The new documentary, “The Eye Has to Travel,” takes us into the world of the great fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who started life as an ugly duckling (dismissed by her mother in favor of her pretty sister), but who used her eccentric looks and personality to become one of the top figures in her profession.
The movie, which opens today at the Avon Theatre in Stamford, is an offshoot of the gorgeous coffee table book of the same title put together by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who married Diana’s grandson, Alexander.
Working with her co-directors Bert-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng, Vreeland has produced a film of considerable beauty and intelligence and humor that would probably thrill its subject.
The continuting fascination with Vreeland and the modern fashion culture she played a key role in building is reflected in the wonderful new interviews with Anjelica Huston, Ali MacGraw, David Bailey, Marisa Berenson and many other celebrities who worked with the editor.
MacGraw worked as Vreeland’s assistant at Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1960s and the stories she tells sound like scenes from “The Devil Wears Prada,” with the editor tossing her coat in the young woman’s face as she arrived at work.
Vreeland was famous for her funny epigrams and go-with-the-flow manner in public settings, but the women who worked with her were worked very hard by their boss.
The editor moved from Harper’s Bazaar to Vogue just as the 1960s “youthquake” was moving into high gear and she responded with gusto to the revolution in pop music, movies and fashion.
It was Vreeland who made a star out of the skinny, gawky British model Twiggy and who celebrated Barbra Streisand’s offbeat looks by using her as the subject of a fashion layout early on in the singer-actress’ career.
The filmmakers have culled lots of good interviews Vreeland gave to Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and other TV personalities in which she talks about her immediate connection to the youth culture of the 1960s. She made Vogue more than a magazine about clothes, she opened the magazine up to features on artists, writers, actors that broadened the scope of what her rivals thought should be in a fashion magazine.
Vreeland forged alliances with several great photographers in addition to Bailey. Richard Avedon (above) really came of age under the editor’s tutelage and together they pushed the boundaries of what sort of pictures were “suitable” for a mass circulation magazine.
Marisa Berenson talks about being one of the first models to pose semi-nude in a fashion lay-out and we also see shots from Avedon’s striking series of unclothed pictures of Nureyev at the peak of his fame.
The relationship between Avedon and Vreeland was immortalized in the 1957 Stanley Donen musical “Funny Face” in which Fred Astaire played a fictionalized version of the photographer and Kay Thompson chewed the scenery as a Vreeland stand-in (shouting “Think Pink!” to her harried assistants).
“The Eye Has to Travel” deals with the shock of Vreeland’s firing from Vogue in the early 1970s when her eccentric ways and very expensive photo shoots no longer seemed to be in tune with the post-1960s zeitgeist.
The editor came up with a great final act, however, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired her to jazz up their moribund Costume Institute, and she turned it into one of the most celebrated elements at the institution. Vreeland also raised a tremendous amount of money for the museum through exhibit opening night galas.
Ironically, the magazine that once canned her now benefits from Vreeland’s work building up the Costume Institute into a major force on the New York cultural and social scene. Vogue and its current editor Anna Wintour run the annual media spectacle of each year’s opening night party.