The Empress’s new clothes

Diana Vreeland (left) with model Marisa Berenson

Fashion shows are in full swing, which means eyes not just on the catwalks, but also on the fashion editors seated on the front row. In other words, it’s perfect timing for The Eye Has to Travel, a film charting the life and work of perhaps the most legendary fashion magazine editor of all: Diana Vreeland.

Dubbed the “Empress of Fashion”, Vreeland (1903-1989) was fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar from 1936, before becoming editor-in-chief of American Vogue in 1962. In nine years at the helm of the magazine she launched the careers of models Twiggy, Penelope Tree and Jean Shrimpton, and photographers David Bailey, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, as well as being at the forefront of the 1960s “Youthquake”, a term she herself coined. She was fired from Vogue in 1971 because, as Vreeland said, “they wanted a different sort of magazine”.

The documentary, produced and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, a film-maker married to Vreeland’s grandson, tells Vreeland’s story from childhood in Europe through to her Vogue years. It includes photo montages and interviews with the great and the good of the industry – Anjelica Huston, Calvin Klein, Hubert de Givenchy and Lauren Hutton – and is linked by voiceover “interviews” taken from a series of recordings between Vreeland and editor of The Paris Review, George Plimpton.

“There were 36 to 38 hours of wonderful taped conversations, with whisky being poured in the background,” says Immordino. “It was like she’s right there telling you her life story.”

Some of Vreeland’s famous one-liners make it in, from “You’re not supposed to give people what they want. You’re supposed to give people what they don’t know they want, yet” to “You gotta have style. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it you’re nobody.” However, thanks to insights from Ali MacGraw, Vreeland’s assistant who thought her a rude task­mistress, and Vreeland’s sons, who felt neglected, the film avoids hagiography.

Still, Vreeland herself, glimpsed in the grainy footage of old TV interviews, is by far the most compelling part of the film. With every pause for breath in her slow, reedy voice, Vreeland creates a sense of anticipation for the next dry quip. Her bold statements paint a vivid image of how she thought things ought to be in the fabulous world of Vogue, where style was everything, life was for living, and budgets be damned.

‘The Eye Has to Travel’ is being shown at London cinemas from September 21

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