September 24, 2009

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The September Issue (PG-13)
Anna Wintour, the titular devil in the roman a clef The Devil Wears Prada, peeks out from behind her bangs and sunglasses to give us a brief but tantalizing look into the world of Vogue magazine in The September Issue, a documentary by R.J. Cutler.

I have to admit, I didn’t go into The September Issue thinking I’d like Wintour — or Anna, as she’s called, always in an awed tone, the way some people would say “His Holiness the Pope” (to whom she is compared). And not for The Devil Wears Prada reasons (sometimes, interns deserve to be told they are disappointing); not even for her steadfast unwillingness to acknowledge that there is a world beyond fashion (as evidenced by comments like the “little houses” remark describing the people she saw in Minnesota). She just seems to be too much — too much forced mystery, too much couture, too much bangs for a woman who is nearly 60.

Maybe she is too much, maybe she is too full of herself, maybe she thinks that things like fall color palettes and Sienna Miller’s hair are much more important than they are. But she’s also an extremely smart woman who knows what she wants from her magazine and is able to get incredibly strong-willed people to give it to her. And by the end of the movie, I admired this. I admired Anna not just for her pretty clothes and her extremely smart and grounded daughter (a teenager who despite growing up with all this fashion isn’t terribly impressed by it and wants to be a lawyer) but for her ability to create, each month, a magazine where dozens of things could go wrong but usually the result is a pristine record of the height of American fashion at that moment.

The September Issue follows the creation of the most important issue of that most important fashion magazine — the September issue. It is the issue where Vogue sets the standard for fall fashion and where the press of advertisers looking to be in the book guarantees the biggest issue of the year. The movie follows the coming together of the September 2007 issue — before all the rich people became poor and when the magazine had the greatest number of pages it’s ever had.

Anna is the woman with the final word on which photo spreads will run where, which photos will be scrapped, how the cover will turn out and what “looks” become the styles that Vogue wants to highlight. Is she plunging ahead blindly hoping her decisions will turn out? Does she really have an almost psychic ability to pick what will be “important” in fashion that season? The movie tends to suggest the latter, though even if it’s the former, hats off to her for charging ahead without showing any waffling. You can’t be god-like and human so Anna seems to have decided to dump her human side, showing it only in a few moments where she talks about or to her family. She is not known for being a lovable gal, but in exchange she seems to get the very best from everyone — her staff as well as the fashion designers who consult with her as they shape their collections.

Humanity — at least in the movie — becomes the job of Grace Coddington, a demi-god at Vogue. She, like Anna, is a no-nonsense Brit, but Grace also calls herself a romantic and seems to want to create in Vogue not Anna’s pristine fashion temple but a deliciously lovely look book. Anna may be the one you look up to, but Grace is the one you’d like to meet for drinks.

But both of the women are fascinating subjects — in part because they are women, not the girls you see in chick lit or chick flicks about fashion, not even the elderly adolescents like the “women” of Sex and the City. Perhaps your view of fashion is that of a silly industry but even the most determined L.L. Bean shopper can’t deny that these aren’t silly women. They are grown up, passionate about their work and meticulous about everything they do.

Fans of Project Runway will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at fashion just as media junkies will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at New York magazines. Not a fan of either one? It’s still a great drama about people working hard to create something they’re proud of in an industry full of outlandish characters and strong personalities. A

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Directed by R.J. Cutler, The September Issue is an hour and 28 minutes long and distributed in limited release.