The September Issue (2009)

Director: R. J. Cutler

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2007, veteran documentary producer and director R. J. Cutler, who previously explored the subcultures of politics (A Perfect Candidate) and high school (American High) turned his gaze to fashion publishing. He followed the staff of Condé Nast’s influential U.S. Vogue magazine as they prepared the September issue, which because of its timing with the new fashion season and New York’s Fashion Week, is the largest issue of each year. In particular, Cutler focused his gaze on U.S. Vogue’s legendary editor, Anna Wintour, said to be the model for Meryl Streep’s scary, autocratic character in The Devil Wears Prada, and its longtime creative director Grace Coddington. Wintour, from a family of distinguished British journalists, and Coddington, a former model from a humble village in Wales, came of age in the 60s, when England was a center of cutting-edge, youthful fashion. It is their vision that has shaped not only U.S. Vogue, but general trends in consumer magazine publishing as well.

A magazine the size and scope of Vogue—the final page count of this September issue will be around 840—requires months of planning, large staffs, and massive budgets to pull off the photo shoots and first-class production that make Vogue the art catalog of fashion it is. Coddington, assigned to create photo editorial features on the 20s, couture fashion, and color blocking, is something of a styling genius. She is actually an artist, creating nostalgic looks with gauzy, sepia-toned spreads for the 20s feature that are breathtaking. In a paste-up room where thumbnails of the photo spreads are fit together like puzzle pieces, Wintour removes half the spreads Coddington oversaw, much to her displeasure.

Wintour herself gives instructions to Mario Testino, the photographer who will shoot the cover image and spread in Rome using actress Sienna Miller. Miller’s hair is a wreck, but plans to put her in a wig don’t pan out either. They settle for slicking her hair up into a tight topknot. Then Testino is unhappy with the conditions around the Coliseum and decides not to shoot there at all, giving Wintour little to choose from. We witness the assembly of various pictures to create the cover image—giving Miller the face of one image and the neck of another. Such photo manipulation has sometimes gone awry in the fashion industry, causing ridicule of the results by readers and the photographic subjects themselves. I’m not aware of Vogue making such an obvious error, but make no mistake—Vogue isn’t really about reality. The fantasies evoked by fashion are what Vogue sells.

When Coddington is the one selling the fantasy, I want to buy. Her creativity is inspired, such as when she decides to cast Bob Richman, the documentary’s cinematographer, in her color-blocking feature. She dresses very plainly, usually wearing all black and flat, comfortable shoes, her wild shock of red hair flying loosely around her make-up free face. She’s the artist/hippie at Vogue.

Wintour represents the business and prestige of Vogue. As editor, she is responsible for the evolution and direction of the magazine, and was early in recognizing the ascendency of celebrity culture, which Coddington dislikes but respectfully admits was a good call. Wintour has a “signature” look, too, wearing print dresses that are Laura Ashley prim and short necklaces of chunky crystals in various colors. Her importance is unspoken, though she is rueful in saying that her family is “amused” by what she does. Fashion may be frivolous when compared with news journalism, and women do spend obscene amounts of money on it, but it is a legitimate art form as well as a business juggernaut. Without couture designers, the rare handcrafting that goes into high fashion would become a lost art. Wintour showcases this craftsmanship and uses her money and clout to mentor young designers, one of whom, Thakoon, gets a featured part in the film as he prepares a ready-to-wear collection.

The extras on the new DVD offer outtakes from the film that help us to see Wintour, Coddington, and others featured in the film, including Thakoon and editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, in other settings. I was happy to see the outtakes of Wintour, which I feel correct somewhat the icy demeanor that the documentary settles into. She is shown with her daughter Bee visiting various couture houses in Paris, and she actually smiles, something that wasn’t shown in the entire documentary. She delivers a eulogy for one of her staff; even though she had someone else write it based on her reminiscences, it does convey that she cares about the people she works with.

In the documentary, the deleted spreads from Coddington’s 20s shoot end up back in the magazine. How that happened isn’t easy to understand. In an interview with Cutler, he said that the Vogue staff communicate with looks and subtle gestures developed over the years. They seem to do more than that, judging by the outtakes, but Cutler seems to have decided to abet the Vogue mystique.

The 2007 September issue came out just before the economy went belly up. Austerity has made a big comeback, and Condé Nast shuttered several of its high-end publications last year. Vogue certainly can’t expect to have ad page sales like the record number they had in the documentary’s year. The fashion industry has changed dramatically, concentrating more on merchandising than clothes for profits. Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, and Vogue represent one of the last bastions of old-style glamor. I’m glad we have this documentary to record how it was.

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