Holy U-Turn

From Fashion Player to Photographer Monk

The grandson of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, Nicholas Vreeland was poised for a decadent life in high-society. Then, he decided to give it all up and become a Buddhist monk.

12.03.14 10:45 AM ET

Growing up, Nicholas Vreeland had all the trappings of an opulent Page Six-worthy life—the bespoke suits, the floppy hair, the flock of girls. His grandmother, Diana Vreeland, as editor in chief of Vogue between 1962 and 1971, was the top doyenne of New York society and so-called Empress of Fashion. The young Vreeland’s last name afforded him an all-access pass to this world.

That’s why it was all the more shocking when, in 1985, he shaved his head, exchanged a closet full of dinner jackets for saffron and mustard robes, packed a small suitcase and moved to India to join a Tibetan monastery.

Today, his head is shaved bald and he’s wearing the same flowing robes tied with a golden sash. His accolades are literary—he’s ghostwritten two books for the Dalai Lama—and political—he oversees Rato Dratsang, the temple he joined three decades ago, as the first Western abbot of a Tibetan monastery. He even gets stopped on the streets of New York, though not, he says, because people know him, but “because I’m a Buddhist monk.” None of this was expected considering his pampered upbringing.

“My grandmother was horrified, she really wanted me to lead a wonderful life,” Vreeland says now. “And she really felt becoming a monk was turning your back on the wonders of the world.”

Born in Geneva to a diplomat father and an art critic mother, Vreeland and his family shuttled between Switzerland, Germany, and Morocco before moving to New York when he was 13. A few years later, he developed an interest in taking pictures and asked his grandmother to connect him to legendary photographer Irving Penn. He grew his talent as an assistant to Penn and Richard Avedon.

Vreeland and his grandmother may have occupied the same social circles, but early on, the two didn’t see eye to eye on the world. After a month-long trip to Japan with his grandmother, Nicholas presented her with the photos he’d taken. They were not of the ornate temples, but of people on the fringes of society that he’d encountered in his back-alley wanderings. “How could you take such ugly pictures of a beautiful place?” he remembers her asking.

After 30 years of eschewing society’s spotlight, Vreeland is making a nervous foray into the film circuit. In a new documentary called Monk with a Camera, directors Guido Santi and Tina Mascara follow 60-year-old Vreeland’s journey from “a naughty boy,” as his father describes him in the film, who was, his brother says, “a very committed dandy,” with, as Vogue Fashion Director Tonne Goodman puts it, “the most impeccable taste”—to austere, studious monk.

He’s nervous because the attention on him as an individual is what he adamantly left 30 years ago by turning away from the high-flying society gentleman his last name had allowed him to become.

In his early 20s, Vreeland was inspired by Herge’s story of Tintin in Tibet to travel to Dharamsala in India, home of the Tibetan community in exile, on a photography trip. In a lucky break, he shot the Dalai Lama’s portrait and was asked to be the spiritual leader’s photographer on a trip to the U.S. in the late ‘70s. A few years later, infatuated with the religion and lifestyle, Vreeland halted a budding career in photography, dumped his Italian shoes on a sidewalk in Manhattan, and moved full-time to the monastery.

When he first told his grandmother of his plans for monkhood, she was baffled that he’d turn his back on the life she’d cultivated. He recalls she asked him two questions: “Will I be able to lie in the sun? And two, will I be able to wear a dinner jacket?’” His answers were displeasing. In preparation for becoming a monk, he moved into the maid’s quarters of her sumptuous Park Avenue apartment, but never could bring her around to his decision. And when he shaved clean the perfectly coiffed hair, she was viscerally horrified. “How could you do this to me?” she asked him.

“I had belief there was something outside material satisfaction,” Vreeland says in the film.

For nearly a decade, Vreeland gave up all aspects of his former life, including his talents as a photographer. He feared that taking pictures would distract him from his studies, and so he kept his camera tucked away in a suitcase he dubbed “Pandora’s Box.” He only began dabbling again after a visit from a friend—renowned photographer Martine Franck—who reminded him that piano players don’t become great without practicing their scales.

“I was a little nervous every time I took the camera out [of the trunk] that it would take me over,” he says. Vreeland began documenting his daily life at the monastery—he shot portraits of every person who entered his sparse room—and soon realized this piece of his old life could fold into his new one. “Part of remaining a monk is being happy,” he says. “Photography makes me happy.” (Of course, not all his former ways can integrate as smoothly: “The part of being a monk that is most challenging is I’m very fond of women,” he says in the film.)

In 2008, his monastery was in desperate need of funds and Vreeland decided to lend a hand with his first photography exhibition. He embarked on an international photo tour called Photos for Rato, and ended up selling $400,000 worth of prints—enough to finish reconstruction of the temple grounds.

Unnerved by the spotlight, Vreeland had initially shunned both the idea of an exhibit and, later, this film, until encouragement from his mentor, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, a lama who founded New York’s Tibet Center, and the Dalai Lama himself.

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After decades working to bring his people’s plight to the international stage, the Dalai Lama seems to view Vreeland as a vital cog in bridging a divide between the hermit-like world of Tibetan Buddhism and the 21st century. Though he currently lives in India, the Dalai Lama has told Vreeland that he must return someday to live as a monk in America.

When Vreeland first converted to Buddhism, the world he joined was completely sealed. There had been so little outside influence, that Vreeland discovered he was the only resident at the monastery who believed the Earth was round. One day, he took a monk with a cleanly shaven head and had him walk around a light bulb to demonstrate this theory.

In 2012, Vreeland was appointed to serve as abbot of his monastery in a break with tradition. “It was something I knew I’d never be,” he says. “There was no way—a Westerner doesn’t become abbot of an important Buddhist monastery. It really came out of left field.” Besides, the Dalai Lama had already laughed about its improbability. Vreeland says he once joked that “He will never become abbott, his nose is too long.”

The long-nosed, self-described “little New York lover of photography” has embraced the impact his pictures can make. He has a current exhibit at ABC Home in Manhattan through the end of this year, and another going up this spring at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in Palm Beach, Florida.

And Vreeland’s family has accepted his choice of saffron robes over dinner jackets. “A very important moment in my life was when people stopped saying to me, ‘Are you Diana Vreeland’s son?’ And started saying to me, ‘Are you Nicky Vreeland’s father?’” his father says in the film.

Vreeland believes that in the end, his grandmother put her subtle seal of approval on his lifestyle. Before she died in 1989—four years after he entered the monastery—Diana Vreeland did an interview with Vanity Fair in which she was asked what qualities she admired most about a person. She replied that they must have a twinkle in the eye—the Dalai Lama, she said, has a twinkle in his eye.

“I think she would have become very proud that I’m abbot—and happy I shine my shoes still,” Vreeland says with a laugh.