When Jim Clark productions gave the green light to make a feature length documentary centered on fashion industry legend Anna Wintour and her pursuit of luxuriousness at Vogue, they could not have predicted its debut during the Great Recession. Thankfully, director R.J. Cutler focused not on fleeting trends but on great storytelling basics. What audiences at the 2009 SilverDocs film festival got to enjoy was a brief glimpse into an expensive fantasia spearheaded by the "Pope" of couture.
"The September Issue" demystified several practical steps of magazine publishing that fictional portrayals, such as "The Devil Wears Prada," only served to distort. ("Running in Heels" should also be considered fiction.) The Market Editor, Virginia Tupker, is shown sitting at the table in a meeting with advertiser Neiman Marcus. The Editor-at-Large, Andre Talley, is exposed for what he really does (almost nothing, but his role seemed to be more about what he is, not what he does). And the infamous Anna sits donning her iconic sunglasses in front of catwalk after catwalk. Though their $300 billion industry is not the largest nor the most life-saving, Wintour sees no reason not to operate as the Gen. Patton of Fashion. The only Vogue staffer, however, who turned out to be a real caricature of himself was Talley. Despite her widespread reputation, Wintour did not come across as a vicious ice queen. Though it's understandable if you've been personally spurned by her that you might think otherwise.
Wintour is a businesswoman. She offers no more emotional feedback than Hilary Clinton and no less creativity than Carly Fiorina. The reality is she doesn't just make the magazine, she makes (or breaks) the designers as well. Yet, for some reason, fashion editor + female + beauty must = empathy/affirmation. In what can only be referred to as "the layout room", Wintour curates the signatures with an appreciation of the artistic right brain, but with a truly left-brained judiciousness. Her blunt comments about the appearance of people, their hair, their clothing, can be tactless, but funny. For someone who constantly searches for something "different", she seems to lack a tolerance for individuality at the cost of grooming.
Juxtaposing the Editor in Chief is Creative Director Grace Coddington, former model and fashion director from British Vogue. Coddington's fiery red mane signifies the passionate soul that lies beneath her polite manner. So inspiring is Coddington's work and life story, that this look inside Vogue would be as dry as its fictional portrayals without her.
The bickering over budgets, photo shoots, and articles of clothing between them is consistent with almost any publisher/editor or editor/art director conflict. Coddington is naturally and emotionally attached to the beautiful spreads she toils to produce and Wintour is not. The final call on what pages stay and which ones go therefore becomes a hated but necessary fact of publishing.
In an interview with the Washington Post's Robin Givhen (who used to work at Vogue), R.J. Cutler gleefully shared moments of the film's conception and creation. The formula for a great film is simple, he explained. "Look for people who care about what they do and they do it under high stakes circumstances." What originally began as a TV series, inspired by Vogue's "Party of the Year," detailing Vogue's annual charity event, developed into an alluring "de-mysticifcation" of one of the most influential fashion magazines. Thankfully, Coddington coalesced to the film crew she first told to "go away." "When they come together, it's electric," Cutler said describing Wintour and Coddington's interactions. He described them as a "freezer of precision" versus an "incubator of creativity." Talley, Culter noted, had to be shown sparingly due to his larger-than-life screen presence. "His outakes on the DVD will be more than entertaining."
Ironically, as the limelight of high-end designers fades and the metaphysical weight of Vogue's climactic September issue wanes, the magazine's secret weapon has seen re-ignited interest in her self-titled book GRACE: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue. Now available on Amazon.