Diana Vreeland was a towering figure who has continued to loom over the world of fashion long past her death in 1989. Hired on little more than a whim by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow in 1936, Vreeland spent 25 years at Bazaar creating wonderful and wild fashion fantasies in its pages before moving on to become editor-in-chief of Vogue. Though she was instrumental in transforming the then little-known magazine into the fashion bible it is today, her excessive and expensive management style caught up to her in 1971 when she was unceremoniously fired. She then began her third act as a consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Her unconventional style of curating and mounting exhibitions rankled museum traditionalists but engaged the public and made historical costume relevant to the modern fashion world.
“I loathe nostalgia,” Vreeland once declared. Perhaps the Empress of Fashion would be ill-prepared for the celebratory reverence with which she is treated as the subject of a new documentary directed and produced by her granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland. As Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel opens in theaters in New York and L.A. on Sept. 21, TIME sat down with Immordino Vreeland to talk filmmaking, First Ladies and the inimitable Vreeland pizazz.
You’ve said that you first encountered Diana’s work when you read Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue when you were in college. What was your initial impression of her back then?
Well, I was struck by the photography. So, already back then I knew who she was, and then after college I ended up living in New York and working in fashion, so I knew about her. I saw some of [her] shows at the Met, and then it just so happened I met her grandson, which was just an odd thing. But I’ve always really loved photography, and the photography from those years is just so beautiful. It just draws you in immediately.
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How did your husband and the Vreeland family react when they found out you wanted to make a movie about her?
Well, it started as a book. My husband knows me well enough that when I start to talk about something, the juices are working, and that I’m up to something. And once I start to talk about it, he knows that it’s going to happen. I kept thinking about it, but I didn’t know if I had the guts to do it, actually. There’s a reason that no one has done a book on her for a really long time. No one’s really touched her, and I think it’s because you have to do it really well. I wasn’t going to have a guarantee that I was going to do it really well, but I knew that I was going to try my hardest, and that I was going to get a great team around me, both for the book and the film.
What surprises did you uncover while making this film about Diana?
I got to know her. I didn’t know her before. It’s not like she was subject matter at the dinner table. I always felt the way I knew her was in a very superficial way, which was this way of the grand dame, the empress of fashion, seeming like she did not have any kind of depth. What I got to know was much more the oracle side and the spiritual side. She played such an important role in people’s lives, and not because she knew the right shoe to wear. It’s because she really pushed them to look for different things in themselves. That’s the side that I found the best, and that’s why I think it was important we were able to show that in the film, which is really nice. It’s not just a fashion film.
It transcends that.
She transcends it, and that’s why she’s kind of up there on her own.
You’re married to Diana’s grandson, but you never got to meet Diana. After having made this film, what would you want to ask her if you were able to meet?
At this point, I would want to know if she knew what she was doing. I don’t think she realized that she was this kind of oracle out there. From all of these conversations that we used—which established most of the dialogue in the film—and in those transcripts [a series of interviews between Vreeland and George Plimpton], that’s where you see that she didn’t really take herself seriously. She didn’t really think she was leaving some kind of legacy behind. She was totally unaware of it. She was simply being driven by passion, wanting to live a certain type of life and show people that that was what was important.
Diana famously said, “The bikini is the biggest thing since the atom bomb.” Do you think there are any things about fashion in 2012 that she would be shocked by, or consider really innovative?
I think she would find all of this, the Internet and the instant message, quite incredible. The fact that you walk down the runway and at the same time, it’s basically going online. I think that she was so with it and she could really understand this whole concept of high and low culture, which was not normal for a woman like that, for her to be so open to these things. I think that she would be able to accept a lot of what’s going on.
Are there other fashion editors or figures in the fashion world that you see as wielding the same kind of influence that Diana did?
I think she had a different kind of influence. Her influence is that people look at her and they feel that’s where their fantasies can be, and that’s where their creativity can be unleashed, and they look at her for that reference. I don’t think there’s anybody today with that kind of reference. You don’t really have a figure like Mrs. Vreeland. She had a hand in creating the most referenced images in fashion, but then she went and she took a magazine, Vogue, that was really nothing and she made it into something with real meat and guts. She understood that the ‘60s were about social and political changes, but at the same time, she also understood that it was about internationalism. Everybody’s going to just follow in her footsteps, including Anna Wintour. Anna Wintour is following her success from the ‘60s, because the golden years of Vogue were there. I think Anna Wintour has brought it into a whole different realm of what’s going on, but she is following in her footsteps, because she also has a role now at the Costume Institute.
Diana knew and liked Jackie Kennedy and advised her on her fashions as First Lady. What do you think Diana would think of Michelle Obama and her style?
It was a very different thing. Jackie Kennedy was a really sophisticated European lady who loved French couture just like Mrs. Vreeland did. They had this amazing ability to communicate. Kennedy had certainly her own personal style. But in a funny way, there is a comparison to be made with Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy. They went out and they got their hands dirty. It was Jackie Kennedy who totally redid the White House. And Michelle Obama has gone in and she’s made it her own. Stylistically, the way they dress, it’s a little bit hard [to compare], because Kennedy was so sophisticated. Obama is in her own way, but she definitely embraces fashion more. And she’s been great about it! But they do have this kind of energy and eagerness to change things, both of those women. I think that Vreeland would have loved Michelle Obama.
Diana’s mother often treated her as an ugly duckling, and yet she went into fashion, which can often be harsh and superficial. Do you think there is a correlation there? Even though her mother didn’t think she was beautiful, she would surround herself with beautiful things?
She had this rough go at it for a little bit throughout her life. She had a childhood diary where she would comment little things, and she would say, “I need to stand out. I need to be an original.” She was very conscious of her looks at a certain point, especially with her sister. But once she met [her husband] Reed, those things kind of dissolved, and she had this unbelievably handsome man.
Do you think Diana had any personal style icons?
Oh I think there were so many different things stylistically that she loved. She loved the toreadors, the bullfighter’s pants. She loved the long lines. She loved the elegance of horses. She loved anything about the Ballet Russe. I think there were different things that she drew from the Ballet Russe, such as the sense of theatricality and the gesturing. And that’s what was great, because it wasn’t just based on beauty. It was based on the texture of the person, the depth of the person—for anything. She just had her eyes open. I think that’s why the title’s so fitting. It’s something she said, not something that I made up. It’s not just about the mind traveling, it’s about everything moving forward. I think it’s an important reference for us today.
What you do feel was her most significant contribution to the fashion world?