In committing to celluloid the compilation of the 2007 edition of Vogue to which the title refers, RJ Cutler’s The September Issue chronicles the perennial clash between art and commerce, beauty and the buck. It opens with the infamous editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, saying, “There is something about fashion that makes people very nervous,” by which the audience is meant to understand that there’s something about Ms. Wintour that makes people very nervous — and by something, I mean everything. Yet this is not a sentiment that she wishes to dispel, as it, along with the signature pageboy bob, shrewd business sense, and undeniably high style IQ, is what she has built her career upon. And what a career it is.
The film reveals the almost religious quality attached to the wonder that is Wintour, with her style disciples describing her as everything from the sartorial pope to the high priestess of fashion. Indeed, with her flashing eyes and shining talent, she is both sacred and profane. You get the sense that when the cameras are rolling, she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (or maybe more like lambs wool couture). In this sense, The September Issue has some of the trappings of a horror joint. Watching Wintour turn high-level fashion execs to mush and scare the bejesus out of starry-eyed wannabe tastemakers becomes a spectator sport, alternately fascinating and horrifying.
Reign of terror aside, it’s hard for the fashion world to argue with the capitalist bottom line that when Anna gets behind something, it sells. But there’s something more to it. Citing the 90210ers’ “I Hate Brenda” club as evidence, I would say the citizens of the pop cultural sector love them a compelling villainess. Would we really want the ice queen to melt before our eyes? Another question that surfaces where Wintour is concerned is whether there would be so much controversy concerning her iron-fisted rule if she were named, say, Aaron Wintour, instead. Put another way, how much can the hullabaloo surrounding her management methods be chalked up to uneasiness at the sight of a diminutive, bird-like lady getting men to snap to it?
In all of this, however, it is the creative director of American Vogue, Grace Coddington, who emerges as the real star, and perhaps even the tragic heroine, of The September Issue. She is the artist in a commercial world, the one with the vision that keeps getting scrapped. To put it in the language of accessories, Coddington has all the accoutrements of the martyr; she had to stop modeling and start working in a creative capacity after a car crash; a waif nurtured by fashion, as a young girl she survived on specially ordered issues of Vogue consumed in a small Welsh town. Yet, far from a hothouse flower, she is the only one who can stand up to Anna — a fact that gives the documentary its pluck. The tension between these two beau monde behemoths is palpable. It’s a passive aggressive action movie played out on the miniature stage of fashion; but, alas, with the cameras there, the catfights remain implicit.
Wintour and Coddington are both deeply talented in their separate spheres; with all-knowing eyes, they take mere seconds to analyze complex trends in beauty. There are many who don’t consider fashion to be a form of creative expression, thinking only of leggy anorexics who dissolve the egos of American teens (which is certainly part of the equation); but The September Issue shows us that what Wintour, Coddington, and many other talented fashion workers create is art.
Many of Vogue’s spreads are nods to famous photographs from the past; its pages bulge with the haunting, Kohl-darkened eyes of the jazz-drunk flapper, the hardboiled, femme fatale of noir fame, the hungry-faced, Depression era pin-up. As a consequence, we feel Coddington’s artistic heartbreak as Anna nixes shots she has nourished, seemingly with pieces of her self. When, in a quiet moment, Coddington confesses that she is a romantic that the modern world has left behind, she reveals both the crux of her struggle and the underlying focus of the film: she is a casualty of the commerce upon which her art depends.