The September Issue
It is said that September is the January in Fashion. Fashion week takes place all over the world, from New York to London to Milan to Paris. Ears are perked and eyes dart furiously back and forth between fabrics, runways, textures, and images. The fashion industry is buzzing with excitement, the destiny of what is “in” and “out” for the next twelve months are decided in a flash.
Amongst all this, the cornerstone of the industry, Vogue magazine, turns out its annual crowning jewel – The September Issue. The making of the 2007 version has resulted in a documentary of the same name, spanning 9 months leading up to its publication.
Directed by R.J. Cutler, this is a rare insider look into the high office of a 300 billion dollar industry. Make no doubts about it, this is serious business. Regardless of how you personally feel about fashion, it is not negligible. Tens of thousands of jobs, careers, threading intimately into the fabric of films, TV, plays, operas…name me one aspect of the entertainment industry that does not involve fashion, and I won’t begrudge you for reading no further. Don’t care for entertainment? How about going to work? Do you work in a place that calls for business dress? How about a uniform? Oh you are into sports? Guess who designs the Olympics gears and the professional league wears? Unless you live and work in complete isolation from the rest of the world, fashion has probably influenced and affected your life to some extent, even if you are unconscious of it.
“I wonder if Anna would like this one,” Grace Coddington wonders aloud, holding a black jacket. “It’s black,” someone replies. “Yes…would probably get fired for that.” Grace quipped.
This exchange, in a way, summarizes the entire documentary for me. The film is about Anna Wintour, the advertisement tells us. She is the Editor-in-chief of American Vogue, the single most important figure in the 300 billion dollar industry, watched more closely than the movie stars or runway, we are told. It is well known that she is not a fan of black. But it’s also about Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue, whose vision created, and continue to create, some of the most spellbinding images of beauty, romance, and fantasy for not just Vogue, but the world. The two women are different and similar, radical and traditional, and together they share a history of over twenty years of working at Vogue. Their office stands at the corner of Time Square, one of the most famous landmarks in the world. One wears immaculately cut dresses and an equally immaculate bob and trimmed bangs. The other is clad in flowy black smocks, frizzy, flame-red long tresses running wild with abandon.
Anna is the General at Vogue. She runs the ship and she runs it good, with efficiency and results. She works hard. The film rarely shows a frame of her not working. Even at home, she carries a book of the latest ideas with her. The only demand-free time seems to come at an odd moment – in her chauffered car. Anna sits behind the driver, on the left side in the back seat, pressed into the corner. I have no doubt she always sits there. It suits her. In one shot, the camera watches her sitting silently, arms folded, a small black phone lying quietly in lap, looking out through the window, the hustle of New York City passing silently beyond. Occasionally she fidgits, taps her fingers rapidly on her knees, or puts on her sunglasses. Some may see this as cold and elitist. It’s not. I understand all these. I have many of the same habits, including wearing sunglasses while in transit. It’s a defense mechanism. Somehow the rapidly moving landscapes outside makes the constant of the vehicle interior seems safer. Within the purposefulness of continuing towards your destination lies a warm peacefulness. You are already on the way…there is nothing left to do except to enjoy the ride. You don’t feel so guilty for staying still. Restless but still.
Grace is the dreamer at Vogue. She is brilliant in what she does, everyone agrees. “There is no one that can make any photographer takes more beautiful, more interesting, more romantic, more…just stunningly realized pictures like Grace,” one stated, “there is just no one else, no one better, period.” It appears to be true. The images speak for themselves. Grace sees fantasies where most people see ludicrous theatrics. She is probably one of those people who dreams in color. “I think I got left behind somewhere, because, you know, I’m still a romantic” Grace said, standing beside ancient pillars in Paris, looking out to immense grounds. “You have to keep charging ahead. You can’t stay behind.” The wind catches her fiery tresses, and she indeed looks like a melancholy soul that was transported from a different time. Then, the film cuts to a couture shoot, and we, and her, are snapped back to reality.
The highlight of the film, for me, is the capture of the human sides of fashion. The president of Neiman Marcus, a luxury retail department store chain, speaks up about the problem of delivery of merchandises and remarks that fashion is fun, but they need the goods to sell. We see Grace dressing the models herself at a photoshoot, down on her knees buckling up the shoe, pulling tight the belt that holds together a gigantic sweater, tying up every last loose end of her vision. This is something that an assistant can do, but she chooses to do so herself. She also brought sumptous looking cakes to the shoot and encourages the models to eat them. One girl is delighted upon seeing the cake, but then muses that she’s not sure if she should indulge as the corsets to be worn are not so forgiving. “Oh that’s not going to make a difference,” Grace said. A little while later, the girl, now in a different outfit, takes a bite out of the cake. “Mmmmmmm,” she chuckles, her mouth still full, a muffled sound of pleasure.
Above all, we see Anna’s human side. Legends like “The Devil Wears Prada” portrays this image of a monster fashionista, an ice queen, when in reality, this documentary reveals that to be the furthest from truth. Anna comes from a British family, has always loved fashion, at a young age her father told her to put down on a career questionnaire that her dream job is to be the editor of Vogue, and that was that. She is influential. Yes. But she got to that way by being the way she is: intelligent, opinionated, fiercely decisive, and private. There is a traditional British reserve. We learn that her father was a private man, and that her siblings are all successful folks working respectable jobs outside of fashion, and that she thinks they are amused by what she does. There is a tinge of reclusiveness in her voice, and she hardly ever looks straight at the camera. But when she does…she looks strikingly youthful. Her heart-shaped face has a girlie quality to it. Her eyes are large and hazel…or green, hard to tell, and the only word I can think to describe them is ethereal. Perhaps as a benefit from hiding behind the sunglasses so often, they seem rather unpolluted. And that hair, well, aside from framing her face perfectly, it also happens to cover a quarter of it… an easy curtain to hide behind.
“Many people said that you are an ice woman,” a reporter asked in a thick accent at a fashion show. “This week it was pretty cold, that’s all I’d like to say” Anna chuckles.
“Is there a way to wear fur this winter?” Anther asks. “There is always a way to wear fur.” Her eyes twinkling, then a glimmer of mischievousness glides over, “personally I have it on my back.”
“I think that’s cool,” a staff holds up a pink coat with a giant floppy collar that seems like…well…”it’s a neck brace,” Anna squints in amusement. “It’s like a neck brace.” “Well at first we thought maybe it was a scarf…” the staff attempts feebly to salvage. “It’s a neck brace!” Anna laughs.
So you see, there really isn’t anything scary or cold about Anna Wintour. Anyone with such wit can’t be cold, and anyone with such intelligent opinions should not be scary. I don’t personally agree with all that she stands for, but I admire her bluntness and devotion to her causes. She is not easily understood. I think she prefers it that way. There is no reason for her to be Ms. Popularity to the masses, and that doesn’t make her a bad person. “I don’t find her to be hidden,” Tom Florio, Vogue Publisher explained. “I just don’t find her to be accessible to people that she doesn’t need to be accessible to.”
It’s funny that many refer to The Vogue September Issue as the Bible of fashion. It’s even funnier that the same people refer to Anna as its Pope. The reference to religion is uncanny, because fashion, in a sense, can mimic its intensity. Yes, like any organized religion with its share of zealot followers, so does Fashion with its pack of blind consumers. There will always be those who copy the trends from pages of fashion magazines faithfully, and follow advices of fashion columns religiously (no pun intended). However, just like those who rebel against organized religion, there will also be individuals who throw all those cautions to the wind and follow only the trend of themselves. They will put together an outfit matching their moods and thoughts as they wake up each day. They won’t care what anyone else thinks or if a piece is “so last year.” They will be different in their individualities. And then there are those in between, for most of us, the ones who do enjoy learning the new trends, and if it is appealing, will take the opportunity to don it. After all it will only be available for the near future. If it’s not appealing, well, then, they still have the free will to say no and the deviation does not bother them one bit.
Fashion often gets ridiculed by those who are not in love with it. 300 billion dollars! They shout. A waste of money! Superficial vanity! Can’t take it with you! What’s the point of spending so much money on something so frivolous?! Well, what’s the point of spending so much money on films, or a David Blaine spectacle, or to climb Everest, or to maintain MOMA? You can’t take any of that with you when you die, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not meaningful to you within this lifetime. After all, isn’t that what is imortant? There are so many parallels between Fashion and other forms of art and exploration that I’m not going to bother going into it all. That may require another piece. What I will say is that I believe the origin of fashion lies in creativity rather than vanity, and more than any other artform I believe it provides the most universal and accessible outlets of creativity, and allow manifestation of creativity in a way that are not bound by venues, displays, or budgets. Yes. Some pieces of clothing cost more than others, but so do the budgets of films and costs of paintings. As we all know, the monetary cost of a piece of art does not directly correlate to its artistic value. Sometimes huge distances exist between the two. Beautiful, meaningful films have been made for dollars, and beautiful, meaningful outfits can be made from even less. That’s the great thing about art and about fashion: it’s subjective, it’s fickle, it’s mutable, it’s fluid, and most of all…it’s open, and it’s both universal and personal.
“I often see that people are frightened of fashion, that because it scares them or make them feel insecure, they put it down. On the whole people who say demeaning things about…[she pauses, as if searching for words] our world, that it’s usually because they feel in some way excluded or not part of the cool group [exasperated head shake]. So as a result, they just mock it. Just because you like to put on a beautiful Carolina Herrera dress or…I don’t know..a pair of J brand blue jeans instead of you know, something basic from Kmart, it doesn’t mean that you are a dumb person [a tinge of defiance]. There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous.” – Anna Wintour
The film began with this monologue, and I wish they instead ended with it. To begin with a defence of the very topic the documentary is exploring puts the audience on their defence. Seeing Anna sitting there, perfectly coiffed, talking about being misjudged, it’s hard to understand where she’s coming from. Only when we sink further into the world of Vogue do we see the work involved, the attention it requires, and the vision that transforms. It is an awe-inspiring process. Brutal, unpredictable, at times illogical, but that is the pursuit of art. We may not understand the creative process, but that doesn’t mean it is absurd entirely.
If Anna is the mind of Vogue, Grace is the heart. Two interesting human beings, each with a rich history of backdrops that likely can fill a film of its own. Together they make a complimentary team. Grace, along with others, dreams of beauty and dresses fantasies. Anna precisely translates them into 840 pages of color, shapes, textures, places, people, stories, and art that we can relate to. And possibly, it may inspire an outfit that plays a part in the living of your life, the pursuit of your dreams, and the shaping of your fantasies.
Isn’t that enough?