The September Issue (2009)

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To a lot of us, fashion seems like a fluffy and superficial profession. But to countless fashion insiders everywhere it is a deadly serious business. This is a business where people know the difference between puce and plum, and where hemlines and necklines are of utmost importance. And that cute handbag you just bought from Target? Quite likely it’s a knock-off of a pricier designer handbag a fashion editor claimed was the “must have” of the season.

And there is probably no more important fashion magazine than American Vogue. At the helm is the British ex-pat Anna Wintour and Vogue is the bible to fashionistas everywhere. And no issue of Vogue is more important than the mammoth September issue, chock full of fashion and beauty layouts, articles, celebrity profiles and yes, lots and lots of advertisements.

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Documentarian RJ Cutler (The War Room, which focused on the 1992 Clinton presidential campain) turns his unblinking camera lens to the creation of the 2007 September issue of Vogue in the documentary The September Issue. The September Issue follows Wintour and crew as the September Issue begins with some nuggets of ideas to a fully-formed magazine on the newsstand.

The September Issue begins with Wintour reflecting on the power of fashion and how it can make some people nervous. Known mostly for her whippet-thin figure, swingy bob and dark sunglasses, it was a bit jarring to hear Wintour speak. Sure, she’s not warm and fuzzy, but there is a reflective side to her that makes her quite human.

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During the film we see Wintour meeting with staff to discuss the issue. We see her jetting off to London, Paris and Rome to attend fashion shows and meet with designers. Wintour can make or break a designer with one raised eyebrow so I wouldn’t be surprised if even established designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld felt a bit nervous about meeting her. But when Wintour likes a designer she is behind that person 110%. Wintour was an early supporter of Thakoon (one of Michelle Obama’s fave designers). Her support of him, dare I say it, is almost sweet.

Wintour is also the editor that put celebrities on the covers of Vogue over models, and the chosen celebrity for this September issue is British actress Sienna Miller. Sienna comes to the Vogue offices and is outfitted in beautiful couture gowns, many which will end up in the magazine. However, the staff is flummoxed by Miller’s hair, which is growing out awkwardly, and not quite up to the magazine’s standards. Later, Wintour is not happy with Sienna’s photo layout shot by legendary photographer, Mario Testino, and the design staff scrambles to make a viable cover.

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Though Wintour is at the top of the Vogue heap, she is not alone in making Vogue what it is. In September Issue, we get to meet editor-at-large (literally) Andre Leon Talley, the cape wearing and Vuitton-loving male Auntie Mame who seems to be employed to kiss Wintour’s skinny ass. I can’t imagine what Talley actually does for the magazine, but he definitely added a fun element to the movie. If he didn’t exist, a Hollywood  would have to create him.

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And then there is the brilliant creative director Grace Coddington. Coddington started out as a fashion model in the swinging sixties. But after suffering a horrific car crash, Coddington turned her talents to fashioned a role behind the camera. Coddington is the yang to Wintour’s yin. If Wintour is all about commerce and wondering if it will sell, Coddington is all about art and creating beautiful and over-the-top fashion layouts that are all fantasy.

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Not surprisingly, Wintour and Coddington don’t always see eye to eye. As the issue is being put together, Coddington is creating a 1920s Parisian cafe society fashion layout inspired by the designer Galianos. Coddington’s vision is pure magic, yet Wintour is not pleased with one of the photos, and wants it deleted. Coddington is not happy. This layout is her baby. Yet, I could see both their points. The shot is gorgeous, yet it doesn’t quite work with the rest of the photographs. The offending photo is cut.

However, Coddington does get to make one final decision. During a last minute photo shoot for another layout, Coddington taps the documentary’s cinematographer, Bob Richman, to join the model in a photo. He happily obliges. Wintour takes a look at the resulting photo and wants to airbrush Richman’s slight pot belly. Coddington nixes the idea, saying, “Everybody isn’t perfect in this world.” Richman’s belly stays in the picture. Finally, after months of preparation, the September 2007 issue of Vogue is released. It weighs over four pounds and is over 800 pages, the largest issue in Vogue history.

RJ Cutler’s “fly on the wall” film making style is what helps make this movie so interesting. You get to see everyone in their element without film maker commentary. I was stunned to see the staff look at the mock ups on a huge wall where pictures and layout can be moved by hand rather than doing it on a computer. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how un-Botoxed and unmade-up the staff was even though most of them, like their leader, is very, very thin. Also, I was surprised how plain the Vogue offices are. I was expecting something ostentatious and grand, but the offices are quite non-descript.

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But most of all, I was surprised how much I didn’t despise Anna Wintour. Sure, she isn’t at Vogue to make friends, but she isn’t the vicious harpy the media makes her out to be. Yes, she’s reserved and exacting but so are a lot of people in any cut throat business. And I doubt any negativity thrown Wintour’s way would be applied to a successful man. But still, Wintour does show some vulnerability as when she talks about her siblings, all of them in more serious professions, who are quite “amused” by her career.

September Issue is a fascinating look at both a legendary magazine and the talented people who make it happen. It is the “must have” for both fashion and film lovers.