There is no mention of "The Devil Wears Prada" — either the movie or the novel on which it was based — in "The September Issue," a new documentary about Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. And yet the film feels like an attempt to set the record straight. The book, by Lauren Weisberg, who worked very briefly as Wintour's assistant, featured an icy fashion-magazine editor code-named Miranda Priestly, and was widely regarded as payback by a disgruntled ex-employee. In the movie, Meryl Streep played this character as an imperious grande dame, but without Wintour's trademark bobbed hairstyle and round-the-clock dark glasses; and the actress rounded out her portrayal with wisps of recognizable humanity. In the documentary, Wintour herself isn't quite able to do the same.
The picture was shot over the course of eight months in 2007, and focuses on the run-up to that year's September issue — the annual ad-stuffed doorstop that marks Vogue's yearly high point of profitability. (For 2007, it was projected to sell 13-million copies.) The director, R.J. Cutler, follows Wintour around the magazine's offices in the Times Square headquarters of Condé Nast Publications, and as we take in the sights — the fabled wardrobe racks, the sleek assistants' area and the editor's own capacious office — we realize how much the "Prada" movie got exactly right.
We also realize that Wintour — in her work environment, anyway — expends no effort on interpersonal consideration. Presented with a series of layout photos by an eager-to-please staffer, she says, "Where's the glamour? These are all horrible." Running her eye over a model shot: "She looks pregnant." Considering a photo of another model wearing a preposterous (but no doubt very expensive) collar-like item: "It's a neck brace." We also learn that budget is not an important word in Wintour's vocabulary. She has no reluctance about killing whole layouts and ordering expensive re-shoots. Her longtime creative director, Grace Coddington, who supervises the magazine's big photo projects, is quietly appalled when she learns that one of her own layouts has been radically cut down: "They've probably thrown out $50,000-worth of work."
If Wintour were in the people-pleasing business, she'd be a disaster. But she's not. She's the shaping force behind one of the world's most successful magazines, and she's kept it fresh and adventurous for more than 20 years. She knows what she wants, she knows when she's not seeing it, and she reacts instantly. And as we follow her on her rounds here — jetting from New York to London to Paris (where a special suite at the Ritz is always on hold) — we see that she knows everybody. She's generously supportive to young designers (like Thakoon Panichgul, whom we learn she's financing through the magazine's Fashion Fund), but she also has permanent entrée into the ateliers of such celebrated veterans as Oscar de la Renta and Jean-Paul Gaultier. (Although she's anything but obsequious in their presence: Greeted at one workshop by a designer intent on preliminary small talk, she cuts right in: "Can we start?")
Cutler also takes us to a few runway shows, where Wintour invariably has a front-row seat. The fashions on display at these events elicit the usual mixed feelings. On one hand, the clothes are beautifully cut and constructed; on the other, some are monumentally ridiculous — they have to be viewed as works of decorative art, because there's no way to view them as wearable in the real world. In "The Devil Wears Prada," Meryl Streep delivers a thrilling monologue on this subject — how high-fashion designs seep down through lower levels of the retail chain to eventually arrive at a mall near the rest of us. It's too bad Wintour couldn't have offered any similarly edifying comments; but she seems too walled-in as a personality to concern herself with illumination. Even in what has to be considered an authorized documentary (although the director had final cut), she never really thaws out, beyond a very occasional smile of the briefest and most fleeting sort. Can her work — and her formidable work ethic — be all there really is to this woman?
Wintour realized early on that celebrities can help sell magazines. For the 2007 September issue, actress Sienna Miller was hired to grace the cover, and the progression of her involvement in this undertaking is the movie's most startling element. The moment that Miller arrives at the Vogue offices, her hair is pronounced "completely lackluster." A fashion shoot in Rome for an inside layout doesn't go well. And when her cover shot comes in, Wintour's senior staffers are unsparing in their evaluations. "That's not a face for a cover," says one. And then: "It's very teeth-y." And then, looking closer: "There's a filling." Digital tweaking becomes crucial, and solves at least one key problem. ("We fixed her neck.") How Miller — who is of course more beautiful than you or me or most anyone of our acquaintance — will feel about these scenes is a saddening prospect to contemplate.
In the end, the creation of the September issue of 2007 ran right down to the wire. In its completed form, it weighed in at 840 pages — the largest issue in the magazine's history. Since then, of course, the economy has tanked; and luxury goods like high-end fashion are always in the front line to take a hit during a downturn. Last year's September issue came in at 798 pages, and the current September issue is down to 584 pages. Last month, Condé Nast brought in a consulting firm to help the company "rethink" its publishing business (their report is due in October). Wintour's predecessor at the helm of Vogue, Grace Mirabella, was suddenly booted out after 17 years with the magazine. Can Wintour — who's reportedly paid $2-million a year and (according to a "60 Minutes" profile) also given an annual personal clothing budget of $200,000 — keep her job? In the fashion biz, this is what passes for hard times.
Check out everything we've got on "The September Issue."
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