maxwell in Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and in part for Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep's character) in The Devil Wears Prada. But these are merely pale caricatures of the original. And Vreeland truly was an original: a lady who through her taste, intelligence and wit rose to the top in a man's world and managed to connect the most artistic and unique people in her cultural jigsaw. The film spans most of the last century and twins archive footage with husky, diary-like audio clips, through which the columnist displays a particular passion for the 1920s and '60s.

However, behind the upbeat stories about Studio 54, famous friends, fashion montages and peppy soundtrack, there is little meat on the bones of Vreeland's unhappy childhood or her supposed breakdown after her husband died of cancer in 1966. These might have provided a more realistic look at her strength of character - and the doc really is about character - her individualism and identity. Taken as a whole, the message is to celebrate your flaws, screw the establishment and live as rich a life as possible. Perhaps then, it doesn't matter that you don't get the peaks and troughs of the Diana Vreeland story – it's enjoyable enough to ride the wave and let it carry you away.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel has its UK premiere at Curzon Mayfair this Wednesday September 19, with director Lisa Immordino Vreeland in conversation, then goes on nationwide theatrical release from Friday.