Friday, 21 August 2009

The September Issue. Spoilers!

Yar, here be spoilers! Highlight the text to read.

I saw R. J. Cutler's The December Issue last night (don't ask how because I won't tell you). It is ostensibly about how Vogue's largest issue ever was created. Vogue's December 2007 issue weighed in at almost five pounds. It's 840 pages long (722 of which were ads), the largest magazine ever published. I thought that the documentary would be a scathing examination of the fashion industry and the publishing process but I found something quite different: a love story.

The film opens with a breakfast meeting between Ms. Wintour and a bunch of retail CEOs. (And I thought the military-industrial-political complex was bad!) Here, as in many meetings with designers throughout the film, she dictates important decisions to the industry. She tells the retailers that she had just finished convincing Mrs. Prada to use a lighter, more wearable fabric than what was used in the runway shows. All of the retailers thank her, and then the CEO of Neiman-Marcus asks her if she can do anything about slow production time. Ms. Wintour refuses to answer the question, gets up from the table and walks away. To be fair, she doesn't exactly get the subtleties of helping the industry itself and not just the superficial aspects that everyone sees. (And "slow" production times have absolutely nothing to do with retailers' unrealistic expectations for the production process since the advent of fast fashion, but I digress.) This portion sets the tone for the rest of the film: Ms. Wintour is clearly all about commercialization, while the people she works with care about art.

Ms. Wintour comes off as deadly serious, determined, a very Type A personality. She holds on to her passion for the industry with an iron grip, almost as if her resolve is the only thing that keeps the whole ship from sinking. It's interesting that some people might find this behavior charming in a man but think the same thing is absolutely abhorrent in a woman. Her father was a serious journalist; her siblings are heavily involved in non-profits; and her daughter wants nothing to do with the industry. She almost breaks down into tears when she talks about her family, perhaps thinking about how trite her profession sounds compared to their own interests.

But in a way, her work is just as important as her siblings'. Even though Ms. Wintour has been on the record for saying some very not nice things, you can almost see her think, "If everyone diets like me, everyone will be healthy* and then everyone can wear beautiful clothes. So why can't everyone be like me?" (*Healthy, obviously, in Anna Wintour World. She clearly does not eat well.) Her charity is not misguided, however, to young designers. An extensive portion of the film is dedicated to Thakoon, who won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund that year. The fund, which Ms. Wintour started recently, pairs fresh young talent with a large chain store (in Thakoon's case, the Gap) and gives them some money to support their own line. Definitely a worthy cause.

Meanwhile, Grace Coddington, the head stylist, tries to cobble a magazine together. She and Ms. Wintour came to Vogue at the same time and understand each other very well. Ms. Coddington is playful, imaginative and creative--the perfect foil to Ms. Wintour's rigid, advertiser-friendly approach. It's absolutely painful to watch as some spreads--including a magnificent 1920s inspired shoot--are scrapped, reshot, whittled down, scrapped and reshot again. Meanwhile, a spread devoted to cover model Sienna Miller (who, let's face it, really isn't that interesting or talented) expands to 20 pages. Ms. Wintour is unhappy with the pictures and the photographer refused to take the only picture she actually wanted. Ms. Coddington clucks at how large the spread is, explaining that Ms. Wintour introduced the celebrity to the fashion world. While it seemed fresh and innovative at the time, the concept now eats away at the real fashion spread. Ms. Wintour wanted to bring celebrity to fashion, but the celebrity machine has taken over fashion.

Throughout the film, it's very, very clear that Mr. Cutler loves Ms. Coddington and would prefer it if she were the editor. The truth is that Ms. Coddington would be a terrible editor. Ms. Wintour raves about her colleague's imagination, but she really does lack the discipline to be an editor. While Ms. Wintour whittles Ms. Coddington's spreads to bland mediocrity, you just know that the magazine would never happen if it weren't for her. Ultimately, it's extremely satisfying to watch two women who are very, very good at their jobs do what they do without interruption or interference from men. They might fight each other, they might concede every once in a while, but that September issue is a labor of love.

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