Beauty and the Bottom Line

Editing the trends with Anna Wintour

To outsiders, the fashion industry may seem no less chaotic and perplexing than a three-ring circus, what with its overproduced runway shows, and power players often known for their outré visions. In this world of costumed eccentrics and unabashed excess,

Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour plays ringleader, her whip being merciless editorial acumen. If we believe that The Devil Wears Prada’s stilettoed villain was molded in her likeness, we can also assume that her emotions mainly consist of shades of austerity.

Until the making of The September Issue, a documentary film about editrix Wintour and the making of the largest magazine issue ever published, unraveling myth from truth about her steely persona has proven difficult. Wintour’s reserve; her emotions shielded by oversized designer sunglasses, is unrelenting. Yet director R.J. Cutler, who previously produced The War Room, a chronicle of Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for president, manages to lift both the glasses and detached veil, behind which Wintour’s real persona lies. Though audiences won’t discover a markedly softer side to Wintour, through Cutler’s deconstructive lens they will glean some insight into why she is a less toothsome, more bemused smirk, than most.

Cutler, who himself is foreign to the tulle and satin-strewn circles in which Wintour and her colleagues roam, quickly discovered that the fashion industry is both an economic and cultural behemoth. It is accused of taking itself too seriously, but when Cutler lays plain its concrete impact upon our world, this sense of importance, admittedly bloated, is more understandable.

“It is a 300 billion dollar global industry that impacts everything from shipping to publishing to textiles, and on. It reflects significant things about our cultural moment, [and] has since the time of Louis the Fourteenth. It is a business in which some of the most important photographers, writers, and editors have worked,” Cutler rapidly bullet points.

American Vogue, the publication of which Wintour has served as Editor-In-Chief for 20 years, is unofficially regarded as fashion’s holy text, dictator of sweeping trends and overall industry determinant. Designers are aware of this, which is why even a veteran like Stefano Pilati nervously hovers around Wintour during a collection preview, aiming to please the all-mighty authority. A “nay” from her bobbed head—or more likely, a barely detectable grimace—could mean a strike from future issues. One of The September Issue’s key scenes captures a retail bigwig imploring Wintour to speak with designers, to impart the grave importance of churning out product at a pace that will keep up with market demand. Cutler ascribes Wintour’s gravitas to her prophetic vision—her ability to forcibly determine the aesthetic and financial future of the clothing industry. “Whether she led the world in this direction or it was going in this direction, she played a crucial role in the merging of the world of fashion, of popular culture—it became the same power and global industry. She mixed high and low first. She celebrated young American designers first. She took the opportunity as the editor of this particular magazine. She has made the most of it, and with a very, very specific vision.”

Of course, Wintour does not work alone, and The September Issue also focuses upon her combative, yet strangely sustaining relationship with Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington. Coddington is fanciful while Wintour is often grave. Coddington maintains a wild and fiery red mane while Wintour’s angular coiffure speaks to her severity. In exploring the unique rhythms of their creative partnership, Cutler sees threads of continuity from his previous work, specifically The War Room. Politics and fashion may be dissimilar in terms of content, but not their general operations, and the figureheads therein.

“You can say, of course, what Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington do every day when they go to work is completely different than what James Carville and George Stephanopoulos do when they go to work,” admits Cutler. “On the other hand, all four of them are extraordinary figures who have an enormous impact on the industries in which they work and who are completely passionate about what they do… under the highest stake circumstances. As a result, they actually have a great deal in common. It’s those things that are compelling to me.”

In documenting Wintour’s interaction with her daughter, or observing Coddington’s unmistakable dejection when one of her styled spreads is severely cut, a world that was once foreign seems somewhat familiar. Cutler explains his job as a documentarian: “I was able to make the fashion industry accessible because I first made it accessible to myself. You find your way into all of these worlds through the people, through human beings. That’s why this film is different than other films about fashion. You don’t need the expertise.”

Unlike the privileged world of fashion itself, Cutler’s film is not alienating, and viewers will likely find a touch of Codd-ington’s feistiness or Wintour’s authoritative, but well-meaning menace in themselves. What’s more, Cutler sought to illuminate an aspect of his narrative that was abstract and universal all the same.

“There’s a connection that transcends the specifics of the fashion industry. Of course the film is rich,” Cutler says. “Of course the products of their worth is celebrated and featured in the film, but there’s a deeper core. The movie isn’t about fashion, the movie is about beauty.”

– Heidi Atwal