The Eye Travels With Diana Vreeland

Some films have to be experienced by an over-sized silver screen, and certainly an over-sized personality such as Diana Vreeland requires a sprawling canvas. Thankfully, the co-director and producer behind the new documentary, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” managed to summon the verve and individuality of this legend in a visually lavish and inspiring 86 minutes that one could imagine would make its subject grin one of those signature Cheshire slashes of red lipstick.

Yet Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who picked up her second surname when she married Vreeland’s grandson, Alexander—yet never got to meet her famous relation, who died in 1989—didn’t think her in-law would be so approving of her: “I don’t think Diana would’ve liked me,” she told me at the tail end of the post-screening cocktail party hosted by the Costume Council last week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, sounding every bit as honest as she was self-effacing in this surprising assertion.

Surprising, because Linda is one of those tall, tastefully dressed New York women who it could only be surmised worked in the fashion or art worlds. She is lovely. Then again, she is cool beige to her grandmother-in-law’s fire red, so this might be what she was getting at.

But appearances are deceiving, so the cliche goes, and what lurked in Linda’s mind and ended up onscreen is a fabulous tribute to a woman that has proven such a force in so many ways. The film came out of the research Linda was thick into for a book on D.V., and thankfully she took the three year journey to complete it. She assembled interviews with designers the celebrated editor championed, and photographers, models and former assistants Mrs. Vreeland mentored into their own storied status; there are TV interviews; influential editorial spreads; context-placing film clips and music, and even more gobsmacking photographs.

Mrs. Vreeland’s pithy pronouncements and observations can be heard throughout, from recordings she made with George Plimpton, who helped her with her 1984 bio “D.V.” to words channeled by an actress when those recordings proved too muddy. It’s a wild ride at times. But it all works.

If anything, it seems the first-time director’s opinion might be misplaced insecurity.

The packed house at LACMA’s Bing Theater last week couldn’t stop talking about the film during the post-party in the museum courtyard. I had crashed the screening a bit late, along with another two friends I coincidentally met at the parking lot, Peggy Moffitt and her son Chris Claxton. Peggy’s contemporary Penelope Tree was interviewed for the film, but it was Peggy’s experience with D.V. that I enjoyed in the courtyard, after retrieving a a generous pour of red wine for her and Champagne for Chris and me.

In a nutshell: D.V. had summoned L.A. designer Rudi Gernreich to her Vogue office in New York to personally show her the revolutionary bathing suit that everyone was buzzing about. So it goes, according to Peggy, that the famous photograph her husband, the wonderful late Bill Claxton, took of her in the topless bathing suit was not to be seen by anyone, ever. So modeling it for anyone was not even a conversation she wanted to entertain.

But Rudi begged her to model the suit live for the influential editor. She finally agreed, but only if she could avoid walking the Vogue newsroom and through the gauntlet of editors and assistants there. She was granted permission to change out of her street clothes and into the topless suit in D.V.’s private powder room! She slipped into the suit, then a kimono she’d bought for cheap on Hollywood boulevard. In front of D.V., she opened the kimono and let it slip to her wrists and down her back. The designer and two women stood there in silence. Then Peggy slipped the kimono back over her shoulders, tied it closed, turned and walked back to the powder room.

It was then that D.V. finally let out her first words: “I loooove that keeeee-mohh-nooo!” She announced in her deep throated manner. Peggy, laughing in between drags of her cigarette as she retold the story, repeated the way D.V. stretched out “kimono.”

Poor Rudi, I said. Not to worry. D.V. approved of the suit and talked shop with the designer for a bit.

A wonderful nugget of history, only to be matched by the story Jacqueline Bisset told Peggy, Chris and me before Peggy countered with her tale. It’s one I will share another time, as well as great exchanges with D.V.’s son Tim Vreeland, and unrelated conversations with Lois Aldrin, stylist Tanya Gill and other pals there. Yes, it was one of those nights, which brings me to one of my favorite D.V. proverbs (and I was actually wearing a new dress, by another D.V…Diana Von Furstenberg. But I know all too well a dress is only a dress…):

“…A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere; it’s the life you’re living in the dress, and the sort of life you had lived before, and what you will do in it later.”

Go see the film. It deserves a viewing on a grand screen, so don’t be lazy and wait for the DVD.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” opens Friday, September 21 at The Landmark Theater, 10850 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles. 310-281-8233.

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