If you are anything like me, you’ve been reading Vogue since you were a teenager. If you haven’t had a continuous subscription, you find a reason to grab the latest one on your way to catch a plane or back to a quiet evening at home. The September Issue, directed and produced by R.J. Cutler, is a documentary about that iconic magazine. The film garnered a prestigious award at the Sundance Film Festival, went out for a limited release in the U.S. last year and has just been released on DVD this week.
It is rare that interesting films are made about a thing–in this case, the September 2007 issue of Vogue, the largest one ever published. Watching the film I couldn’t help wonder if Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, have ever sought to correlate the pages length of Vogue with the health of the world economy. Certainly September 2007–before recent economic problems manifested–demonstrate a moment in time that we are all uncertain will be repeated. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that the latest issue (March 2009) is a hefty 528 pages. Perhaps things are looking up?
The film reveals some fascinating glimpses of the magazine. The cover, as it turns out, belongs to us. Who knew? It’s intended to draw us in, to invite us to buy and read. Inside, art and money have a symbiotic– if uneasy– relationship. We see $50,000 worth of photographs cut in an instant, last-minute re-shoots that really do seem significantly better than the originals and an unerring sense that fashion (and Vogue) cannot exist without a firm understanding of both excellence in artistic vision and the underlying economics.
The film spends an appropriately substantial amount of time on Anna Wintour, who has been Vogue’s Editor in Chief since 1988. Wintour is every inch an “editor”–decisive, extraordinarily visual, cool and the voice of “no.” Her trained eye and blunt demeanor are infamous. The film shows sharp slices of her humanity to some degree through her relationship with daughter, but primarily through her discussions about her father who was himself an editor of the British London Evening Standard. Wintour shines in her support of the then-fledgling designer Thakoon Panichgul, using her considerable influence to help him become part of a legacy of new designers. Nonetheless, the majority of the film is a study in Wintour’s ability to cull, to separate, to push, to enforce her impossibly high standards that her extremely talented staff relentlessly seeks to meet. Beyond this, the film demonstrates Wintour’s incredible mastery of both the art and commerce of fashion, and of Vogue as an institution within it. As Wintour breakfasts with luxury retailers at the Ritz Paris, it becomes unquestionably clear that her influence extends beyond clothes to encompass business.
The quieter star of the film is Grace Coddington, herself a former model and now Vogue’s creative director, who emerges as the magazine’s imaginative force. The pictures that she envisions are incredible, the images that are discarded by Wintour’s eagle eye are beautiful beyond description. If Wintour is the voice of “no,” Coddington is the voice of “yes,” seeing possibilities and building fantasies that are ultimately made real. To the extent that there is any conflict displayed in the film, it is in Coddington’s frustration with Wintour’s decisions to cut some of Coddington’s prolific imagery. One interesting moment was a scene featuring Coddington’s off-the-cuff statements to a relative newcomer at Vogue who was struggling with his relationship with Wintour. Coddington advises him to stand his ground with Wintour, to demonstrate his own vision and therefore his value. This was a heartening insight that spoke volumes about how respect is earned at that institution (and, I suspect, at most others). Further, the uneasy dynamic between Wintour and Coddington demonstrates the tension between creators and editors–after all, without Coddington’s ability to produce unbelievable variation, Wintour would be left with little content to edit. Without Wintour, Coddington’s platform to effectuate her creative vision might tumble.
There are glimpses of fashion in The September Issue, as Wintour visits designers for an early look, in photo shoots and on racks lining the hallways at the magazine. Perhaps cognizant of the ephemeral relevance of that season’s collections, the film uses the clothing as mere background. After all, fashion is always moving forward. Vogue, it seems, will last forever.
If you are a Vogue fan, and haven’t already seen it, The September Issue is an interesting look into the magazine and well worth the 90-minutes or so viewing time. My DVD has an additional disc, advertised to include nearly the same length in extra footage and features. I have a feeling that I’ll be watching both several times, it’s both an interesting and enjoyable treatment of these fashion icons.