“Don’t be too nice,” Vogue creative director Grace Coddington says to an eager-to-please young editor, who wilts under the pressure of Anna Wintour’s icy stare, a self-parody of her Devil Wears Prada image. It could also be the mantra for R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, which treats each stage in the magazine’s production as a mini power struggle, each decision able to make or break careers. In one of the best sequences, Wintour helps score a Gap contract for a talented new designer named Thakoon, who admits to being terrified in her presence but remains persistent. Later, he ends up on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily for his work. Cutler suggests that Wintour’s personal whims, for better or worse, have real consequence, both for the people around her and for how people talk about fashion.
The movie has gotten attention mostly for what it says about Wintour, but the editrix comes out basically unscathed, no doubt by design: For the past year or so, she’s been on the media warpath to win back her image, and Cutler seems happy to oblige. She’s calculated about her personal life and spends most of her interview time defending the celebrity-coddling, fashion-media-industrial-complex she helped create. (Her first words are, “I think people are afraid of fashion,” but what she really means is, “I’m terrified no one takes me seriously.”) Which means that Wintour remains as agenda-driven and elusive as ever, good for quips and throwing shade (she brusquely shoos off an art assistant during a page line-up), but apparently lacking in any kind of soul.
If Wintour is bad cop (a role she clearly relishes), then Coddington is good cop. She’s the only one willing to tell her boss she’s wrong, but the two have a silent understanding of each other; Wintour is the power-hungry perfectionist, Coddington is the fashion romantic responsible for the magazine’s nostalgic (and pretentious) aesthetic. Both are clever enough to understand how manipulating the media can work to one’s advantage. Coddington turns the cameras against Wintour during a production meeting, bringing up the dreaded subject of money so that she won’t lose her budget. Money is one of those things vaunted magazine editors like Wintour hate to talk about. Instead, she spends more money on a re-shoot and Photoshops Sienna Miller’s teeth so they don’t look like Chiclets. Because whether fashion is or isn’t as serious as Wintour and September Issue make it out to be, appearance still means everything.