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Diana Vreeland; She Molded American Fashion

Times Staff Writer

Magazine editor Diana Vreeland, widely recognized as the most powerful influence on 20th-Century American fashion and credited with launching the careers of Lauren Hutton and Andy Warhol, among others, died Tuesday of a heart attack in New York.

Vreeland was in her 80s when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital. Various biographical references give her year of birth as 1903 or 1906. Born in Paris, she moved with her parents to America at the outbreak of World War I.

She helped mold American style for more than 40 years--first as fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar from 1937 to 1961, and as editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1962 to 1972.

Such was her influence that she has been credited with single-handedly changing the look and underlying philosophy of American fashion. Vreeland, experts say, may have been the first American to understand that fashion is a broad cultural phenomenon rather than simply a matter of clothing styles.

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Her approval was enough to make a career, and she was the patron responsible for “discovering” Warhol when he was a struggling unknown, inspiring Bert Stern’s and Richard Avedon’s stunning early fashion photographs and “finding” actress Lauren Bacall and the designer Halston.

‘Beautiful People’

She also popularized the so-called “beautiful people” and their life styles by photographing society figures in their homes, making “cult stars” of such previous unknowns as models Marisa Berenson, Veruschka, Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree, and transforming Twiggy from a Cockney pop star to a high-fashion priestess.

In 1966 when other influential voices in fashion found Hutton’s gap-toothed sensuality too eccentric for airy reaches of high fashion, Vreeland bestowed her blessings.

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Hutton recalled in the May issue of Vanity Fair that she had gone to the Vogue editor’s office to try on clothes being considered for the magazine, but was so intimidated by Vreeland’s flamboyant presence that she hid behind clothing racks.

“She’d point and say, ‘The hem of that dress is just like a cloud of barley!’ And all the editors would say, ‘A cloud of barley!’ Then she’d sit down while they were still standing up,” Hutton said.

In the middle of one such line, Vreeland’s gloved hand suddenly pointed to Hutton. “You,” she shouted. “You have quite a presence.”

“So do you,” Hutton replied.

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The next day, Vreeland arranged Hutton’s session with photographer Avedon for the portfolio that launched her career.

After leaving Vogue in 1971, Vreeland became a special consultant to the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she mounted several successful retrospective fashion shows.

“My museum work is intoxicating,” she told The Times in 1983. “We have 46,000 separate items in our collection, everything from major garments to cashmere shawls, slippers and shoes. We have conservationists who can replace the tiniest dot on a piece of lace. What we are talking about here is history, not fashion.”

Museum spokesman John Ross said Tuesday that Vreeland was “a genius for understanding . . . that society expressed itself visually, whether it was through fashion, whether it was through photography, whether it was through the way that people lived. She always understood the cutting edge and she was usually a little ahead of it.”

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Vreeland may have been best known outside the world of fashion for her highly publicized eccentric acts and remarks.

When a customs inspector in New York began going through her mountain of luggage, she said: “Darling, if you want to see how the other half lives, come into the city and I’ll show you.”

Once while lunching at Maxim’s in Paris, she spotted a cockroach and jumped up to sing “La Cucaracha” at the top of her lungs.

The late writer Truman Capote once defended her as “the kind of genius that very few people will ever recognize, because you have to have genius yourself to recognize it. Otherwise you just think she’s a rather foolish woman.”

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Vreeland firmly believed in what she considered proper maintenance.

“Maintenance is so essential,” she said, explaining why she polished the soles of her shoes. “I mean, that is what we are lacking today. Nobody maintains anything--not the insides of cabs or beautiful floors and walls. Beautiful buildings are torn down, there are potholes in the streets, people don’t maintain their clothes, so they have to go out and buy something new.”

Insisting that she was “not opposed to anything new,” she nonetheless maintained that “there’s a difference between real fashion and available merchandise. Fashion is not important, but one’s appearance is important.

“Individuality is everything.”

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Found TV ‘Appalling’

While she found television “appalling,” she relented in 1983 and allowed the first set into her home.

“It’s all commercials showing photographed food that’s molding,” she said. “But I shall watch the very good things on TV because I have decided it’s important.”

She married Thomas Reed Vreeland in 1924. He died in 1966. They had two children, Thomas Reed Vreeland Jr., an architect who teaches at UCLA, and Frederick D. Vreeland.

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Funeral services are pending.

Times staff writer Bettijane Levine contributed to this story.


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