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    Vogue editors Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour in The September Issue. in The September Issue
    Vogue editors Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour in "The September Issue."

    The empress's new clothes

    "The September Issue" provides a glimpse into the production of Vogue magazine and what editor Anna Wintour has in common with ... um ... Chairman Mao? Really?


    "The September Issue," a look inside the workings of Vogue magazine, is one of those movies that different people see with different eyes.

    Directed by: R.J. Cutler.
    Featuring: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Sienna Miller, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar De la Renta, Patrick DeMarchelier, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Candy Pratts, Hilary Rhoda, Coco Rocha, André Leon Talley, Mario Testino, Caroline Trentini, Vera Wang.
    Cinematography: Robert Richman.
    Edited by: Azin Sarnari.

    Related links: Official site
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    A woman sitting in front of me — maybe it was just the movie-screen light playing off her face, or maybe it was a glow of profound ecstasy — seemed rapt by the visions of glamour and the racks and racks of dreamy designer clothes. My date, who is connected with the fashion business, focused on the machinations of an industry behemoth and even spotted people she knew.

    Me, I spent a lot of time thinking about basic questions: What is this thing called fashion? Why is there a Vogue? Instead of review the film as such (it's a good film; if you're interested, see it; that's my review), I want to just rant hysterically about the idiocy of fashion.

    Did I say that? What I meant to type was: share some of the rarefied thoughts and perspectives that the movie evoked in me.

    The documentary follows the making of the all-important September (2007) issue, which covers the fall collections and is a really big deal. Shockingly famous designers are summoned to editor Anna Wintour's court to show their wares and curry favor, and her royal countenance may smile on them or doom them.

    The cover of the September 2007 Vogue. in The September Issue  
    The cover of the September 2007 Vogue.
    I pondered whether what Vogue does is even journalism, and I think — in spite of the printing on paper of information about current events, just like in any other magazine — it is not. It is not even devoted to "the truth" in the same way that journalism is.

    The September issue, featuring a photo shoot with Sienna Miller, declares the B-actress "Fashion's Feistiest Icon" on its cover. Is there anybody on earth who considers Sienna Miller that? Not one of those three words is true. She is not really in the fashion industry, she is not its feistiest member ("feistier" than Naomi Campbell, for instance?), and she isn't an icon of anything except maybe wronged women. Not a single word is true — it's hype for a very run-of-the-mill celeb, indifferently offered and unthinkingly received.

    That tells you something about the ethic of the magazine. I would say Vogue has less in common with Newsweek than with the Sears catalogue. It is fundamentally a display of products to buy, not a source of information to know. It's a very, very thick commercial.

      The September issue declares B-actress Sienna Miller "Fashion's Feistiest Icon" on its cover. Is there anybody on earth who considers Sienna Miller that?
    But wait, doesn't the notorious Wintour exercise some kind of editorial judgement in choosing which clothes and articles make her mag? Doesn't that make her kind of like a critic? Yes — kind of. Sometimes I was reminded of those other superpowered journalists — wine critics and theater critics — who, with a word, can make or break what they cover.

    But one difference is that Wintour doesn't just sit in a theater seat or swirl a glass of Bordeaux and then pronounce her opinion. We see her actively meddle in the fashion business. Her obsession of the moment is the young designer Thakoon, whom she pushes on both Oscar de la Renta and The Gap in the course of the movie. He's a designer for all purposes in Wintour world, evidently. She reviews fall lines-in-progress with other designers, telling them what's wrong with their collections and what to do about it. The CEO of Neiman-Marcus even begs her for help with his supply chain (and she gives him an answer that sounds like she wasn't even listening). This is, ideally, not what a magazine editor does. A power broker, yes, but a journalist, no.

    "She sees herself as the director and producer of the fashion world," publisher Tom Florio suggests in the movie. That's a very different thing to be. No theater critic is the director and producer of the play he or she reviews. So, fine — Vogue doesn't have to be a news magazine as such; it can be something else. But what?

    The September Issue  
    Wintour's right-hand woman, for several decades now, is Grace Coddington, who started as a model herself and is now Vogue's creative director — which means she has her hands on the stuff that actually goes into the magazine while Wintour hobnobs with the big machers and sometimes glides through the office to give her yeas and nays to whatever the worker bees have produced for publication.

    Coddington is probably the most central player in "The September Issue," and yet a paradoxically peripheral one as well. Every decision seems to be made in her absence — she learns of them only after Wintour has breezed through and scuttled Coddington's plans, one by one, including completed $50,000 photo shoots, without even telling her. But in the end, it is still she who has put the damn thing together.

    Coddington seems to be at loggerheads with the magazine itself, for a reason. We see some of her failures, and they are distinguished by one thing — beautiful images. When those pieces die (and she is the last to know), she is struck with disbelief because they are clearly great work — as photography. What you realize through this movie is that Vogue is not a photography magazine either.

      The difference between Vogue and Pravda is that Vogue's followers obey willingly.
    What is it, then? Let me suggest this: It is a kind of Fashion Pravda. It sets a party line for others to follow. Wintour — not exactly the Stalin of this world, but perhaps its Putin, puppetmaster of its oligarchs — makes a pronouncement and it becomes practically the Word of God. For a season, anyway. Like Mao, who starved China by ordering farmers to make steel, or Deng Xiaoping, who reportedly set off Tiananmen Square with a single senile sentence, Wintour's Word moves worlds. In this issue, the Word happens to be "texture." (The other Word is "jackets," but let's just deal with "texture.")

    Wintour denounces one designer's line with: "It's just not saying texture to me." From then on, her minions run around trying to find something that will please the queen.

    Word filters down as Coddington explains to an assistant, "It is a great picture — it just doesn't say 'texture' to her."

    The September Issue  
    "It is texture!" the assistant protests.

    "I know!" Coddington agrees.

    Woe to the designer who didn't offer "texture" that season. Is there something sacred about texture that makes it indispensible? Of course not — one can imagine Wintour uttering the word "sleek" in 2008, and "texture" would be instantaneously pass. It's not that "texture" would be unwearable the following year — it's just that it would no longer please a fickle goddess.

    And what is high fashion but that — the arbitrary, vacillating edicts of an elite, dictating what the masses are to wear. The difference between Vogue and Pravda is that Vogue's followers, like the glowing, awestruck woman in the theater this night, obey willingly. Big Sister doesn't have to watch them — they watch Big Sister.

    I have never been a fan of Vogue, but I am in some sense a fan of fashion. The best trend I've seen is the rise of a kind of anti-Vogue. Publications a little closer to street level, like the Village Voice and Time Out, embrace a different idea — that fashion isn't just what designers are showing; it's also what people are wearing. Bottom-up, not top-down. One person's fashion is a thrift-store overcoat; another's is a shocking pink scarf. The point is, they need not crave the latest, the newest, the most expensive, the clothes seen on tall skinny models in Milan, to express who they are. They don't need Anna Wintour to dictate to them. They wear what they have; they wear what they love. To me, street fashion is freedom; high fashion is slavery.

    OCTOBER 30, 2009

    Reader comments on The September Issue:

  • well written   from jy, Jul 12, 2010

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