The September Issue (Director: R.J. Cutler): Vogue’s September issue is its largest and most important of the year, and work begins on it almost a year in advance. R.J. Cutler and his small crew were granted unprecedented access to the process of putting the whole thing together.
The film begins with Vogue’s Editor in Chief Anna Wintour opining that fashion intimidates a lot of people, and therefore those people mock it. She could very well have been speaking about herself. Infamously lampooned by Meryl Streep in the film The Devil Wears Prada (based on a memoir by a former Vogue intern that portrays Wintour as a bit of a tyrant), Wintour has a reputation for meanness and iciness that has always seemed a bit undeserved to me. In fact, I’ve always had a bit of a crush on the so-called “Ice Queen.” My wife worked for several years as a copy editor at a fashion magazine here in Toronto, and her stories have made me feel a lot of sympathy for Ms. Wintour. She seems to be someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and the world of fashion seems overpopulated by fools.
Cutler’s film has only confirmed my opinion of Wintour, although there are comparatively few fools on display. When she’s asked late in the film what her greatest strength is, she unhesitatingly replies, “Decisiveness.” It’s what has propelled her and Vogue to the top of the notoriously fickle fashion world. She is an editor, someone who is called upon every day to decide between competing creative work, and that calls for a certain ruthlessness. Fashion is creative, but it’s also a business, and without someone making hard decisions, Vogue would certainly falter.
We meet two other types of people in The September Issue. The creative and generally hard-working people who act as writers, editors, photographers, art directors and designers. And then there are the sycophants, the air-kissers and ass kissers. The latter type is refreshingly more absent than I’d feared, but the examples on display (the buffoonery of André Leon Talley, the spinelessness of design director Charles Churchward) add a healthy dose of humour to the film, even if we’re cringing as we’re laughing.
The film actually spends more time with Creative Director Grace Coddington than it does with Wintour. The fire to Wintour’s ice, Coddington is a former model who has has worked with Wintour at Vogue for more than twenty years. Despite the fact that she was initially hostile to the filmmakers, she ends up opening up the most to them, and her passion, creativity and candor warm up the film considerably. One gets the sense that her ongoing battles with the editor over photo shoots are an integral part of what makes the magazine so consistently excellent.
But back to Wintour for a moment. As she talks about her English upbringing and the achievements of her siblings (“What I do amuses them, I think”), what comes through to this Canadian is reserve and perhaps shyness (why do you think she wears the sunglasses so often?) rather than any sense of hostility. I think Americans are simply a more gregarious people than most, and so her gentility comes across as something more sinister. She’s considerably more relaxed around her daughter, Bee Shaffer, and the scenes showing her support of young designer Thakoon also showed me a more tender side.
I found The September Issue hugely enjoyable, both for the inside look into the work of so many people coming together to create the magazine, and also for the revealing portrayal of the dynamic between a few of the people surrounding Anna Wintour. Although she barely lets her guard down, the little bit she does show dispels the myth that she’s heartless. If anything, it shows that she’s just incredibly busy, and her efficiency is a survival tactic. The film has only heightened my respect and admiration for her. Which is just a fancy way of saying that my crush is not only intact, it’s increasing. When she does finally retire, I desperately hope she’ll write a memoir. Maybe she can call it, Yes, I Wear Prada. You Gotta Problem With That?
The September Issue opens in Toronto on Friday October 23 at the Varsity Cinema.