'The September Issue' Exposes The Making--And Unmaking--Of Vogue
Vogue's editrix Anna Wintour and designer Oscar de la Renta at a 2009 fashion show.
This year's September issue is a far cry from the one chronicled in the film.
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"The September Issue," R.J. Cutler's Sundance darling about Vogue's annual fall preview issue, follows editrix Anna Wintour and her minions as they put together the magazine's September 2007 tome.
As if to re-assert the city's dominance over American fashion, the documentary opened exclusively in New York City last month, and will debut in Los Angeles and select other cities on Sept. 11.
The September 2007 issue of Vogue set records. It was a whopping 840 pages, 727 of which were ads. In this economy, numbers like that are unthinkable. By comparison, this year's September issue has 300 fewer advertising pages.
While much criticism has dogged Cutler's depictions of Vogue's limitless spending in the name of pre-recession fashion, the director's intent was not to blow the lid off of the excess. Instead, he deftly displays the talent that goes into the 113 non-ad pages of the magazine. In fact, save one scene dedicated to the instruction given to sales reps to garner ad space, the film pays mind to who is styling the spreads, not signing the checks.
That stylist is Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director, who steals the show. While the film sells itself on Anna Wintour, the icy editor who inspired Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada," Coddington's story is the compelling one. She brings decades of experience, on and off the runway, and bucketfuls of passion to what can truly be seen as art: directing the elaborate, hardly wearable photo spreads shot by A-list photographers. Coddington exudes pride as early prints from her shoots are slotted for inclusion in the issue.
You also feel Coddington's distress, laced with a good amount of dry humor, as Wintour rips down and rips apart some of Coddington's prized photos. At a Q and A with Cutler after an advance screening of the documentary at Los Angeles' Paley Center, he revealed that Coddington did not allow a single camera to film her during their first four months in Vogue's offices, though she finally gave in. As a result, Cutler had limited footage of Coddington, but her scenes are some of the richest in the film.
Coddington's concentrated but subtle emotion--deadpan wit, brutal honestly, and raw passion for her work--would not have been revealed if Cutler had filmed the whole time, and her presence counters Wintour's brash antipathy.
For the most part, Wintour largely confirms the thesis set forth in "The Devil Wears Prada": to her, fashion is everything in this world, and she is everything to the world of fashion. Cutler does a good job showing Anna Wintour at her most intimidating, including scenes where she makes designers at the world's largest fashion houses cower at her arrival, controlling them like puppets as she critiques their work.
The dynamic between Wintour and Coddington makes the movie, but there are a few charming cameos throughout: celebrity photographer Mario Testino's humorous treatment of actress Sienna Miller for the cover spread, flamboyant fashinisto Andre Leon Talley's Louis Vuitton-laced tennis practice, and even a hilarious appearance by the documentary's own cameraman, courtesy of Coddington.
The majority of the film would have one believe this glamorous world of fashion's self-importance. Cutler fortunately includes a few moments of reality. For example, in a short interview, Wintour's daughter, Bee, shuns any suggestion of assuming her mother's place on the Vogue throne in favor of a future career in law.
After all, the teenager reminds us, there are more important world issues than fashion.
In today's economy, Vogue is starting to feel that pressure as well. In fact, the magazine's publisher, Conde Nast, recently made headlines when it hired a consultant, McKinsey and Co., to slash costs in its American magazines. Vogue, including Wintour's expense account, is expected to be hardest hit.
Nonetheless, fashionistas and economists alike will be awed by the behind-the-scenes look at the clothing and creativity that goes into one issue of the magazine. Despite the documentary's emphasis on art over profit, however, it's hard not to see the film as an artifact of a boom time in fashion.