If I thought I was having a grim month in terms of persuading commissioning editors to part with their pennies, it’s nothing compared to how soul-destroying it must be to work on American Vogue. How do I know this? Well, because I spent the morning watching, sniggering, empathising and cringing at the eagerly anticipated film The September Issue, RJ Cutler’s utterly fascinating and hugely enjoyable documentary which charts the production of what is always the biggest edition of the magazine of the year.
One by one, staff members are crushed by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s apparently breezy dismissal of photos, ensembles or ideas that they have sweated blood over. But it’s the veteran creative director, Grace Coddington who inspires the most sympathy. Although she and Wintour have been colleagues for two decades, she knows that her boss will make her decisions based on her own judgement alone – with no consultation. Every spread she completes is chopped by Wintour, and always when she is elsewhere in the building.
Indeed, Coddington’s editorial tussles with Wintour provide most of the drama and tension in the film. (Cutler was lucky that Coddington, being older and more Wintour-wise than the rest of the staff, was self-confident enough to speak her mind for the camera.)
Of the two women, Coddington is the one whose passion shines through. Next to her (and the insanely flamboyant editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley – who we don’t see enough of), Wintour has about as much passion as a dead fish. While Coddington is always on the look-out for inspiration and ideas, Wintour, her head bowed at Lady Di angles and her eyes often hidden behind her heavy fringe or her sunglasses (or both), seems introverted – as someone who relies solely on their own judgement and opinion must inevitably be.
Coddington, who could get a job as an Elizabeth I look-alike if she ever gets completely fed up with Wintour, dreams up the most ravishing images (that 1920s shoot! the French chateau spread!) but it’s clear that she gets carried away and, like most of us, takes it personally when other people start hacking away at her work. She doesn’t seem to know when to stop once those creative juices are flowing – so of course Wintour has to edit her output. As she says, decisiveness is her greatest strength.
Aside from revealing that her children are her biggest weakness, and apart from a brief hint of embarrassment at her own admission that her siblings are bemused by her career, Wintour gives next to nothing away about what makes her tick and what drives her. She must be passionate about fashion and about Vogue to devote so much time and energy to them, but there is nothing in her manner or in what she says that distinguishes her from anyone else doing a terrifically high-pressured job.
There’s no sense that she gets anything out of it, or that it’s fulfilling – or even that she loves clothes. Only once does she register pleasure when a dress is presented to her. Every other time, she looks bored or disinterested. At YSL, she almost defies designer Stephano Pilati to impress her, and watching her making him squirm is embarrassing.
Some kind of explanation of how Wintour came to wield such power would have been useful because in no other context would an artist take direction and criticism from a magazine editor. It doesn’t happen in music or in literature or in art. Of course, fashion is a different world – but it’s shocking to realise that the Wintour-inspired character Meryl Streep played in The Devil Wears Prada was really not a caricature; in many respects it was a fairly faithful portrayal of someone who is terrifying but in a thoroughly understated way.
Wintour points out that she inherited a character trait from her father – his inscrutablity. Turn a camera on her and it seems to increase the inscrutability. She may have a fearsome reputation but, based on what we see in this film, she doesn’t appear to have a personality.