KEN DOWNING: I never knew your grandmother, but the idea of Diana Vreeland is so intrinsic to my fashion world. Did you realize growing up that your grandmother was such an icon?
ALEXANDER VREELAND: There were two sides to my grandmother. She had a very loving, caring grandmother side. And at the same time, there was this unbelievable doorway--opportunities to meet people, see things, and experience life--this sort of wacko, crazy, "come to a dinner party and meet all these unbelievable people and see these amazing things." So I knew she was really different than anybody else's grandmother. But what's been incredible to see is that she died in 1989, and here we find ourselves 25 years later. She's more relevant, more dynamic, and more important today.
KD: Did you realize her influence would be so impactful on your career?
AV: I had no intention of getting into this industry. It all happened by circumstance, 30-odd years ago. It all sort of fell into place, and my life changed. My father asked me if I would take on my grandmother's estate about four years ago, and my wife, Lisa, did a wonderful documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, about my grandmother in 2012.
KD: I believe that everyone who works in fashion, everyone who is interested in fashion, should promptly watch every minute of it. And then watch it again.
AV: In fashion we have very few icons, and she's one of them--a real one. What she saw and what she did is legitimate. Her 27 years at Harper's Bazaar were very, very important. I was looking at some 1945 Harper's Bazaar images, and they are totally modern. Fifty to sixty years have gone by.
KD: And she really brought Vogue into the modern era.
AV: She made it relevant to more than fashion--to talk about what's happening in culture, movies, travel, and lifestyle. She totally changed the world of fashion magazines. And at the Met, her accomplishments as a special curator for The Costume Institute were huge. The whole axis between fashion, museums, and art was something that she installed. And today, all the museums in the world have major fashion retrospectives. She was also incredibly positive. She didn't spend her time tearing things down. She was surrounded by all these young people who were trying to figure out their lives--their careers, their art, their fashion. She was a nurturer of talent in a marvelous way.
KD: I think she loved the dream. She was certainly a great woman of style, and she said things that others wouldn't even consider saying.
AV: I think that dream is what triggered this whole fragrance business. It seems that what one's looking for in a fragrance is a dream--you want to experience something. My grandmother was this amazing storyteller, and as people got involved in this project, they all got part of the stories, and they felt empowered by them.
KD: Is that why you decided to name the fragrances after the quotes that she's so famous for?
AV: It was trying to figure out what parts of my grandmother were relevant today. And we knew we wanted to work with colors--she had such a passion for colors. Everyone thinks of my grandmother and thinks of red.
KD: Because of her living room, which has been publicized everywhere--that "Billy Baldwin garden in hell" living room!
AV: But she had a blue bedroom, and she painted doorways green. She had tons of color in her life, and she also had words. She made up words; she used words. I just brought out a book last year on her memos, and her memos were all oral. She would pick up the phone, call her assistant, and dictate a memo. I felt that, in doing this fragrance, we needed to play with the colors she loved and the words she loved, and keep it true--with her very distinct identity.
KD: I love that you use so much red in the packaging, because when I think of your grandmother I think of that slash of red lipstick that was her brand.
AV: It really was. But interestingly enough, when people talk about meeting her, they always talk about the smell of the room, because she lived in a totally perfumed space. She had candles, incense, potpourri, and she had fragrance on the furniture and discs on top of the light bulbs. She put perfume on herself, and she believed in the perfumed bath oil. When she went to the Met, she put perfume into the air-conditioning vents.
KD: I love how absolutely out of bounds she was when she'd put together those exhibitions and would want them fragranced, to make it a sensory overload when people came to visit.
AV: Her first exhibit there was Balenciaga; you couldn't just line up the clothes and keep it all dry on a white background. She brought in the Goya paintings, and horses, and bullfight scenes, and fragrance. You had to have all of that to bring the world of Balenciaga to life.
KD: There's a gorgeous depth to all the fragrances--nothing noncommittal about them. They have a real "notice me" sense to them.
AV: As we developed the fragrances, we wanted to have a collection where each was unique but with a similarity in the approach that they were all strong. And because the ingredients are so fine, an hour or two after putting one on, it's even a more delicious and wonderful experience.
KD: During Fashion Week when we first met in a red room and you gave me a hint of this project to come, I fell in love with one of these fragrances, and people kept saying to me, "What are you wearing?"
AV: It's called Perfectly Marvelous.
KD: Is there a particular fragrance that really piques your remembrance of your grandmother when you smell it?
AV: She would fall madly in love with one fragrance and wear it a lot, and then she'd move on to something else. She was not a one-fragrance person. But you discover after a while that if you stay with the same one, you don't smell your fragrance anymore. So, part of the fun is to change it around and experience something new.
KD: I can only imagine that living room, with her ever-changing fragrances. That room must have been absolutely alive.
AV: It was. When you entered her home, you smelled all these perfumes, but there was still a crispness to the whole place. It was also ironed, and polished, and clean, and really pulled together. My grandmother had this fascinating balance in everything she did. There's a crazy creativity and a tremendous discipline. That's what we wanted to do with this fragrance--to create something wild and colorful, but totally classic.
KD: When I think about the "Why Don't You?" column that she wrote when she was fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, I would hope that one would be, "Why don't you wear one of these fragrances for this event?" She might even give us advice on where to wear it, maybe to a very unexpected place. After all, she would wear earrings as cuff links.
AV: We found a memo from her saying, "Don't put fragrance on your furs." So now we know.
KD: I love the fragrances' exotic elements--a bit of spice, a bit of just the right citrus. I love the little tassels decorating the beautiful bottle. They are just so your grandmother.
AV: We tested, and tested, and tested, and tested. We're not going to do anything that's not great. My grandmother left us this legacy, and one has to respect it. To create a luxury business, every facet has to be amazing, from the customer walking up to the case, to experiencing the product, to taking the product home.
KD: That's what your grandmother knew.
AV: Exactly. They'll love the bottle, and they'll love the juices--and then they'll discover her.
KD: Today, it's so important to have a face, a voice, a personality behind a brand. She knew that was the wave of the future when no one was talking about those ideas.
AV: It's interesting, because I love asking people what they experienced when they saw The Eye Has to Travel. People talk about feeling so empowered, like they can do anything. And I think that's what we really wanted to distill in the fragrance brand--that feeling that anything is possible. You can do things. You can live your life. Why don't you?