[Film review] The September Issue

You go to watch The September Issue because you want to look at the gorgon. Sure, you might be fascinated by fashion, you might be the sort of magazine obsessive who geeks out on sneaking a look at other people’s flatplans (I am both) – but ultimately, what you want to know is whether American Vogue editor Anna Wintour is as monstrously frosty as her reputation claims.

Wintour won’t haunt your nightmares after you watch this movie, which charts the assembly of Vogue’s critical September Issue (the one which sets all the trends for the following year). That’s not because she comes over as especially pleasant, though. In fact, she has a way of crushing an inferior with a twitch of her lip so devastating, you can watch her victim’s heart break on screen in front of you. (Inferiors, by the way, include office interns who get in her way, junior editors who can’t fight for their photo shoot, and top-of-the-pile designers seeking US Vogue approval for their collections. “She’s the Pope”, explains one Wintour employee.)

Yet with the mixture of intimacy and remove afforded by film, though, there’s something arresting about Wintour’s combination of brutal decisiveness and evident frailty. Wintour is near-60 and very thin: the camera is not cruel or intrusive, but however glossy her bob and toned her arms, Wintour’s voice and skin are whispering her age. Gawker speculated that Wintour collaborated with The September Issue’s makers as part of a campaign to reinvent herself as likeable. I doubt it: she doesn’t approach the camera as someone looking to be loved, but as someone who knows that power is her trade and imperiousness her greatest asset.

If it was a charm contest, then Wintour certainly lost it to creative director Grace Coddington. Where Wintour is sleek business, Coddington is expansive art – her spectacular, dreamy combinations of garments and settings make up captivating spreads which define both the magazine’s aesthetic and the idea of fashion. Witty, appealing and determined, she even offers advice to her colleagues on standing up to Anna.

But it’s a mistake to see their relationship as purely competitive. At one point, Coddington reflects on the magazines move toward celebrity culture. She doesn’t like it, but she applauds Wintour for identifying the trend early and building it into the magazine. After all, Coddington explains, if the magazine doesn’t sell, she won’t have a job – and if she doesn’t have a job, there will be no venue for her work.

You get the impression that, while Coddington adores clothes and fashion and the magazine she works for, she sees the industry as more of a platform than an end in itself – whereas as Wintour is involved in every part of the chain, even acting as an ambassador for negotiations between stores and designers. For Coddington, fashion is only a part of the world. “We can’t all be perfect”, she expounds, forcefully: “It’s enough that the models are perfect.” In the aggressively perfect world of Wintour’s Vogue, where too-big cover fonts are dismissed as “large and pretentious, like it’s for blind people”, Coddington’s exuberance feels like the true soul of the magazine.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009