Last year I meet Alexander Vreeland, the grandson of fashion icon Diana Vreeland. Alexander was in Sydney for the Australian launch of Diana Vreeland Parfums with Mecca Cosmetica, the brand’s exclusive retailer in Australia. During our meeting, Alexander explained the collection of eleven fragrances he designed with some of the industry’s most respected perfumers. He spoke about his grandmother and her stories, which inspired the fragrances; the coloured bottles and titles are as entrancing as his grandmother, or Mrs Vreeland, as she was often referred to by those she worked with.
Anyone with an interest in the history of fashion will have heard of Mrs Vreeland. Her tenure at Harpers Bazaar lasted 26 years before she moved to American Vogue. Photographer Richard Avendon described her as being the “only genius fashion editor.” Born in Paris in 1903 and raised in New York following the outbreak of World War I, Mrs Vreeland’s mother was an American socialite and her father was a British stockbroker. The family were prominent figures in New York society and young Diana spent time in Europe, shopping mostly at Chanel, who she met in 1926. In 1933 she was one of fifteen American women presented to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. Despite her background, Mrs Vreeland’s fame wasn’t solely the consequence of a privileged upbringing. Her notoriety followed when she became a career woman. At the time it was an uncommon life choice for a woman coming from considerable wealth and social status. During her years at Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, Mrs Vreeland revolutionised the way American women read about fashion. Her vision became the template for fashion journalism and many of fashion photography’s iconic images during the 20th century came from her magazine pages. After leaving Vogue, Mrs Vreeland served as a special consultant to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute from 1972 until her death in 1989. She created a memorable suite of exhibitions, which continue today and open each year with the annual fundraiser Met Gala, directed by Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour.
Diana Vreeland’s life and her effect on fashion were remarkable. Her memoir is available in print but perhaps a better way to understand Mrs Vreeland is to watch The Eye Has To Travel, a documentary that was directed by Alexander’s wife, Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Mrs Vreeland’s poetic use of language, quirky wit and the cadence of her voice were part of her persona and the documentary presents Mrs Vreeland in all her colour through footage and interviews with the designers, photographers and models she worked with. As caretaker of the Diana Vreeland Estate, projects like The Eye Has To Travel and Diana Vreeland Parfums are some of the ways Alexander is maintaining his grandmother’s legacy.
He explained his approach to creating the fragrance collection, “I think what is interesting is that we tried to take my grandmother’s legacy, tried to look at it from the perspective of what is here that is relevant. What can really touch people and can inspire people and can mean something. There are a lot of important legacies but a lot of them are irrelevant to most people. My grandmother was an editor and there are a lot of important editors. So when you have somebody that transcends boundaries, generations and professions, that is really exciting because that is a message of empowerment, of creativity, of change, of vision of possibilities. That kind of energy a great fragrance house has a dream and has an inspiration (to create) and I think my grandmother’s legacy has that.”
Before Diana Vreeland Parfums, Alexander had a career in fashion and I sensed this experience helped him develop a precise vision for the collection. Alexander presented a detailed manifesto to perfumers from International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) to translate from words and images into scents. The fragrances all have depth and Alexander encouraged the perfumers to take advantage of the innovative and quality natural ingredients coming from IFF’s Laboratoire Monique Remy in Grasse.
“Today to be successful, to be relevant, you have to do a lot of things right. You can’t say, ‘well we have a great juice but the bottle isn’t quite right and there is no story.’ You can’t do that. You have to be firing on many cylinders at one time. The piece that was really important to us was the juice. We approached each fragrance very much from the perspective that we are trying to create a fragrance for a woman and we approach each ingredient from that perspective.” Alexander picks up the green bottle in his collection. “This here is Vivaciously Bold and it’s a vetiver,” a note that is often used in men’s fragrances. “The top note is a citrus accord with beautiful grapefruit and a slightly bitter citrus peel. Then in comes this light vetiver oil, which is incredibly luxurious but this is not how you would do a men’s vetiver. Men’s vetiver would have more woodiness to it and more darkness to it but we didn’t want to do that. We wanted it to speak to a woman.”
Daringly Different is another fragrance Alexander developed by pushing the perfumer to look for different perspectives. “We didn’t want to do an oud that was leathery, animalistic and dark. We wanted it to be sensual and feminine and the iris note in it is very beautiful. It has sexiness but it’s not masculine even though I like to wear it a lot. It’s a very floral story, inspired by my grandmother’s love of Morocco.” I also enjoy wearing Daringly Different. Even if it was created for women, it is one of the fragrances in the collection that crosses into masculine perfumery with ease. The iris note is sophisticated and surrounds the oud accord, which has ink and smoky facets. There is also a leather-woody note coming from a specialty natural ingredient at IFF.
Alexander spoke about the creative process of developing fragrances with perfumers. Perfumers brought ideas to him that were unquestionably beautiful but he had to decide whether the fragrance aligned with the story he was telling. “To talk about that relationship with the perfumer there is a certain kind of great reverence and respect for the craft but also a sense of ‘that’s not what I want to do.’ That happens also. We had a really beautiful orange blossom fragrance, and it was just gorgeous. At the end it was beautiful but I don’t know where it fits into our lives. I don’t know what the relevance is. We ended up with this orange blossom two years later with a different perfumer and it just seemed to say; this is a Diana Vreeland fragrance. Saying this fits into our story is really important so here you have an orange blossom but it’s paired with this very beautiful, natural oud oil, which is a new ingredient that just came out. IFF has only had it for about a year. So you have this tremendously luxurious and expensive, natural oud oil that takes this orange blossom to a very different space. When you have an orange blossom that is in the hands of certain people, it’s just very pretty but in the hands of other people it has this sort of depth and soulfulness that we are looking for. If you look at my grandmother’s work as an editor, she really got rid of the pretty and cute models and she brought in real people like Barbara Streisand, Cher and Angelica Houston. When you see the pictures you think that it’s a real person and so in this fragrance, you smell that and you think, this is not just an orange blossom, there is something going here that is different.”
Alexander was speaking about Wildly Attractive, one of two eau de parfums he added to his collection last year. Wildly Attractive is my favourite Diana Vreeland Parfums fragrance. I have a perpetual love of orange flower fragrances and as Alexander described it, the fragrance is a different take on orange blossom with its woody undertone and plush musky dry down. The fragrance opens with hints of citrus and a refreshing green neroli note before blossoming into a fully-fledged orange flower that is splendorous and indolic. This white floral note is intensified with jasmine. There is also a spicy note, which reminds me of old-fashioned cinnamon chewing gum. The inclusion of natural oud oil gives the fragrance an unusual and subtle woodiness. The musk in the base is very textural and powdery. Like the title says, it’s wildly attractive.
My other favourite in the collection is called Absolutely Vital. Alexander told me about a bottle of pure Indian sandalwood oil his grandmother kept on her dresser. Mrs Vreeland would dab the oil behind her ears before applying her perfume, similar to the way many Arabic women layer pure oud oil under other perfumes. Created with perfumer Yves Cassar, Absolutely Vital pays homage to Mrs Vreeland’s passion for India with luxurious sandalwood oil, other woods, a hint of rose and spicy opoponax. For a sandalwood fragrance with more floralcy, I recommend perfumer Celine Barel’s Perfectly Marvelous, which couples jasmine, musk and Indian sandalwood. For me it is a modern take on classic Samsara by Guerlain.
Another fragrance I wore a lot this past season was Full Gallop created with master perfumer Carlos Benaim. Full Gallop was the 10th release in the collection and references Mrs Vreeland’s love of dance. Spicy coriander and pepper notes are paired with Moroccan jasmine and iris. What is unique about this fragrance is the transformation of heliotrope, a floral note found in classics like Après l’Ondée, into a contemporary fragrance. Full Gallop’s woody-amber and musk base is both intense and modern and it creates an interesting contrast with sweet, almond-like heliotrope.
The collection is diverse and offers plenty of choice. Extravagance Russe is a classic oriental fragrance with a meticulously constructed amber accord. Alexander described it as having “a sophisticated feminine hand.” There is also the best selling fragrance in the collection, Simply Devine. It’s a very feminine neon white floral. Anyone wanting a fresh fragrance from the collection might like Smashingly Brilliant, a fizzy, salty marine fragrance Alexander created with perfumer Clement Gavarry. The fragrance is housed in a bottle the colour of the Mediterranean Sea. Even though the collection is diverse, Alexander’s desire for his fragrances to make a lasting impression is something the fragrances all have in common. “Part of the fragrances’ DNA is that they are long lasting. The evolution of the fragrance was important. If people met my grandmother that wouldn’t forget her and I think that when people discover her fragrances they shouldn’t be something that, within an hour or so they say, ‘I know I sprayed it somewhere here but I can’t find it.’ We pride ourselves on not letting that happen.”
Some brands are successful because they seek to find new olfactory structures for their fragrances. The Diana Vreeland fragrances don’t push the envelope in this way. I got the sense that this isn’t a primary focus for Alexander and his concern is more with creating beauty and luxury rather than being the first brand to launch an innovative or new accord. There is still plenty of innovation in the collection but this is discoverable in the subtle ways the perfumers shaped ingredients and paired notes together. The collection is worth exploring and should resonate well with fans of fragrances from designer houses like Tom Ford or Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Vestiaire des Parfums collection. Diana Vreeland Parfums can be found at selected Mecca Cosmetica stores in Australia and New Zealand.