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Fashion Diary: 'The September Issue'

June 10, 2009 |  4:23 pm

Gossip, first impressions, trends in the making, celebrities and style setters. A regular feature by fashion critic Booth Moore.

Rage_wintour I just saw a screening of "The September Issue," R.J. Cutler's upcoming documentary film about Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and the most feared and revered figure in fashion. He follows Wintour and the Vogue staff as they put together the September 2007 issue, which at 4 pounds and 100 pages more than the previous year's, was the most ad-laden "book" in the magazine's history. Two things struck me about the film -- that it is a time capsule of the $300 billion fashion industry at its height, before the economic bubble burst, and that it is Vogue's creative director Grace Coddington, not Wintour, who is the star. 

With magazine circulation and ad dollars down, and the luxury industry Wintour controls with an iron fist in a tailspin, it's almost quaint to watch the staff traveling here and there in chauffeured cars, talking about "a wardrobe of jackets." Then there's Wintour demanding an 11th-hour reshoot of a "colorblock" story and smirking at designers who haven't finished their samples in enough time to give her a sneak peek before their runway shows. In one particularly eerie scene, Vogue's retailer breakfast in Paris, Neiman Marcus President and Chief Executive Burt Tansky urges Wintour to pressure designers to deliver on time because the demand is growing faster than they even know. If only retailers had that problem now, instead of bulging racks on sale. There is also a lingering shot of the fashion house of Christian Lacroix, now in bankruptcy.

The film, which opens in September, showcases Wintour's influence inside the office and out.

We see her tweaking the designs of the white shirts Thakoon Panichgul is sketching for a Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund collection for Gap, advising Oscar de la Renta what looks to leave out of his runway show and admonishing Stefano Pilati for not using more color. And according to members of Wintour's staff, who sadly are the only ones interviewed for the film besides designers who have to say nice things, she knew early on that celebrity covers would sell a lot of magazines.

But for all her power, Wintour has misgivings about her job. "Just because you want to wear a nice Carolina Herrera frock or a pair of J. Brand jeans doesn't make you dumb," she says at one point. At another point, while describing the lofty things her siblings do for work (building affordable housing in London, editing newspapers, etc.), she says, "I think they are amused by what I do." It's a rare moment of vulnerability.

Even Wintour's daughter Bee Schaeffer, who has her pick of the world's finest clothes and fashion events but wants to go to law school instead of following in her mom's footsteps, is conflicted. "I respect her obviously, but it's just a weird industry," she says. "Some people act like fashion is life."

The yang to Wintour's yin is Coddington, who started at Vogue the very same day as Wintour, working at British Vogue and as a fashion model before that. Where Wintour is a razor sharp perfectionist (you only have to look at her hair to know that), Coddington is a wild-haired dreamer who wants fashion shoots to be transporting. She scoffs at pages devoted to celebrities instead of couture, marvels over the imperfect beauty of a woman's plump legs in a pair of evening sandals in a 1920s photo and props up Wintour's minions when they're down.

And she is the only one who stands up to Wintour. (Coddington manages to save a camera man's jiggling gut from being airbrushed out of a photograph after Wintour tells the fellow to hit the gym.) "Everyone in this world is not perfect," Coddington says. "It's enough that the models are."

That is my single favorite line from the film and that is the attitude Vogue magazine could use more of. Fashion should be aspirational, it should take you to places you've never seen and show you things you'd never wear. But it doesn't have to make you feel bad all the time. Which may be why now, after 20 years on the job, Wintour has decided to show her, if not softer, than slightly less prickly side. (She was profiled on "60 Minutes" last month.)

At 59, Wintour has said she is not ready for retirement. But there are times in this film when she seems to be going through the motions. Perhaps the challenge of the recession will reinvigorate her — and the magazine. One thing is for sure, the September 2009 issue is going to be a very different story.

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Picture of Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour arriving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala in New York on May 4, 2009. Credit: Evan Agostin / Associated Press