LONDON, United Kingdom — I first met Diana Vreeland at lunch in an Italian castle just outside Rome in the late 70s. It was a hot and sultry day and, although everyone there spoke English, albeit heavily accented in many cases, I think she was weary and probably a little bored and wanted to talk with someone for whom English was a first language. Whatever the reason, she took a shine to me and we began a conversation that was to last well over a year about a designer whom we both revered.
I was terrified of her, not so much as a person but for what she stood for in international fashion. Although by then dethroned as the queen of fashion magazines, having been sacked from her job as editor-in-chief of American Vogue, she still ruled the world. She was charming and gracious and I did my best to be interesting, although my knowledge of fashion was nothing compared with hers.
For reasons I cannot now entirely recall, apart from the language we shared, our hostess that day, the designer for whom I then worked, arranged for me to accompany Mrs Vreeland to Rome airport for her return to New York two days later. I arrived at her hotel to be met by her personal assistant, a fey young man showing every sign of being under intense pressure.
As we took the lift up to Vreeland’s suite, he explained that she was in the throes of packing. I asked how things were going. “Going?” he echoed hysterically. “What you must understand is that, at this point, we are dealing with a woman deranged,” he almost yelled. “Deranged!”
We walked into the suite. The air was stiff with tension. There were clothes everywhere. Huge travelling trunks littered the floor. There were two ironing boards and three black-clad hotel maids scurrying around, pink and cross with tightly pursed lips as Mrs Vreeland stood in the centre of the room like a circus master barking instructions at them on how to iron and pack.
Dragging heavily on a cigarette, she kept rejecting their efforts. Surprised that they understood English, I asked her where the hotel had found English speakers. She look at me as if I were mad — a look I would come to know very well — and replied sharply with a roll of her eyes, “English? They don’t speak a word.” “So, how…” I started. “As you begin to travel more, young man, you will find that with people who do not speak English, you must never use their native language,” she said, “because if you do, they are liable to misunderstand.” It was a classic Vreeland non-sequitur and one of many extraordinary conclusions she drew, which, despite their complete lack of logic, somehow seemed to make sense, if only temporarily.
Finally, we got to the VIP lounge at Rome airport, where Diana was relaxed and vivacious. Her son had joined us and everything seemed fine, except that she showed no signs of actually boarding the plane. The staff told me three times that she must. The aircraft was ready to go and any further delays would mean that she would lose her seat and have to wait for the next day’s flight. She finally accepted, though not with good graces, and then suddenly said, “I need a wheelchair to get me to the plane.” I said goodbye and as she swept past me, she smiled and said, “I like you. But you are young. You have many things to learn.” Her voice rose dramatically. “And one is that they have to get things right and that means for you and not for them.”
When I knew her better, I realised that she was an entirely subjective and instinctive person in everything she thought or did, and that her cavalier disregard for what others thought or felt was what made her such a brilliant editor, for not just one, but the two most important directional fashion magazines in the world, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. For her, there was only one way — the Vreeland way. Her belief in herself enabled her to create fashion exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum that have never been bettered for their glamour, style and authority — and it’s the last word that is perhaps most important here.
I am not denigrating Diana Vreeland in any way when I say that the hand of formal education dealt her, at the very most, a glancing blow. Details of her schooling are virtually non-existent in the parallel life she constructed for herself over the years. Learning to dance with Nijinsky; being taught to ride by Buffalo Bill: did any of her young life as she told it ever exist? Probably not and it doesn’t matter. She believed it and that was what counted. And somehow it always helped her get to the core of the time period she was fantasizing about.
The same is true with her exhibitions. Yes, she confused the 17th and 18th centuries, attributed queens to the wrong courts and could not distinguish her Baroque from her Rococo, but it didn’t matter at all because she left the facts to her staff. What she uniquely brought to the table was an inspired flash of insight that no-one else had perceived, expressed so memorably that the phrase illuminated and encapsulated everything you needed to know. She understood that it was the spirit of the age, more than the facts, that rendered history. She would have been a brilliant, although quixotic, teacher.
And it was teaching that she gave me a few months later when, having managed to interest a publisher in a book on Balenciaga — whom she had made clear at the lunch in Rome, was, for her, one of the three designers who mattered (along with Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent) — I arranged to see her in New York to hear her views on the man. To my horror, when I phoned her personal assistant at the Met to confirm my appointment, she said that Mrs Vreeland was not entirely well that day and out of the office. My heart sank. This was my last day in New York.
“But,” the PA continued, “She wondered if you might care to take tea with her this afternoon at her apartment on Park Avenue.” Would I? I nearly fainted with excitement at the anticipation of seeing what was, at that time, one of the most famous interior spaces in the world.
I arrived, rang the bell, and took the elevator to the Vreeland apartment. When we arrived at her floor, the first thing I saw was a portrait of Diana obviously painted in the 1920s. It was in pastel colours and she was holding a parasol. With its pale ethereality, it gave little indication of what was to come. A maid ushered me into the drawing room, which was a riot of pattern, covered in knickknacks, signed photos, framed drawings. Almost every fabric and every wall was the colour red. And sitting in a chair in the middle of it all was Diana, dressed in a grey cashmere sweater and flannel trousers. As she stretched out her hands in an expansive gesture, those endless fingers looked as if they had been carved out of mahogany and her bracelets — there were six of them on each arm, made of bone, obsidian and silver — crashed and clashed with what seemed a deafening noise, clearly orchestrated to attract attention, if not actually intimidate.
She smiled and lowered her head, letting her eyes flick from side to side, almost as if she were trying to read my aura before saying in a loud puma growl, “So, how is my beloved London?” Her use of the word beloved was so elongated that it seemed to take it at least three seconds for her to say it. She fixed me with an intense gaze as she listened to my reply. Then she took over. The Duke of Westminster. The Prince of Wales. Wallis. The coronation of George V. The stories flowed and the theatricality of her delivery became more and more extreme.
As we drank tea, I noticed that the maid poured hers from a different, small silver pot and that it was so weak that it was almost as clear as water. It was not until long after that first visit that I realized my hostess was drinking vodka.
Diana Vreeland’s appearance is well known. Her jet-black hair, her balletic poses, the bangles, the ballerina pumps — and ballerina poses — have all been commented on. But it was her make-up that I found so extraordinary. From a woman who loved red and once said she had spent a lifetime pursuing the perfect shade, in vain, it was no surprise that her mouth was shiny with it. But so were the sides of her temples and, I always thought, the lobes of her ears. The effect was to give her the appearance of an exotic princess or high priestess. But practically speaking, it probably helped to disguise the flush that accompanies a daily diet of spirits.
When Diana Vreeland was still at Vogue, an assistant once told me, her desk was always laid for lunch, not only according to clear verbal instructions, but also precise diagrams. The placing of everything was drawn out and labelled, from the position of the cutlery, water and vodka to the cigarettes, ashtrays and the day’s sandwiches. When I first heard it, I was shocked. But then I realised that she controlled everything down to the smallest detail, so that there were never unnecessary surprises to distract her from the intense stimuli she found in virtually everything around her. It was part of her immense zest for life, which she maintained even as an old lady.
Over the year or so that I visited her, I could see that she was getting tired. Once, having been with her for over an hour, I said that I must be leaving. But her eyes flashed dramatically and she growled, “Why? Have you got another appointment?” When I said no, she gave me a broad smile and said, “Relax. You’re not going anywhere. I like talking to Englishmen.” Her voice, which had started the exchange with the roughness of a Bronx truck driver, melted into the purest American WASP accent. It was a pattern I became used to: a sudden snarl followed by a seductive purr.
On these occasions, our conversation varied widely — especially when it became apparent that the Balenciaga book was not likely to happen — and it was not always politically correct. I remember once we were talking about modern magazines. Predictably, she dismissed them all as nothing more than catalogues of merchandise for sale and I asked her how she had got on with her advertising manager. She looked at me sternly: “Never knew him.”
“But surely you must have met him in the elevator occasionally?” I replied. Her eyes were like saucers. “Are you kidding? Advertising personnel in the editorial elevator? You must be out of your mind. Never!”
Another time I asked her how she felt about American fashion. She looked at me fiercely for about five seconds and then growled, “I don’t understand the question.” I repeated it. “There is no American fashion,” she declared. “What about Calvin or Ralph?” I asked. “Well,” she almost snarled. “What about them? No taste. No style. Only money. There is no New York fashion because there are no creators in this city. They all think like Seventh Avenue. We have no Yves here, you know.”
When I pushed and asked her which designers she liked outside Paris, she paused and said, “Only couture excites me. And it always has. I remember in the 30s standing in fittings for over two hours with Chanel. It was divine! I was in paradise! I learned everything from watching that little woman crawling around at my feet pinning a hem.”
She gazed ahead of her for a while and she looked, even to my youthful eyes, resigned to the fact that that life had ended. Then she brightened and said, “But I like the spirit of the Italians and the way that they are just like young horses, learning to prance. They have imagination and they know they are all descended from those divine Medicis! They are just learning to prance!’ she exclaimed, shooting her hand in the air, index finger pointing authoritatively to the sky. I was awe struck by the sudden outburst of energy and passion.
But it was an apt expression for Diana Vreeland herself, who had pranced across the fashion world, parading her enthusiasm, changing the look and feel of dress from the photographers she worked with to the new, modern models she used so boldly to show the infinite variety of modern femininity, from Twiggy and Penelope Tree to Marissa Berenson and Lauren Hutton to Veruschka and Penelope Huston, not forgetting her earliest discovery, Lauren Bacall, who was a model long before she was an actor and who, according to Vreeland, could wear anything.
So what message does the Vreeland legend hold for modern women? First and foremost, she would love the freedom and originality of today’s women. She never believed there was one single fashion, but rather looked for individual approaches. She would love the eclecticism of the way women create and compose looks today, because that was what she always strove to do in the pages of her magazines and in the exhibitions she assembled, finding as many references and connections as possible.
But if a woman had a big nose (she loved the architectural quality of large noses) she would not try to diminish it as a make-up artist would today. She would exaggerate it. She always sought to turn distinguishing features into a statement. That is why she wrapped Veruschka, tall and statuesque, in fur bound with leather to make her look taller and even more extraordinary.
As Pierre Bergé once said of Vreeland, “She dared.” And he was absolutely right. When others stopped, thinking they had reached the end of the road, she kept on walking, back straight and determined, issuing instructions left and right which were not spoken, but declared, using her own personal vocabulary of words like “killer-diller” and “pizzazz” and delivered in perfectly formed haikus, in such a way that all who heard followed.
I believe that Diana Vreeland did not so much affect fashion, as change women more broadly: how they thought of themselves and how they should be dressed. She would have wanted the women today to be as she was: always pushing personal boundaries in dress, emotions and ambitions; courageous, determined, dramatic and able to understand the vigour of a touch of bad taste. But the Diana Vreeland I knew would wrap all this up in one single piece of advice: “Go to Paris, as much as you can.”
I would agree.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion. An abridged version of this article first appeared in Sunday Times Style.