Q&A: Remembering ‘the empress of fashion,’ Diana Vreeland

Story highlights

Diana Vreeland was a fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar and editor-in-chief of Vogue.

Vreeland advised Jackie O and fostered the careers of '60s "it" girls Twiggy and Penelope Tree

A new documentary, "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," follows the renowned style arbiter's life

CNN  — 

“Style – all who have it share one thing: originality.”

With her heavily rouged cheeks, hawk nose, fondness for costume jewelry and quotable musings delivered with a smoker’s rasp, Diana Vreeland is certainly regarded as an original.

Under her editorial watch, some of the most iconic images of our times were published: The first picture of the Kennedys as a presidential couple in Harper’s Bazaar, Barbra Streisand’s pronounced profile on the cover of Vogue and 19-year-old up-and-comer Mick Jagger on the pages inside.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is the director of the new documentary “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” an intimate reflection and celebration of Diana Vreeland’s remarkable life and clout in the fashion scene. The film goes into limited U.S. release today.

In 1936, Vreeland was hired as the fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar – a position she would hold for 25 years before being named the editor-in-chief at Vogue. At 70, after being fired from Vogue rather brusquely and disdainful of the idea of retirement, she became a special consultant to The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until she died in 1989.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland is married to Alexander Vreeland, Diana’s grandson, but never got to meet Diana before she died.

Immordino Vreeland spoke to CNN about the renowned tastemaker, her fabled life and how we could all dare to look at the world with a more astute eye.

CNN: What made Vreeland’s concept of beauty so revolutionary?

Lisa Immordino Vreeland: I think that Diana Vreeland’s definition of beauty was so open because she was such an open person. I think she understood what low and high culture was, and I think that’s one of the most important outlooks that she had because beauty doesn’t have to be just physical. Beauty has to be deep down, it has to be soulful. It’s not about the dress you wear, it’s about the life you lead in the dress.

I feel that is very important for what life is about. Beauty transcends fashion, and in a sense, she transcended fashion. For her, it was an awareness of people, of people’s personalities, and that was one of the most important aspects that she had.

CNN: In the case of ’60s icons such as Penelope Tree, Twiggy and Mick Jagger, she was known for seeing things in them before they saw it in themselves. She also wasn’t afraid of pushing people’s “faults.” Why was this so significant?

Immordino Vreeland: I think it’s about being your true self. Whatever was real was what she was ultimately striving for. She was always looking at the layer underneath everything, even if that layer contained faults. For her, it was about the depth of a person that counted.

She, of course, understood what real beauty was. For her, somebody like Penelope Tree, who was brought up in a good family in New York, she saw a girl under there that was totally different. She was not the normal beauty. She really represented the ’60s, which was original thought.

CNN: She once said of style, “It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it, you’re nobody. I’m not talking about lots of clothes.” What can people learn from Vreeland about this concept of personal style?

Immordino Vreeland: I think you’re going to have to go with yourself – especially today when you travel throughout the world and you find all the same stores everywhere.

When Diana was around, it was about when you go to Milan, you can get certain things. It was about having your own sense of identity and, for her, that’s what counts. It’s about how you’re living your life in that dress. It’s about the decisions that you’re making. If you’re comfortable with this, then everybody else should be comfortable with this.

Don’t forget, she was not this remarkable beauty – and that was one of her driving forces. She grew up with a mother who was very difficult – she not only called her “her ugly little monster” but then continued to challenge her.

In fact, when she was married to Reed (Vreeland), and he was just unbelievably handsome, the same day in the gossip columns in New York, it was announced that her mother was having a huge affair. So, all the attention was taken away from Diana Vreeland on her wedding day and put on her mother. She understood you have to trust yourself, believe in yourself and that, for me, is fundamentally what her message is.

CNN: On “The Dick Cavett Show” in the late ’70s, Vreeland said, “Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.” What do you think she meant by that?

Immordino Vreeland: It’s interesting because shoes and clothes are like this. You can see what’s going on in history through all of these things. It shows and marks what’s going on socially, culturally and politically during that time and in the end, when she was doing these shows at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, she was educating us on those periods of history.

If you look at the ’60s, it’s clear it’s the ‘60s. If you look at Balenciaga, you know that it’s the ‘40s and the ‘50s. She’s making us aware that clothes show us so much more of history.

CNN: Why do you think her legacy has remained relevant?

Immordino Vreeland: This is a message of life. This is the oracle side of her. She is talking about life, about passion, about being driven. We shouldn’t be driven by ambition, but for a discovery of the world. I think that the title of the film, “The Eye Has to Travel,” it’s about the mind traveling, it’s about having imagination, it’s about fantasy. And this is not anything that has to do with fashion; she transcends fashion. This is about life.

I think we could stand to be inspired. I think we’re living in such a moment of lack of inspiration; I think it’s crazy. It’s not only because we’re all stuck behind computers all day, including myself. We’re not looking, we’re not observing, there’s so much more to life. She used fashion to give a message.