In 2014, Alexander Vreeland and his wife Lisa launched a fragrance collection inspired by his grandmother, the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Although she passed away in 1989, the cult of her personality still resonates in the publishing industry today. “We all have this sort of idea about Diana Vreeland,” says photographer Inez van Lamsweerde. “There’s something about her that lives inside every one of us in the fashion business. Historically, though, there’s so much that you think is her that might completely not be her. The spirit of anything goes, of eccentricity, of bold beauty. This love of high and low next to each other. Her outspokenness and humor. It’s all there, we all sort of inhaled it.”
Inspired by the collection, van Lamsweerde and her husband Vinoodh Matadin, who are longtime friends of the family, proposed an idea one night over dinner. “We were talking about the fragrances and I said, ‘We should do a series of still lives based on the feeling of each fragrance,'” she explained. “Concentrating not so much on the scents, but on their names and intentions.’”
Alexander Vreeland immediately said yes to participating–but was clear that this was their project, and that the photographers had complete creative control. “This was not a collaboration, nor did they ask me for any suggestions,” he laughs. “I just sent over the fragrances and a little description of each so they’d know.”
Not that they read them.
“For this specific series, we were really not so much focusing on the flower idea,” explains van Lamsweerde. “We knew it wasn’t about the ingredients. It was really about her and her spirit more than anything else.”
So, they went props shopping. “We kind of scoured the city and our house, and our friends’ houses, for objects,” she says. “Whenever we saw something that reminded us of her, we’d pick it up. We ended up with a huge bag of crazy things.”
Three months and nine prints later, Vreeland had his first look.
“I didn’t know what I was going to get. It was just so beautiful,” he recalls. “What also struck me was the huge generosity of that body of work. You can’t under-estimate what was involved with this effort. Each portrait was so thoughtful and so fresh and so specific, and so in line with their vision of my grandmother. When my grandmother was shooting something, the images were arresting, you just respected the creativity in the imagery. These are like that.”
The still lives capture the legendary editor’s originality and aura. Upon seeing them, Vreeland was reminded of a favorite story about her. “My grandmother had a friend who had been blind for several years. She then had surgery to regain her sight. When she came out of that whole process, my grandmother said, ‘I’m taking you to the movies.’ She took her to see ‘Deep Throat.’ Her friend said, ‘What did you do that for?’ and my grandmother replied, ‘For your first time seeing again, I wanted you to see something you’d never seen before.’”
Here, van Lamsweerde explains the stories behind each of the images.
The Stories Behind Inez and Vinoodh’s Photographs of Diana Vreeland’s Fragrance Collection
“The doll in this shot is mine from when I was a little, little, little girl. It’s one of the things my mom kept that I used to play with, and one of the few pieces I brought here from Amsterdam with me, so she holds a special meaning. And she’s kind of lonely here. The green foam she sits atop is a reference to the flower portraits we did for the Gagosian show; it’s what’s used to keep the fake flowers in place, and here it was the most obvious thing to choose as a platform.”
“In my head, this was the one that was most about her environment. There are always pictures of Diana Vreeland in a red room, but, in my mind, there also exists a blue room where everything is very peacocky with butterflies and yellow roses. When we found these butterflies, it was just another one of those moments when you’re in a store and you’re like, “Oh god, this is crazy. We don’t even understand it, but we have to have this.” They just felt like something that she would own.”
“This is all about femininity and birth, fertility and the overwhelming enormity that comes with the responsibility of that. It’s the divine idea of being overwhelmed by a feeling. There are a lot of connotations here—the red egg that feels like a womb, the skeleton made of tuberoses wrapping around it, the yoni-like apple cut open. In my head, it had a lot to do with that strong feeling of romance, love, birth, continuation, sexuality. There’s also a lot of eroticism. And this is my favorite of the fragrances.”
“Three or four of the fragrances in this collection refer to Diana Vreeland fantasies about exotic travel and adventures, There is so much Orientalism in her world, so this one really had the idea of India and the shapes of its buildings. We sort of made a building out of that nose and the little pot above it, then used the rose almost as a tree, something that’s as large as the building. For us, it was very much about evoking this exotic architectural element about that world.”
“This was driven by the freshness of that very, very green bottle with its vetiver and citrusy vibe, and the jasmine peeking through–all in an Italian atmosphere. It’s about the grassy Italian color and how I imagine old Italian hotels to be like, with the pastels, strong blues and that specific green.”
“The precision and meticulousness of this is all about elegance. The shape of the object in the middle, which is actually a 3-d printed creation, had this exotic element as well, as does the elephant bearing a lot of weight carrying the shell. All balanced on a tiny sharkskin jewelry box. This had the most to do with Asia, but there’s an element of the Middle East, too.”
“This is the original fragrance, so it felt very much the base of her thinking. The snake and cards represent the idea of gambling, of risk, of adventure, of putting yourself out there with all elements of danger that are also kind of romantic–that is all very much her. This was literally the biggest, reddest dahlia we could find to support her. Its vibrancy represents her overpowering way of looking at life. She’s such a force and such a stimulus of creativity, including the way she worked with photographers, which, being in that world and knowing where the restrictions lay, we understood and appreciated. The numbers on the cards represent her birthday, September 29–which is, oddly, also Vinoodh’s.”
“I always imagined Diana as an exotic bird or peacock, but, at same time, as someone who was captured in a life that was actually quite restrictive. Still, in her head, she had such sublime fantasies that she would escape to. We found this framed bird at a store uptown, where this artist makes these tableaux that light up from inside. It had everything: this sort of captured animal that needed to be freed. It felt very much her. And the hourglass conveys the desperation of time.”
This has to do with her love for ballet, especially Russia and Diaghalev and all that. The gold represents the costume element. Looking for references to dance in terms of movement was tricky. The gold refers to the costumes and the excess and the beauty that dance appealed to her. The red stone is an Anish Kapoor ring that Vinoodh bought me ages ago. It reflects everything and had the right touch of red. The peacocok feathers don’t have the eyes in them, so it symbolizes calligraphy. And at the bottom, a Herkimer diamond, which gives an idea of playfulness.
Watch one W editor’s quest for the perfect scent: