Before The September Issue, Anna Wintour was an enigma wrapped in Chanel or Dior or, of course, Prada. Her froideur won her the nickname Nuclear Wintour; her boss-from-hell rep was cemented by The Devil Wears Prada, the roman à clef about an imperious, terrifying fashion editor written by a former assistant.
Now R.J. Cutler’s riveting documentary, which opens in Canada this week, puts a closer lens on the 59-year-old who, in her 21 years as Vogue’s editor-in-chief, has transformed the magazine into the fashion bible. She famously made celebrities into models and herself the kingmaker of the $300-billion global fashion industry. Some of the revelations won’t be new to fashion-watchers: Wintour loves colour, has stratospheric standards, a sharp tongue, and inspires far more fear than her fictional doppelgänger ever did. In one delicious scene, an underwhelmed Wintour surveys Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris showroom before turning to designer Stefano Pilati. “What, no colour in this collection, Stefano?” she asks dryly in her posh British accent, as a despairing Pilati looks ready to slit his wrists to offer some.
True to its title, the doc chronicles the assembly of Vogue’s September 2007 issue, which, at 840 pages (727 of them ads), was the fattest in the magazine’s history—fashion’s equivalent of the stock market peak. Watching the movie today, as parent Condé Nast shutters magazines (au revoir Gourmet) and lays off staff (Vogue lost six people last week), provides a look back to a gilded age when $50,000 photo shoots were scrapped on a whim and demand for luxury product was so high Neiman Marcus’s CEO begged Wintour to ask designers to speed up shipping times.
Wintour was receptive to having cameras follow her and her staff for nine months, Cutler says, a move that now seems prescient. It was also her idea to make the September issue the movie’s framework, which too was shrewd: September always is the best-read and most advertising-laden of the year. It’s an ideal opportunity to burnish the Vogue brand.
At work, Wintour is as decisive as a heart attack and, like a shark, always looking ahead, never back. (“Fashion always moves ahead” is a motto.) She dissects cover girl Sienna Miller (and her “teethy” smile) like a surgeon; a photo is axed when a model looks “pregnant”; a cover with large type is chucked because it looks “like it’s for blind people.”
Though as warm as an anaconda, Wintour also nurtures in her way, as evident in scenes showing her adoration of her daughter, Bee Shaffer, and her interaction with up-and-coming designer Thakoon Panichgul: “I told you I’d get you the Gap,” she boasts after he’s chosen to do a collection for the chain. (He’s now a Michelle Obama favourite.)
What really animates the doc, though, is the creative crackle between Wintour and 68-year-old creative director Grace Coddington, the genius behind most of the issue’s photo spreads. With her craggy face, wild auburn mane, baggy black clothing, and irreverent attitude, Coddington is a formidable foil to the tightly wound, helmet-haired editrix. “You could get fired for that,” she chides a staffer who picks a black garment for a photo shoot. When another wails, “I want to kill myself” after Wintour shuts him down, she plays den mother: “You have to be tougher.” She uses the camera’s presence to get her way, and steals the doc doing it. “I love to talk money with Anna in front of you guys,” she tells the crew. “It drives her crazy; it’s the one way to get the budget up.”
Now, of course, budgets are down, down, down—as is Vogue’s page count: the September 2009 issue had half the heft of 2007. So changed is the climate that even Nuclear Wintour is thawing. In August, she appeared on Letterman’s Late Show with a brand-new accessory: a smile she’s been practising in public ever since. Last month, she voyaged to Macy’s in Queens, the land of Fran Drescher and 50 Cent, in her chauffeured Town to support a global fashion event.
Again, all shrewd moves. Wintour knows Condé Nast can be as fickle as the industry she intimidates: long-time legendary Vogue editors Diana Vreeland and Grace Mirabella were both suddenly canned. Neither were as publicly welded to the magazine as Wintour is, a forging more complete with the doc. But she’s not taking chances. Lately, she’s been showing off a Wintourian version of the new frugality—wearing the same snakeskin coat four times in the past month. Après le déluge, the devil recycles her Prada.