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.