How Alexander Vreeland Channeled His Grandmother's Legacy Into a Perfume Business

His grandmother, of course, being the late 'Vogue' and 'Harper's Bazaar' editor Diana Vreeland.
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"Devastatingly Chic." Photo: Diana Vreeland Parfums

"Devastatingly Chic." Photo: Diana Vreeland Parfums

If you're not aware what sort of woman Diana Vreeland was, a look at the nascent perfume line named for the late Harper's Bazaar and Vogue editor should give you a sense. Bearing names like "Smashingly Brilliant" and "Outrageously Vibrant," the scents live in jewel-toned bottles designed by Fabien Baron — saturated red, blue and fuchsia vessels with contrasting tassels wrapped around the top — and aim to funnel the full potency of Mrs. Vreeland's bold, colorful style into a $250 product you can hold in the palm of your hand. Founded in 2014, Diana Vreeland Parfums is the brainchild of Alexander Vreeland, who created the line as an extension of his work running his grandmother's estate and promoting her life's achievements.

I met up with Mr. Vreeland at the brand's counter on the beauty floor of Bergdorf Goodman, one of the first retailers to carry it, for a guided tour of the range. It was December, and Fifth Avenue tourists and shoppers were clustered around the department store's glittering holiday window displays. Vreeland wrote a scent's name on a small white card and gave the paper a few spritzes while explaining the concept behind it, repeating the process for each perfume in the lineup.

Unlike many widely distributed designer fragrances, the descriptions of which tend to include terms like "youthfulness" and "femininity" made generic and sterile by repetition, these have very specific backstories, drawn from Mrs. Vreeland's career. They're good anecdotes, too — the kind that would make you the most popular person at a dinner party. "Perfectly Marvelous," for instance, is a jasmine scent inspired by her love of a little house in Tunisia with walls covered in the flowers; it was in that town that she showed up late for lunch one day, claiming that a party of peacocks had rendered her route impassable.

The fragrances themselves do live up to the words and packaging. They're big and beautiful and smell, well, expensive. That last quality comes through most clearly in "Outrageously Vibrant," a gourmand scent with cassis and patchouli that could easily go cloyingly sweet if it were created with shoddier ingredients or by a less attentive hand. Instead, it swings rich. ("It has a big following at Colette," Vreeland says. "It's a more fashionable fragrance.") 

Photo: Diana Vreeland Parfums

Photo: Diana Vreeland Parfums

Because his own background is not in mixing scents, Vreeland works with a host of perfumers including Clement Gavarry and Carlos Benaim on the collection. Before going all-in on Diana Vreeland Parfums, he had a career in sales and marketing at Ralph Lauren and Armani; these days, Vreeland works 18-hour shifts with a team of five. A little over a year into the endeavor, the brand's website lists dozens of points of sale in nearly 20 countries.

It wasn't always clear that steering his grandmother's estate would lead to this particular business. Vreeland describes his father and uncle, who ran it before him, as relatively passive about orchestrating new projects related to their mother's legacy. "I don't think they had a vision of what it could be. If someone reached out and said, 'We want to do a book on your mother,' they said, 'Sure!'" Vreeland says.

He went about getting Mrs. Vreeland's books back in print, putting out a new book about her each year. But it was the 2011 documentary "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel," produced by his wife, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, that truly rekindled the public's interest in the editor. "I feel like that was the turning point of people verbalizing their interest in my grandmother," he says. "It was really through the film that it became a question of: Is there a product that we could do under her name? There was enough of a buzz that it seemed like it could be a follow-on."

Alexander Vreeland. Photo: Diana Vreeland Parfums

Alexander Vreeland. Photo: Diana Vreeland Parfums

He considered jewelry, but that would have been prohibitively expensive. And as the success of celebrity fragrances had faded, more insider-y, niche perfume brands were on the up-and-up. Vreeland credits Frederic Malle, a close friend of his, with laying the groundwork for the segment of the business into which he took Diana Vreeland Parfums. "I think he in very many ways established the zone of business within which we are walking. He more than anybody else laid a platform for beautiful ingredients, expensive fragrances, limited distribution, huge investment in quality," Vreeland says. 

Going luxury also meant going international early. If Diana Vreeland Parfums had been a low-priced or mid-tier business — and multiple acquaintances suggested to Vreeland that he go the Home Shopping Network route — North America could have been a great market, Vreeland says. Clearly, he eschewed that particular strategy: International represents a larger chunk of the brand's business than the U.S. does at this point, and Asia represents a key area of growth in the near term. 

Of course, new fragrances are on the horizon, too, most pressingly "Vivaciously Bold," which launches in March. In an acid green package with a cool blue tassel, it certainly is that. The spirit of Diana Vreeland, branded and bottled.