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Friday, Nov. 6, 2009
'The September Issue'
Contrasting personalities the big issue in Vogue doc
Meryl Streep's dragon-lady fashion-mag editor in "The Devil Wears Prada" was widely assumed to be based on real-life Vogue editor in chief, Anna Wintour. Known by some in the industry as "Nuclear Wintour" for her frosty and regal attitude toward the peons (and peers) around her, Wintour has earned respect and fear more than love in the fashion world where she has nevertheless become a commanding presence.
In "The September Issue," a documentary by R.J. Cutler on the making of a record-breaking immense 2007 issue of Vogue (which weighed in at just more than 2 kg and 840 pages), Wintour takes off her celeb-size sunglasses to reveal the warm, fuzzy, caring person within.
Ha-ha, gotcha. The sunglasses do come off, but the Vogue honcho seems warm in the same way that Tom Cruise seems sincere — like an alien life-form trying desperately to ape human behavior.
The film begins with Wintour, a four-decade veteran of fashion journalism and publishing, opening up to the camera: "What I often see is people who are frightened of fashion. . . . When people say demeaning things about our world, it's because they feel excluded, not in the cool group. There's something about fashion that can make people very nervous."
It's a very provocative opening, one more revealing of Wintour's mind-set than the critics she speaks of, and it promises a hard look at Wintour, and her perspective on the fashion industry. Actually, the film gives us none of that: Wintour remains an enigmatic presence, emerging from her cocoon to give quick and fatal judgments on the work of her staff; "that's pretty" means you've passed muster, whereas a cool "thanks" (with a hard period on the end of it) means pick up your photos and skulk out of her office immediately.
The film never cracks open Wintour, it does find a more approachable subject in her longtime collaborator, Grace Coddington, creative director of Vogue. Like Wintour, she's a former model from Britain who then went on to become involved in the publishing side, but the similarities end there. With her toothy grin and frizzy mane of red hair, Coddington comes across as warm and vivacious, unafraid to be herself on the camera, unlike Wintour and her carefully controlled image.
The film documents the Lennon and McCartney-like relationship between the two women, each with very strong — and often differing — ideas about what the magazine should be: Wintour with her bright colors, furs, and anorexic-celebrity elitism; Coddington with her ideals of art, experimentation and imperfection.
Coddington seems to win the battle of ideas, but this may be simply because she made herself more available to the camera. Still, there's one scene where Coddington shoots a 1920s-inspired spread and comes up with a simply astounding photo — all sepia-tones and flappers and a louche ambience that oozes off the print — and Wintour just rejects it with barely a glance. When a staffer fumes that Wintour took out the best picture in the issue, it's hard to disagree. (Which makes you wonder how much other great art lines the dustbins at Vogue.)
It seems like everyone walks out of this movie liking Coddington over Wintour, and I wouldn't disagree, being absolutely charmed; her enthusiasm impressed even this hardened skeptic of high fashion. I would suggest, though, that Wintour's better qualities also seep through the cracks. For one, she's wise enough to keep talent like Coddington on board, even when that talent gets in her face and disagrees.
It's also interesting to see the filmmakers interview Wintour's daughter, who expresses a strong dislike of the fashion industry: "It's a weird industry. Some of the people take it too seriously, they think fashion is life. But there are other things out there." While this may seem like a back-handed compliment, anyone who can raise a child so independent-minded and able to question her parents' assumptions is clearly doing something right.