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THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, OR GRACE UNDER PRESSURE

By Alan Behr and Julie Hackett Behr

NEW YORK, 25 SEPTEMBER 2009 — The tone of The September Issue, a documentary film by R.J. Cutler, is set at the opening by its lead subject, Anna Wintour, as she is framed in a close-up:

I think what I often see is that people are frightened of fashion and that, because it scares them or it makes them feel insecure, they put it down. On the whole, people that say demeaning things about our world - I think that's usually because they feel in some ways excluded or not part of the cool group, so as a result they just mock it. Just because you like to put on a beautiful Carolina Herrera dress or a pair of J Brand blue jeans instead of something basic from Kmart - it doesn't mean that you are dumb person. There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous.

Ms. Wintour is the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, and the film follows her and her staff as they put together an issue of the magazine. It is not any issue but the September issue - phrase of great meaning and weight in the fashion business.


Anna Wintour in the documentary The September Issue
Photo courtesy of A&E IndieFilms

Print publishing may be in deep trouble. The retail business may stay alive due to discounts on knockoffs and trend-dodging staples forgivingly tailored for the sixty percent of the population whose weight pushes past optimal Vogue thrives because fine clothing and those who inhabit them can be presented as objects of glamour and longing on the printed page in a way that the utilitarian electronic screen cannot duplicate. Fashion remains the muse and the muscle of retail because its fiercely dedicated loyalists willingly pay full retail price (which is a substantial markup over wholesale) in September (the beginning of the fall / winter season) and in February (which marks the start of spring / summer). Of the two seasonal blocks, the fall / winter segment is the more important because it synchronizes with the social season.

The September Issue follows Ms. Wintour and her staff as they create, meditate, argue and cajole their way into getting their massive project into print. We see the Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley enjoying his mandate to do almost anything he pleases. He outdoes himself in a scene in which he moves seemingly in slow motion across the tennis court, tapping on balls shot his way, more interested in his clothes and accessories (which he carefully describes) than his game. It may look like a satire of Mr. Talley, but Mr. Cutler is too respectful of his subjects to debase himself with on-scene satire. It is clear to anyone in fashion that Mr. Talley is not merely in on the joke but is its author: fashion is about nothing if not beauty (at one point, Mr. Talley flamboyantly cries out in despair for its lack), and beauty is in large measure about the kind of illusion borne of self-awareness that Mr. Talley has made into his life.


André Leon Talley in the documentary The September Issue
Photo courtesy of A&E IndieFilms

Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue and effectively Ms. Wintour's number two, comes across as the strong and hardly silent sidekick; gifted with a sense of style in equal parts intuitive, intellectual and pragmatic, she fights for each page that she believes should run in the magazine. Over the obligatory fashionista's lunch of a barely there salad taken at her desk, she explains to the camera why she is not pleased when things do not go her way, but she never rests in doing everything possible, within the limits of her position, in seeing that they do. With her firm understanding that high fashion is not just about the clothes but about the fantasy that the clothes inspire, she displays consistently remarkable vision.


Grace Coddington in the documentary The September Issue
Photo courtesy of A&E IndieFilms

The film takes the Vogue crew through New York City, which, in keeping with its theme, is shot to look grand and gorgeous, and over to Paris and to Rome. Along the way, Ms. Wintour and her team get advance views of major designers' collections, during which Ms. Wintour has no problem telling the designers - who appear as anxious around her as actors at an audition - which of their pieces she thinks will work and which must go. Ms. Wintour is shown in her often-cited role of brokering job placements in the business. She stays true to her reputation of keeping in constant motion staffers who must charge through hallways filled - to the point of impairing navigation - with rack on rack of expensive women's clothing. It is all so reminiscent of the recent film based on the roman à clef about Ms. Wintour, The Devil Wears Prada (which Mr. Cutler says was not an influence on him), that, as you watch life imitate the art that life inspired, you keep forgetting which film you are in.


Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour in the documentary The September Issue
A.J. Cutler, director
Photo courtesy of A&E IndieFilms

What you see here are serious and intelligent people at work on something to which they devoted their lives, something they truly believe in: changing the world and how you view it by changing what you and others wear. Does that make fashion a craft or even an art worthy of respect and connoisseurship, or is it an exercise in insubstantially and vanity unworthy of a thinking person's time? Ms. Wintour faces that in her opening lines, once again as she deals on camera with her daughter's career ambitions and again in a candid meditation on the less glamorous but more politically aware careers and pursuits of her father and her three siblings.

Mr. Culter wisely never answers the question and lets the story speak for itself. Many people in the movie, such as Ms. Wintour, obviously take pains to dress well every day. Some, such as Ms. Coddington, herself a former fashion model, and designers that they meet, hardly bother. They all obviously love fashion and many have devoted their lives to it; if fashion is a cause believed in by many but practiced by only some of the believers, can it really be just about vanity, or is something else, something deeper and more resonant, at work?


Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour in the documentary The September Issue
Photo courtesy of A&E IndieFilms

There must indeed be something more going on, the film implies, than following trends and aiming for glamour. If women's clothing were just another segment of the dry-goods business - something to cloak the flesh that Kmart hangs on racks between videogames and baby formula - there would never be a need for the September issue of Vogue. Beauty is indeed part illusion but it is also part mystery, and it is that mystery that the film leaves hanging in the air like an elegantly styled question mark.

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Alan Behr runs the fashion and luxury goods practice group at Alston & Bird LLP. Julie Hackett Behr is a style consultant at the New York flagship of a luxury department-store chain.

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