Last night, I swapped a November evening for The September Issue. The exchange was conducted at Siam Paragon, where two days before, the shopping complex had staged “Siam Paragon Fashionista Party The September Issue @ Siam Paragon”. The attendance was not impressive, and I did not see anyone I dared say was fashionable, but that was not unexpected of mall promotional activities. Still, the event was a marketing success because Hall 6 of the cineplex was full even when 2012 was screened at the same time next door.
“Extra-extra large” and “biggest… ever” it was, but, as it turns out, the September 2007 issue of America Vogue is not massive enough material for the film based on the world’s most read fashion publication. While the said magazine was close to 2 kilograms—weighing more than some notebook computers, the documentary is as lightweight as the lame Marchesa dress Sienna Miller wore on the issue’s cover.
The film brings you into the hallowed grounds of the Vogue editorial office, including its editor-in-chief’s inner sanctum. But if you thought you’re going to get extra insight into the making of the magazine or the biggest reveal of the already larger-than-life character Anna Wintour, you may be in for an unsatisfactory ride.
The September Issue does not leave the jacketed magazine business unzipped (to borrow from the title of the 1995 behind-the-scene fashion docu). As with the beautiful clothes featured, you see the exterior, but not the stitches within that hold everything together. Director R J Cutler trains the camera on Ms Wintour as she goes about her work, but his eyes escape the procedural. In keeping with the insider feel of the narrative, he contains everyone in the tense Vogue world (“our world”, as Ms Wintour declared in the beginning of the film), leaving out the voices from beyond the Conde Nast Building.
The magazine’s head and, to be sure, the film’s star, offers even less. We know that the one-season Wintour is an ice queen, but do we need to see her be the ice queen? The film allows her to be haughty and indifferent and impatient, and get away with them all. She cuts an elegant figure throughout, but her ways are, to be expected, not always graceful. As author Lynn Truss wrote in Talk to the Hand, “we no longer equate posh behaviour with good behaviour”. Ms Wintour’s silently aggressive professional insolence allowed her to stay on top of the game and put her staff in check. In 18th Century France, such behaviour could incite a revolution.
She never leaves home (or the office) without her iciness and tactlessness. It is disconcerting to watch YSL’s Stefano Pilati turn into a glob of gelée in her presence as he showed her what he has designed. The nervousness is telling, so is the Diptyque candle burning behind the feared editor. Surely no amount of aromatherapy can lighten the tension-charged air. I can understand her exacting standard, but not the terror that accompanies it. She grills Mr Pillati about the absence of colour in his collection and I feel sorry for him having to defend his colour choices. The episode also shows Ms Wintour’s inconsistency for, later, with the Miller cover, she is agreeable to it not coloured like a rainbow flag.
To me, the real star of the film is not Anna Wintour, but her creative director Grace Coddington. Referred to as “Fash ed supreme” by Joanna Lumley’s character Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous, Ms Coddington showed, just by doing what she does so well, why she’s considered the world’s best and best-known stylist. Even Ms Wintour, in a rare generous mood, calls her “our jewel in the crown”.
With her wiry Titian hair, practical clothes, and sensible shoes, Ms Coddington’s style is a visually arresting counterpoint to her boss’s very pulled-together chic. Her plainness, however, belies her true fashion sense. In her work—whether starkly graphic or sumptuously romantic—she conveys more than just spot-on trends; she gives the clothes a context in which to come alive and radiate the power that clothes have when they tell a vivid story, and it is this context that spawns desire in the viewer. A coat may be beautiful, but if it is only good to look at, we may forget it after an appreciative glance. Ms Coddington’s spreads such as “The Twenties” capture our imagination, and longing follows.
Unlike Ms Wintour, she’s is able to open up to the camera. She tells it like it is; she’s not afraid to talk behind her boss’s back or express her dismay when pictures are omitted from her spreads. The scene that’s most revealing of the tension between the two is when Ms Wintour and Ms Coddington wait for the elevator to go to Jean Paul Gaultier’s studio. Before the lift door opens, the two have nothing to say to each other—no small talk. The prolonged silence is visibly awkward. Do they even like each other? I am sure there is mutual admiration in the work they do, but beyond that, I suspect it’s not a button and button hole relationship.