Amazing Grace

Amy Taubin on The September Issue

R.J. Cutler, The September Issue, 2009, color film, 88 minutes. Production still.

THEY ARE AN UNLIKELY COUPLE: editor in chief Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington, numbers one and two on the masthead of the most influential fashion magazine in the world. While Wintour is the face of Vogue, and her celebrity is what will sell R. J. Cutler’s The September Issue, Coddington steals the movie. Cutler, who earned his documentary credentials producing Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993), has an eye for unlikely seducers. As James Carville was to Pennebaker’s behind-the-scenes look at the 1992 Clinton campaign, so Coddington is to The September Issue. I hope she forgives the analogy.

Like The War Room, The September Issue is a process documentary. It follows the six-month production of the September 2007 Vogue, which at 840 pages—the number blazoned on the cover—was the largest issue in the magazine’s history. Whatever the reasons for the year-and-a-half lag between the date Cutler finished shooting and The September Issue’s premiere at Sundance in January 2009 (it shouldn’t have taken seventeen months to cut together fly-on-the-wall HD footage with Sex in the City establishing shots unless the contractual fine print defining “final cut” was stickier than usual for the fly), the delay has yielded an unintended irony. No one on the screen seems to have a clue that anything other than the weight limitations imposed by US Post Office would interfere with the next issue being even bigger. Instead, the September 2008 issue was down forty-two pages, and the current issue’s page count is a mere 584, the number still a defiantly eye-catching element of the cover design. In the fashion world, heavier is better only in regard to the poundage of the book.

As with any glossy magazine, including Artforum, advertising is what determines page count. Of those already legendary 840 pages, 727 were ads. I take that number from no less an authority than Maureen Dowd, one of some half dozen New York Times writers who have used the movie as an opportunity to weigh in on all things Wintour, thus contributing to the publicity bonanza that The September Issue has been for Vogue. Wintour is a brilliant businesswoman who understands how to use the influence her magazine wields over shoppers to convince retailers and designers that advertising in Vogue is a necessary element of their marketing strategy. There is very little in the movie that depicts how Wintour accomplishes this. A glimpse of her fielding a softball question about designers’ tardiness at Vogue’s annual breakfast for retailers; a couple of words of praise from senior VP and publishing director Thomas Florio; a few seconds of a Condé Nast staff meeting during which chairman Si Newhouse can be seen in profile—that’s about it for the symbiotic relations among editorial, publishing, and marketing divisions. Nor is there any analysis of the power of fashion in contemporary culture. (For a brilliant depiction of how fashion was used to economically and politically cripple a fractious bourgeoisie, put Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 The Taking of Power by Louis XIV in your Netflix queue.)

R.J. Cutler, The September Issue, 2009, color film, 88 minutes. Production still.

Insubstantial though it is, The September Issue has its pleasures and even revelations. First and foremost, it does away with the myth that everyone who works for Vogue is physically perfect. There is most obviously the girth of the great André Leon Talley, who is here relegated, in two brief scenes, to the role of court jester. High-definition is an unsparing medium: I really didn’t want to be as intimately acquainted with the pores on Johnny Depp’s nose as Public Enemies (2009) forced me to be, but it was deeply liberating to see that tiny shadow of UFH (undesirable facial hair) above Wintour’s upper lip. Wintour is by far the least eccentric looking and most soigné of everyone in Vogue’s editorial offices, where, aside from a few excursions to Paris, London, and Rome for photo shoots and to cover the European collections, the movie is largely located. “Everyone can’t be perfect in this world. It’s enough that the models are perfect,” says Coddington, refusing Wintour’s orders to eliminate the paunch from a photo of Cutler’s cameraman, Bob Richman, whom Coddington impulsively included in one of her spreads. Coddington enlists the film crew as allies in her daily struggles with Wintour, and her sotto voce asides to the camera are expertly timed and very funny. “I love to talk money in front of you guys with Anna,” she confides after Wintour has insisted that she reshoot an entire spread, “because it drives her crazy and it’s a sure way to get the budget up.”

Wintour and Coddington’s diametrically opposed aesthetic sensibilities—an opposition essential to the success of the past twenty years of American Vogue, not to mention this movie—manifest in their respective presentations of self. Wintour always looks armored, even in the arm-baring clingy print dresses she favors in the office. Her signature bulletproof bob hides both her forehead and her jawline—the areas of the face where gravity and/or the surgeon’s laser most often do their work. I’m pretty sure she eschews Botox, since, within a limited emotional range, her face is extremely expressive. She exhibits as many variations of the disdainful glance—coupled with the withering remark—as Eskimos are said to have words for snow. It will be unfortunate if aspiring editors with less talent but a similarly sadistic streak take her as a role model.

Coddington, on the other hand, combs her shoulder-length mane of fire-red frizzy hair straight back from her high forehead, baring every line, crease, and sag that time has wrought on her parchment-white skin. Already eligible for Medicare when the documentary was shot, she is that nearly extinct creature—a woman who looks her age on-screen and is ravishingly beautiful because we can see her entire life in her face. When Coddington was a teenager in a Welsh convent school, she escaped into the fantasy world of Vogue because, she says, “she loved the pages.” Her modeling career in London was cut short by a car accident that left her with scars around one eye. After working for British Vogue for twenty years, she was hired by American Vogue, a week after Wintour became editor in chief.

R.J. Cutler, The September Issue, 2009. (Clip)

One of the last hands-on stylists at a major fashion magazine (she dresses the models herself), Coddington favors a soft-focused, backlit romantic look that she fears has gone out of favor. “Everyone seems to like things pin sharp these days,” she says regretfully. Her work, she explains, is based on creating a fantasy around the models. Fashion stories like “Texture!” or “The Jacket!” are merely pretexts. Coddington (creative talent) and Wintour (editor) go at each other as nastily as Labour and Conservative party members in British Parliament, although each of them admits at various points that the other is the best at what she does. Coddington credits Wintour with “seeing the celebrity thing coming before everyone else,” and although she hates it, she knows that by putting celebrities on the cover, Wintour pumped up sales. “You’ve got to have something to put your work in,” Coddington explains ruefully. “Otherwise it’s not valid.”

I became a Coddington devotee after I saw a spread in a 1989 Vogue where she played clothes made of leopard-skin-print fabrics against archival images of Chanel and Schiaparelli wearing the leopard-fur hats they made famous and a 1966 photo of a model sitting across a dinner table from a leopard wearing a napkin around its neck. The caption for that last image reads: “Fortunately for the big cat, it was around this time that imitation fur reached its state of near perfection.” Coddington went on to publish, in collaboration with her partner, Didier Malige, The Catwalk Cats (2006), a charming illustrated fantasy about the adventures of their five companion felines in the world of high fashion. Vogue, however, did not replace the skins of dead animals, long a staple in its pages, with simulations. In fact, after PETA put a dent in the profits of the fur industry, Wintour almost single-handedly revived it by putting fur back on the covers of Vogue from the mid-’90s on. Missing from The September Issue are glimpses of Wintour and Coddington arguing directly about things that matter, like fur, and maybe celebrity as well. Explaining her relationship to Wintour, Coddington says, “I know when to stop pushing her. She doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.” I imagine that Cutler must have felt the same.

The September Issue opens in New York on August 28 and in Los Angeles and select cities on September 11.