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‘The Eye Has to Travel’ celebrates legacy of fashion icon Diana Vreeland

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Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a documentary directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Running time: 86 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some nude images). Opening Friday at the Music Box and Evanston CineArts 6.

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:13AM

Style-setter Diana Vreeland was mad about fashion. A woman in the right place at the right time, she lived a magical life, filled with complications and disappointments that only made her more determined to leave her mark.

All of this is outlined in the documentary, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Married to Vreeland’s grandson, she has compiled an insightful, humorous and loving tribute to a woman whose fashion sense, as reflected in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines, influenced generations.

A one-of-a-kind visionary, Vreeland (1903-1989) championed designers such as Chanel, Givenchy and Dior and executed fashion spreads so expensive, they created whole new worlds in far-off lands. But she also followed pop culture, declaring the bikini “the biggest thing since the atom bomb” and championing blue jeans as “the most beautiful thing since the gondola.”

The film is built around recorded interviews between journalist George Plimpton and Vreeland, as well as clips from an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show.” She recounts the fashionista’s life beginning in Belle Epoque Paris: “I arranged to be born in Paris, and after that, everything followed naturally.” She was crazy about dance and watched Diaghilev and Nijinsky dancing in the family living room. Later, she would dance with Josephine Baker in 1920s Harlem, become friends with Coco Chanel, ride horses with Buffalo Bill, sell lingerie to Wallis Simpson and give fashion advice to first lady Jackie Kennedy.

Vreeland also respresented a lesson in resilience. Brushing off the ugly duckling status bestowed on her by her mother, she instead moved into the upper echelons of society and fashion.

After 25 years at Harper’s, she left with some disgust after she was passed over for a promotion. She landed at Vogue (1962-’71) where she quickly became editor-in-chief and turned the magazine into a fashion bible. After being forced out at Vogue (“They wanted a different sort of magazine”), she once again reinvented herself as a consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she put its Costume Institute on the map with elaborate exhibits that brought the clothes to life.

Immordino Vreeland digs deep into the cast of characters that revolved around Vreeland, from assistants to photographers to models to editors. Among those offering commentary are photographer Richard Avedon, film director Joel Schumacher, actresses Lauren Hutton, Ali MacGraw, Anjelica Huston and designers Calvin Klein, Hubert de Givenchy, Anna Sui, Manolo Blahnik and Diane von Furstenberg.

With her affectionate manner and authoritarian personality, Vreeland left a firm and lasting imprint on 20th century fashion. She left a less memorable imprint on her two sons; both of whom talk candidly in the film about their often absent and distant mother. One son, Frederick, says he just wanted “a nice old mom like my friends had.”

By touching on all angles of Vreeland’s life, “The Eye Has to Travel” creates a highly entertaining and colorful portrait of a unique woman — the likes of which we may never see again.

Mary Houlihan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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