By Jennifer Wright
. . . the Kind of September, when Condé Nast could revel in its excesses and Anna Wintour reigned supreme? The documentary film, The September Issue, is trying to remind us.
My favorite scene of The September Issue, which documents the creation of Vogue’s September 2007 issue, doesn’t feature editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Nor does it include creative director Grace Coddington, who comes across as a true visionary in this film. My favorite scene stars editor-at-large André Leon Talley, who complained earlier in the film about “the famine of beauty, the famine of be-eeeauut-aayy! In this country.” He is pictured playing tennis, inexplicably draped in countless Louis Vuitton towels. At times he makes a half-hearted attempt to extend his arm and hit the ball—but he seems miserable when doing so. He appears much, much happier sitting on the bench surrounded by his version of tennis gear—his Louis Vuitton bags and his vintage, diamond encrusted Piaget “tennis watch,” the virtues of which he is eager to share with the filmmakers.
At first, this frivolous and decadent scene might understandably seem to highlight only the status-conscious, logo-loving world of fashion. But then you pause and realize—wow, these crazy excesses were “normal” among a certain segment of the population a mere two years ago when the movie was made. Today, when even successful companies (most notably Goldman Sachs) are advising their employees to avoid major purchases, Tally might not be quite so quick to share the merits of this watch. (Actually, I want to believe that he would be just as eager but maybe more diffident.)
This rarefied money-is-no-object spirit arises over and over in the movie. The audience gasped when Coddington mentions offhandedly that, in reshooting a spread, Wintour has “probably tossed $50,000 worth of work.” Meanwhile, the ad sales team toasts their “biggest issue ever!” with Moët et Chandon. (Remember— September Vogue was always the “biggest issue ever” and in 2007, its “Fearless Fashion” issue was 840 pages!) But the party may be ending. There was a wonderful article a few weeks ago in The Observer, “The Gilded Age of Condé Nast is Over,” detailing how even famously self-indulgent Condé Nast is cutting back on luxuries. One of the major casualties of the lousy economy? The company no longer offers free Orangina. Horrors! The CEO of Condé Nast announced, “You don’t need it! You don’t need the Orangina!” I must assume the champagne is no longer free flowing, either.
Of course, The September Issue isn’t just a fascinating remembrance of things past. It also captures the enormous effort involved in producing a single fashion magazine issue and provides a stunning portrait of the power wielded by Wintour. When she jokingly remarks to an assistant that he needs to go to the gym (yes, he does seem to have a bit of a belly in a photograph being used in the magazine), he hangs his head disconsolately. When Wintour murmurs, “Excuse me”, a terrified assistant leaps out of her way.
There must have been more than a grain of truth to The Devil Wears Prada, but in this film there is also a human side to the editor. All that power and pressure seem to have made Wintour lonely and isolated. She talks about how the rest of her family work in politics or undertake aid work in Third World countries, saying (perhaps forlornly) that they are all “very amused by what I do. They’re amused.” She clearly wants her daughter, Bea Schaffer, to follow in her footsteps, but Schaffer finds the world of fashion superficial. When I spoke with the film’s director, R.J. Cutler, I was a little surprised to hear that Wintour had enjoyed the film and been very pleased with how she is depicted. Being shown as vulnerable—and at times very funny—may be preferable to being, as one reporter says in the movie, an “ice-woman.”
Throughout the film, Wintour is challenged by her strong-willed colleague, Coddington, who, while not as overtly powerful, may be much savvier. She is not afraid to go through back channels to see that her favorite spreads remain in the issue. (Amusingly, she even uses the filmmakers to give her updates about whether pages from a series of beautiful shots inspired by the 1920s that she produced are being cut.) She also comes across as kinder; after Wintour tells the assistant he needs to lose weight, Coddington reassures him that having a paunch actually makes the picture much more interesting and “real”. But then again, perhaps she is just being truthful—the contrast surely highlights the model’s perfection.
Go to this film for the personalities; or to understand the art of fashion; or as a portrait of the times—but definitely see it. And then buy your September issue of Vogue, coming in at 584 pages of “Stylish Steals and Smart Splurges.”
Andre Leon Talley and Anna Wintour via Allmoviephoto.com