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Fashion on Film: Movie Review, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye

It’s a significant moment in time: Vogue magazine’s celebrating its 120th anniversary. And Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour brings fashion editors, past and present, out from behind the pages of the tony fashion magazine for a photo shoot by Annie Liebovitz. The resulting image appears in the 2012 September issue, and shows a formidable group of women representing five-plus decades of fashion editors from the magazine, including Grace Coddington, Tonne Goodman, Polly Allen Mellen, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, Camilla Nickerson, Phyllis Posnick and Babs Simpson. The fashion documentary, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eyeshowcases these industry leaders, who are celebrated for their inimitable fashion spreads for Vogue and who Wintour calls the magazine’s “secret weapons”.

Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato present a congratulatory documentary that moves at a quick, entertaining pace. We don’t see much of the particulars that go into creating a photo shoot for Vogue, but that’s partially because most of the former fashion editors are looking back at their work for the magazine from a distance. They share their stories and their approaches to fashion with a heavy dose of nostalgia, while the filmmakers support their recollections with footage and images from the Vogue archives.

We learn lots of backstory, like the fact that Photographer Irving Penn didn’t like shooting celebrities or that a Doberman tried to take off Christie Brinkley’s leg during one famous photo shoot in 1977 or that, when one editor was asked if she was from the Peace Corps while traipsing down a mountain in the middle of Turkey without a proper road in the 70s, she responded, “Oh, no, we’re Vogue.”

Anything goes, as long as it’s in service of the shoot. That appears to be the motto of the fashion editors, who all work obsessively to get something “transcendent”  or “indefinable” into a fashion spread. But both these terms mean something particular to each editor and to a specific era of time. Fashion Editor Grace Coddington’s on a search for the romantic, poetic vision of Alice in Wonderland-like magic, while Tonne Goodman seeks clean lines and ease of dress, as represented by the functionality of American designers and the modern woman.

In between the larger-than-life anecdotes and the strong personalities of each individual fashion editor, Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles serves as an anchor to the film. He has a remarkable way of elucidating the personal taste and point of view of each editor in sound bite form, while connecting them to both the larger cultural context of each era and the history of Vogue magazine. The filmmakers make the good choice to weave his voice throughout the film. At different points, he presents the editors as using the Vogue platform to reflect the zeitgeist of an era, to push the boundaries of society or to create a fantasy world as an escape.

Whichever the goal, we are told that a photo shoot takes months of conversation, preparation, research and collaboration to get just so. But the interesting thing is that some of the most iconic images that have graced Vogue’s pages seem to have happened when the fashion editors have tossed out their planning and have, instead, taken a step back and paid attention to the pulse of an individual photo shoot. The women seem to be at their best when they live in the tension between their personal vision and what is spontaneously unfolding in the moment.

Case in point: The indelible image of Nastassja Kinski wrapped in a snake from 1981 came about during a much more conventional set-up. In the middle of the shoot, Penn nonchalantly asked Kinski if she had any interests. When she replied that she liked snakes, Fashion Editor Polly Mellen went into action. She got on the phone, found a python and took the shoot in a completely different direction. The rest is now part of the 80’s cultural playbook.

The film presents iconic images of fashion like the one of Kinski as art, and calls the editors who create them artists (Wintour uses the term “geniuses”). Whether these superlatives are accurate or not is left to the individual viewer. What is true is that the particular image of Kinski is one of the most recognizable images of American culture. And, in the photo, she happens to be wearing no clothes at all. That’s undeniably transcendent of fashion.

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