Fashion on Film: Movie Review, The September Issue

The twin pillars of Vogue magazine are Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and Creative Director Grace Coddington. Their influence on fashion is no more apparent than in the magazine’s September Issue, traditionally the biggest, most highly anticipated issue of Vogue each year. The fashion documentary, The September Issue gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the 820-page issue in 2007 and how Wintour and Coddington -- along with an army of staff, a seemingly endless budget and offices bursting at the seams with clothes, shoes, accessories and makeup -- shepherd the formidable issue from conception to publication each year.

In Director R. J. Cutler hands, the rarefied world of fashion is as outrageous as we would have imagined. It’s either fun or funny to hear Vogue staffers argue over whether rubber is a texture or make pronouncements like “the jacket is the new coat.” Andre Leon Talley floats around at intervals spouting bon mots like “It’s a famine of beauty”, and cover girl Sienna Miller is repeatedly referred to as “toothy”. But the heart of the film is its spotlight on Wintour and Coddington and their relationship.

Of course, Wintour is already well-known and it’s hard to imagine the documentary adding anything new about her. Her reputation has been solidified by The Devil Wears Prada and in endless pictures of her behind her shades in the front row at fashion week, sporting a poker face with perfectly coiffed hair and patrician looks. Yet, the filmmaker offers moments that magnify her power to make or break anyone and everyone in the fashion industry. Who else would get away with tersely telling Prada she thinks he needs to reinterpret a few things? Or who could have the head of Neiman Marcus pleading with her to help put pressure on designers to better meet their production deadlines? Or who could send the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent to search for a piece that has the color Wintour intimates is missing from his collection with few words and a slight pursing of her lips?

The filmmaker sets Wintour’s ice-queen persona in contrast to the artistic creativity of Coddington. Coddington, a former Vogue model and Fashion Editor since 1988, flits among racks of clothes cluttering the hallway of Vogue, moving pieces around, mumbling, giving advice and cracking jokes to random staff while her frizzy, long red hair flies wildly. She’s both the creative mind and the logistical engineer behind the magazine’s fashion spreads, all of which are in the service of her vision. Such authority does not make her any less immune to Wintour’s criticism.

Nowhere is the nature of their relationship more evident than after a photo shoot has been completed. Coddington has just endeavored greatly with equal parts inspiration, coordination and perspiration with the goal of making sure that each fashion spread is as sublime as her vivid imagination. The resulting images are neatly lined up along a light table in a stark, white Vogue office for Wintour to view. Wintour approaches them quietly with arms crossed. She walks down the row, swiftly accepting or rejecting each one. The smallest of her gestures seem akin to a roman emperor’s thumbs up or thumbs down.

It would be easy to feel sorry for Coddington -- the misunderstood artist, who isn’t fully appreciated by Wintour or able to express her genius freely. Indeed, Coddington’s shown ruffling and sputtering around about how Wintour is making her life difficult and isn’t sufficiently getting her vision. But, when Wintour stands before the images and wields a decisive, “no”, it’s immediately apparent that her critical eye is right. We agree with Wintour that one particular shot needs to go because it’s too posed in comparison to the others. She’s right there are too many images in the spread of the roaring twenties. She’s right that the color blocking shoot doesn’t work and needs to be redone. For sure, once Coddington has had time to mourn how much work went into the color blocking shoot only to be so seemingly insouciantly dismissed by Wintour, she goes out and creates a much more compelling spread the second time around. The September issue rises triumphantly.

Indeed, color blocking redux is just one example of how Coddington’s artistic nature seems at its best when channeled through or challenged by Wintour’s curatorial eye. We live in an era and a culture that most supremely celebrates the solitary virtuoso. The film presents the collaboration of two fashion industry giants in all its complexity and untidy magnificence, which lies in direct opposition to this perspective. The contentious relationship and different points of view of Wintour and Coddington actually work to create a better outcome. You don’t have to be a fashion fan or a Vogue groupie to find this seeming contradiction intriguing or to find The September Issue a film worth watching.

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