Would it be fair to say that Diana Vreeland (1903-1989), the illustrious Editor in Chief of Vogue in the 1960s, shaped and defined women’s glossy magazines as we now find it at the news stand?
“I think that there are many valuable editors who were out there and who played a very defining role in the magazines we have today”, answers Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of Diana Vreeland’s grandson Alexander. “What many of these editors did not have was the vision that Mrs. Vreeland had – she used the magazine to create a dialogue with her audience which was much more than just about fashion. That is why she continues to resonate today”.
To make her resonate further, Lisa Immordino Vreeland made a magnificent book, ‘The Eye Has To Travel’, which displays Diana Vreeland’s real vision to the world. It took her three years to complete the book wherein she spent six months working on the design side of it with Patrick Li. Her goal was to make a visual book that displayed Mrs. Vreeland’s real vision to the world. “I wanted the images to speak to the reader through her own words and include a collection of 350 photos from Mrs. Vreeland’s illustrious career at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”.
The book excels visually and textually. It is filled with illuminating essays by Judith Thurman and Judith Clark and with insightful observations and comments from people who collaborated with the charismatic Editor in Chief. “Fashion is something that Diana believes enters into everything in life: the way one walks, talks, lives, breathes, eats and thinks – and certainly the way one loves as well as what one wears. She carries this belief into her editing”, comments Bettina Ballard, a former fashion editor of Vogue.
200% spoke with Lisa Immordino Vreeland and discussed with her if Diana Vreeland adapted her persona into Vogue or did she mould Vogue into her persona, from where her alertness to beauty and novelty originated, and her greatest asset: her daring to be different.
200%:I’m sure in the research process of making this book on Mrs. Vreeland you have discovered extraordinary things you didn’t previously know about her. Were there certain facts by which you were particularly struck?
Lisa Immordino Vreeland: The research process entailed going through twenty six years of Bazaar, nine years at Vogue and all of her shows at the Costume Institute. I was particularly struck by the breadth of her vision. It clearly was not just about fashion – it was a vision and philosophy that Mrs. Vreeland embraced.
200%: Could you tell me an anecdote about her renowned attention to detail. How far did she go?
LIV: Mrs. Vreeland was famously known to be a very difficult person with whom to work – she had a standard of work that she applied to everything. She felt that as she worked so hard – everyone should do the same. She would forego holiday’s and expected her co-workers to follow suit. She even had co-workers who would cry at the end of a work day because they were so upset with her but who would return the next day wanting more because she was such a great teacher.
200%: From where does Mrs. Vreeland’s alertness to beauty and novelty originate?
LIV: As a young child Mrs. Vreeland was told by her mother that she was “her ugly little monster.” It was at this point in her life that she decided that she needed to become an “original” and to “stand out”. This was not a dictum that applied to her own personal style but the way she acted and lived her life. It was clearly a very pivotal moment for her.
200%: In the introduction of your book you write “It can be said that her mother, a great adventurer and hunter, endowed Diana with one of her greatest assets: her daring to be different”. Did her mother also instill in Mrs. Vreeland her love for clothes, or were there other influences?
LIV: Emily Hoffman, Mrs. Vreeland’s mother, although she was from an upper middle class family was not a traditional woman. She was different from the typical society women and because Mrs. Vreeland’s [mother] was so unhappy with her [daughter] at a young age she [Diana] realized that she had to be different. Her love in fashion developed from her trying to be an “original” and “standing out”.
200%: Having made the book did you find the answer as to what made Mrs. Vreeland tick?
LIV: In making the book and movie [a film of the same name premiered at the Venice Film Festival 2011] I feel like I now really understand [her]. I not only understand her creativity but her dreams. It was her dreams and passion that drove her. She wanted people to be part of those dreams and passions and used her work to push forward that message.
200%: Mrs. Vreeland was also renowned for her strong opinions. Do you know whether designers consulted her on their collections, or asked her advice before they were presented on the catwalk?
LIV: I know that during her years at Bazaar and Vogue many people consulted her, not only within America but also from France. She was known always to be very supportive of the French designers but was able to interact more with the American designers as she was based in America. At Bazaar many designers valued her input and followed it verbatim; whilst at Vogue she helped many designers in their first steps of their career (Diane von Furstenberg, Mary Quant, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik, Carolina Herrera, the Missoni’s)
200%: Was Mrs. Vreeland obsessed with youth / being young?
LIV: She was obsessed with knowing new things and being exposed to everything and everyone. She was curious and supportive of everyone and that was one of her true assets. Due to these characteristics, she was able to bring what she learned – through these new connections – to us.
200%: Could you tell me what the spreads were like that were not run in the Vogue and why they didn’t run?
LIV: I am not privy to shoots that did not run and I am not even sure if Condé Nast has kept these. It is clear, though, in my discussions with photographers, that Vreeland was always looking for something impossible in the photos. She was interested in the clothes whilst the photographer was interested in the picture. She wanted the girls to look like they were alive in the clothes and had a certain energy. This did not always come across in the shots and she would ask the photographer to re-shoot many times.
200%: Are there in your opinion Editors in Chief of fashion magazines today that edit their magazines with a spirit similar to Diana Vreeland?
LIV: NO – NO – NO !! No one emulates Diana Vreeland’s spirit and vision in today’s fashion world. She also had the good fortune to be present at a time of great creativity and changes [in the 1960s].
200%: Did Mrs. Vreeland adapt her persona into Vogue or did she mould Vogue into her persona?
LIV: Vogue was very lucky to have Mrs. Vreeland. Before she arrived it was a very ‘sleepy’ magazine – a society ladies’ magazine. It did not contain lots of life. As the 1960s hit New York – Vreeland arrived at Vogue. She gave it life – her life – her vision – and her spirit.
200%: Mrs. Vreeland seemed not to care much about advertisers’ interest in the magazine. In her Harper’s Bazaar period she was inspired by a favourite Chanel ensemble of trousers and a tailored shirt with inside pockets. Vreeland argued “with even bigger pockets a woman could carry all her necessities – lipsticks, cigarettes, money etc – without the burden of a bloody old handbag that one leaves in a taxi”. Her then editor, Carmel Snow, said to her: “I think you’ve lost your mind. Do you realize that our income from handbag advertising is God knows how many millions a year”. Louise Dahl Wolfe, a photographer with whom Mrs. Vreeland collaborated regularly, recalls an episode on a production: “We had to photograph clothes we lavishly called ‘pearls of little price’; that meant they came from manufacturers that advertised, so the more they spent, the bigger the picture”. Did Mrs. Vreeland find advertisers and their interests in the magazine a nuisance?
LIV: Mrs. Vreeland philosophy was dictated by her vision – it was one full of fantasy. I know that she did not find advertisers to be a nuisance but simply went on with her way of life – which included creating whatever images she wanted. When she started writing her infamous proclamations, WHY DON’T YOU, at Bazaar the advertising department at a certain point tried to place products in the column. That is when Vreeland stopped writing the column – for her that column represented a place for the reader to escape. It was part of the fantasy that she was creating for her readers already.
200%: At the end of her career at Vogue the cost of making the magazine had become exorbitant. Didn’t she care about the level of spending on the magazine?
LIV: During Mrs. Vreeland’s tenure at Vogue she was publishing 22 issues a year. There were two issues a month except for June and December. I think that she was well aware of the costs involved in making a magazine but her vision was unique and often difficult to achieve the first time around. That is why there often many re-shoots.
When Mrs. Vreeland was fired from Vogue they started to publish 12 issues a year and the circulation immediately shot up – as you can see the increase in circulation had nothing to do with the new Editor in Chief but the result of a reduction in issues per year.
200%: After Mrs. Vreeland was fired at Vogue she managed to start a new, successful career at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Do you think she ever got over her sudden sacking at Vogue and was able to give it a place?
LIV: It was quite a shock to her system when she was fired. As I conducted my research I found that there were many different tales of what actually happened. The firing is clear but what she did immediately after is not clear. One family member says that she was in NY Hospital flat on her back for a month; others say that she disappeared to the south of Paris and stayed with Pauline de Rothschild. What is clear – is that she did pick up the pieces and moved on very quickly.
200%: Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar are arch rivals. How would Mrs. Vreeland describe the difference between Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar?
LIV: Mrs. Vreeland once said that “Vogue was a way of life”. When Mrs. Vreeland was at Vogue she was the Editor in Chief – she was able to capture the zeitgeist of what was happening in the sixties and transpose it onto the pages of Vogue. She was perfect for this because of her sense of internationalism and her openness toward so many things in life, people, and the world. When she arrived at Vogue it was very much of a ladies society magazine and reached its golden years under her leadership. She made it a magazine not only full of fashion but of news that was taking place throughout the world in both art/society/culture and literature.
I feel that her career at Bazaar, a very long twenty six years, trained her for this. Her years at Bazaar, as Fashion Director, let her focus on something that she truly loved – fashion. She was able to work with one of the most important art directors in the world, Alexey Brodovitch, and the very talented Editor in Chief, Carmel Snow. She spent those years honing her skills and understanding the true needs of a magazine. Bazaar was at its best when Brodovitch/Snow/Vreeland were there – it was the most important fashion magazine at that time. When Vreeland moved to Vogue she quickly changed that!
Interview conducted by Thierry Somers‘The Eye Has To Travel’ by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, published by Abrams books.
Upcoming article: Reports from Frieze London 2019, an interview with the artist Bernard Piffaretti on the practice of his ‘duplication method’ – abstract paintings that appear to be two identical halves, split through the vertical axis. Also articles on Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates and Ai Weiwei.