I’m not a man of fashion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never developed any interest in fashion, never comprehended women’s fervor for clothes. I’ve never watched a fashion show, never read any fashion articles and up until a few years ago, I had no idea who Yves Saint Laurent and Tom Ford were.
I’ve always held a derisive opinion of the fashion industry; after all, this is an industry that operates in superficiality. I never regarded fashion as art. As an industry, fashion was founded on the creation of desire for commodities. Every item puffed up for the glossy magazines, has a price tag most women cannot afford.
That’s why I was quite surprised upon watching R.J. Cutler’s “The September Issue (2009), a hit documentary chronicling the making of Vogue magazine’s September 2007 issue, their fattest to date. Cutler’s film doesn’t offer any revealing insights about the fashion world, avoiding imperative questions regarding the starvation of models, cheap migrant labor and many other controversies. The picture it paints of the fashion world is rather glamorous; a bright, vibrant industry sated with creativity, action, neck to neck competition and calculated strategies. Although you know for certain that this is not the full picture, you can’t help but be drawn to this world.
At the heart of Cutler’s film is Anna Wintour, Vogue’s iconic editor-in-chief and one of the most influential, and formidable, figures in the fashion world. Wintour’s arrogant, aloof attitude was famously detailed by her former assistant, Lauren Weisberger, in her best-selling novel “The Devil Wears Prada, and in Meryl Streep’s performance as the editor from hell Miranda Priestly in the 2006 film version of the same name.
The real Wintour doesn’t appear worlds away from Weisberger’s version. She’s shrewd, self-confident, icy and pitiless. She has the ability to crush expectations with the slightest of remarks. She possesses the type of boundless authority that allows her to instantly throw out a work worth $50,000 with a click of a button. Cutler doesn’t attempt to humanize her for one simple reason: Wintour is in control of her image from start to finish, a brand name she’s protected for more than 20 years. The few personal details she reveals about herself – her “private and inscrutable father who might have been responsible for her remoteness – are astutely calibrated to the picture she wants to give of herself.
What Cutler does is give Wintour a justification for her impenetrable frostiness, and it seems to be a convincing one. Above all, Wintour’s principal work philosophy is centered on maximum efficiency. Every decision she takes is guided by willpower to preserve, and flourish, her empire.
At the other end of the fashion spectrum lies Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director and the most compelling character in the film. Coddington, who initially refused to be filmed for the documentary, is the polar opposite of Wintour. The 68-year-old red-haired Welsh is calm, affectionate and unassuming, emerging as a protecting mother for her staff and models. In one scene, she’s seen strapping the shoelaces of a model. In another, she instructs a young editor, who has just received a good scolding from Wintour, to “toughen up and stick to her demands.
When Wintour tells one of Cutler’s cameramen to lose weight, she reassuringly tells him that he doesn’t have to. “Not everyone’s perfect, she says.
With her baroque set-pieces and attention to detail, Coddington is depicted as the hidden artistic face of fashion; the real creative force behind Vogue. Coddington doesn’t produce mere products, she create fantasies oozing with beauty. And herein lies the difference between her and Wintour which eventually lead to several clashes that represents the two sides of fashion: the artistic and the commercial.
The intrinsic conflict, and ultimate convergence, between these two forces is what elevates Cutler’s documentary from a shallow expose of a seemingly dry subject into a fascinating document of two equally fascinating women.
A critical success and a box-office smash – it currently stands as one the 25 highest grossing documentaries of all time in the US – “The September Issue is Cutler’s first documentary feature. The American director has produced several TV features and documentaries in the past 16 years, the most famous of which is Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking “The War Room about the Bill Clinton 1992 presidential campaign.
Last month, me and a group of journalists met up with Cutler at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. The most pressing question I needed to ask was whether the battle at the center of the film between Coddington and Wintour was part of his original design.
“The original design is designed to morph into something, Cutler told me. “In design terms, it’s the difference between the Apollo space craft that gets you into some other orbit around the moon and then the lunar module that lands there. They’re so different, and they’re meant to be different.
“The original design was: let’s tell a story about Anna Wintour and how she does what she does. The structure of the story, the MacGuffin, is designed around the September issue. So, it could’ve been anything. This structure gave order, gave me excuse to be there for seven and a half months. But then you know you could go anywhere with this. And among the questions you will be asking is who is she? How does she do what she does? With whom does she do it? What are the things that impact what she does? And somewhere along the line, you assume that one of those questions will help complicate the narrative in a way you need it to be complicated. I wasn’t making a portrait; stories are about relationships. ‘The War Room,’ for example, is a story about James [Carville] and George [Stephanopoulos]. All films are about relationships.
“In this one, it goes complicated through the relationship between Anna and Grace. And at what point did I realize that Anna represents commerce and Grace represents art? Kind of never. It’s certainly one of the main themes of the film, how art and commerce coexist. But I was actually more interested in the symbiosis. They appear to represent to those things, they appear to be divergent, they appear to embody conflict, and to some extent, they do. But what was really going on was a kind of a love story; a need story.
“Without each other, they would be less than what they are. I love the story of John McEnroe and Björn Borg when they were at the height of their game. Borg quit at his very height and McEnroe’s whole life fell apart. He himself once said that after Björn retired, he was never as good of a tennis player, and was never as good of a human being. You find these kinds of partnerships that appear to be rivalry, but they’re something so much more. That’s how I feel about Anna and Grace.
“In these movies, you’re allowed to be really naïve. We think that filmmakers are supposed to have all the answers. And in a way, the fewer answers you have, the more likely you’ll capture truth. This is something I learned from D.A. Pennebaker very early on. When we were doing ‘The War Room,’ I was reading everything I could get my hands on. He was like, ‘Why?’ ‘What’s the point?’ It’s not about the things you read, it’s about the people whom you haven’t met yet. And then when you meet them, you’ll start to know what the questions are.
As for his impression about Wintour, Cutler said; “She is this ever-present figure in our culture that no one knows a thing about. And I had no idea the depth of curiosity about her. I was curious about her because: here she is, appearing to be present everywhere you look, without her being really there. She dominates the entire industry. If she’s gone, nobody will replace her.
“Anna is always caricatured. And to some extent, she invites it. The way she appears in the film is the way I saw her, and this is who she is. I can assure you that there were no punches pulled or secrets kept. When you spend seven a half months with someone, you get to see who th
ey really are. The people who know her and work with her were amazed that we were able to capture her as who she is. She’s a complex character and she’s not Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ She’s much more powerful than Miranda Priestly, much more powerful. The world turns with a shift of her gaze.
“When you see Anna in a large empty room, you would guess that she’s enormous. The closer you get to her, the smaller you realize how she actually she is. That’s about a personal power, and you can see that in this film. But she also does have to confront a kind of personal defensiveness about who she is by virtue of her upbringing and family.
Cutler also stressed that Wintour didn’t interfere in the editing process. “The day I met her, I said I will need to have the final cut and creative control. There had been another movie that a friend of mine had made, not about her but about something that she was involved in, that she had final cut on. I don’t think she was happy, I don’t think he was happy. No subject needs the burden of also editing the movie about them. So, she said right away that that wasn’t going to be a problem. That was a revealing moment for me because not only did she agree right away, but she also talked about her father [who was a journalist]. I mean it’s Anna Wintour; she’s a Sphinx. And if someone is going to talk about their dad, then they’re not a Sphinx. That’s when I realized that there’s something more going on.
“When she saw the film she had what she likes to call suggestions. But I did not make any changes to the film.
“The September Issue is currently available on DVD in the UK and Europe.