In The September Issue, RJ Cutler’s highly entertaining documentary about the making of the famed September issue ofVogue, editor Anna Wintour proves herself to be surprisingly delightful, charming, winsome. . . Oh, who am I trying to kid? She’s an ice queen.
Indeed, the most fascinating thing about Anna Wintour is this: She’s not fascinating at all. When Meryl Streep played a thinly veiled version of her in The Devil Wears Prada, she depicted her as regal, haughty, the kind of woman who could crush you with a snide comment or withering stare. But the real Anna Wintour is mousy, somewhat bloodless, even meek at times—she’s like Andy Warhol without the wide-eyed innocence that gave him his charm.
And yet, as the film makes quite clear, she is the most influential woman in fashion. A single issue of Vogue can make or break a designer’s season—even a career. What’s more, while Vogue is populated by a bevy of talented art directors, photographers, and editorial assistants, it is Anna’s opinion that matters above all others. She micromanages every last page of the issue. Her taste is, indeed, impeccable. She’s a fashion savant.
Luckily for The September Issue, there are plenty of larger than life personalities to go around. There is editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, a gay African-American who sees life as a stage and his wardrobe as the ultimate costume department. There are all of Anna’s put-upon assistants, nervous editors, and sycophantic associates—mostly seen schlepping around racks of expensive clothing and trying to anticipate (in vain) Wintour’s next whim. But mostly there is Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director and the yin to Wintour’s yang; the fire to her ice.
While Wintour’s talent is mysterious and oblique, Coddington’s talent is extravagant, maybe even a bit gaudy. She loves beauty and she loves clutter; there is passion behind her elaborately staged fashion photo shoots. While Wintour is credited with anticipating the intersection between fashion and celebrity, Coddington has no interest at all in celebrity. Fashion, to her, is a kind of art, to be cherished, to be shown off—celebrities only get in the way.
Even in appearance, the two women, both British and both ex-models (although Coddington had the more celebrated career) couldn’t be more different: Anna has her hair cut into a fashionable bob and hides her tiny face behind enormous sunglasses. Coddington has a long, impractical mane of red hair and warm, inquisitive eyes.
I’m not sure if Cutler knew going into his film that he had a natural protaganist and villain, but it works out that way, brilliantly. If you are interested in fashion, or the inner workings of a fashion magazine, The September Issue will be like catnip for you. But even if you don’t give a whit about the fashion industry, you’ll be enthralled by the high stakes (financially and creatively) of the issue and the obvious passions and clashing personalities on display. And in the middle of it all, there’s tense, joyless little Anna Wintour—the most unlikely dictator of them all.
To read my complete review of The September Issue, check out the October issue of Baltimore.