Fashion is evil. But I’m a very bad girl, so I went to see The September Issue and just wasted 90 minutes of my life. This documentary, about the making of the 2007 edition of the American Vogue’s annual big issue, gives no insight into the magazine’s real workings, offering instead a few personality sketches, ranging form the ludicrous to the tragic. Everyone working on the magazine is about 76 years old but looks only 67 because most of their facial muscles don’t work, the effect, I presume, of botox. The vapid comments wafting from their rigid lips are, I presume, the result of what goes on in their heads – not much worth repeating, except maybe, “September is the Jhhhan-you-ary of fashion .” As parody it may be perfect but as a documentary, the movie was boring. If I had watched it at home, I would have fallen asleep.
I came away in disgust. Off came my tailored, fully-lined, flocked-denim jacket and the check, pale neutral-grey, fine wool pencil skirt with a high waist band and back slit. On went the ancient mens trackie dacks and ugh boots. If I was going to get to work on this post, I needed to tog out in some proper working clothes. Life is an endless costume opportunity and I have always loved to dress up. Only in the grips of serious illness do I not wear earrings for a whole day. Appropriate dress has always been the hallmark of my sartorial style. When working on property refurbishment/maintenance, I am mistaken for a cleaning woman. When I entered the Parkes Elvis Festival Priscilla Contest in 2005, I won. American Vogue is the only recreational magazine I ever buy, although never more than twice a year – September and December are the bumper months. Last year, I oohed over September’s 796 pages of divine looks; this year, the same month’s 584 pages were too dull to warrant more than a quick flick-through at Balaclava News Agency.
Americans are the richest people on earth and most of the other richest people of this earth also shop in America. The US Vogue can feature the most glamorous, outrageously expensive things without batting a tinted eyelash. Forget Tiffany, a loyal Vogue advertiser, when you can buy “statement” acrylic (yes, real plastic) jewellery costing thousands of $US, as featured in the December issue in 2007. The model wears a cocktail dress and several of these big “jewels” around her neck and wrists but she is also wearing rubber gloves and is on her hands and knees swishing a scrubbing brush around a sudsy floor, in broad daylight. Never has housework been more glamorous. It just makes you want to put on your most fabulous evening gear and start spring cleaning the house, top to bottom. Or, it makes you laugh at the ridiculous fantasy. The models are gorgeous and the magazine is very careful to feature many very affordable items but the truth behind it is very ugly and The September Issue really points to that. The 2007 effort was a bumper 840 pages and had a print run in excess of 13 million copies.
Given that the real work of any commercial enterprise is to sell, be it your new novel or my nephew’s new Go-Green Computers business, we do need to ask what it is that we are being sold. Vogue’s business is to sell us a magazine that in turn sells clothing fashion but it is not as simple as it sounds because Vogue itself is a critical cog in the insidious process of manipulating fashion consumption. The September Issue says nothing about what Vogue really is or what it is doing, aside from acknowledging that editor Anna Wintour is the most important single person in the global fashion industry.
Any suggestion that this film will have one intelligent thing to say about the fashion industry is quashed at the very opening with some twaddle from editor Anna Wintour trying to dismiss negative criticism of dress fashion by saying that fashion makes people feel insecure because they are not part of the “in group”. In other words, people who don’t drool over fashion are misfits and failures. We are quickly filled in on Wintour’s true stature in the fashion industry as she is shown in one fur-trimmed garment after another and we are told how she single-handedly resurrected the fur industry by putting it on the 1992 September cover. The gloating over this proud achievement really stroked my “real people wear fake fur” pelt backwards.
Aside from all the furry trims, Wintour always wears only boxy, short jackets or short cardigans, printed, waisted dresses with high necklines and mostly with very full skirts. She favours a full boot or a sling-back shoe with a low to medium heel. A short string of chunky beads is colour varied to go with the different outfits. She doesn’t like black but the film doesn’t explain that in many colour circles, black is not regarded as a colour. Stylistically, Wintour has only one look and it depends entirely on her scrawny form. Stalking about with her snub features and reptilian skin, she resembles an emaciated dinosaur looking for a kill. She spends a lot of her time with her arms folded, glowering her displeasure at everyone and everything. The publisher acknowledges that she is a cold person. What he doesn’t add is how warmed he and his cronies are by the rewards they reap through her arrogance and hired- assassin efficacy.
Wintour is said to have been the inspiration for Miranda Priestly, the fashion editor in The Devil Wears Prada, which was written by her former personal assistant, Lauren Weisberger and made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. While autocratic disregard for others and bullying is a shared characteristic, Wintour, as seen in The September Issue, has none of the colour and brittle verve of Streep’s creation.
When the camera is not on Wintour, it focuses on creative director, Grace Coddington, who brings 45-years of fashion savvy to the magazine’s photoshoots and themed spreads. It is her task to sate the finicky Wintour’s desire for the ineffable. Coddington , with her crinkly red mane, imposing height, choice of black, knee-length sack dresses and comfort sandals is exactly what you would expect from someone in her job. Youth, beauty, fantasy and luxury can only be sold by the ugly reality of harrowing hard work by seasoned veterans. Coddington is also able to distinguish between “perfect models” and “real” people. Looking at the spreads that Coddington prepares, you can see her mark on Vogue signature looks: airborne kinetics, faded-pastel fairytale fantasies, opulent old-masters artifice and whacky juxtapositions.
Aside from Wintour’s passing acknowledgement of Coddington’s “genius”, there is not much dignity for anyone at Vogue. We never see the fleets of personnel involved in every aspect of producing the issue. The film also doesn’t explain the first thing about how this major publication is put together and what human and technical resources are harnessed in the production. There is no truth here and definitely no glimpse of Wintour’s three personal assistants although we do catch sight of the hired domestic help, a black woman, at Wintour’s New York townhouse.
The only time The September Issue reaches a level of mild psychological interest is when we are presented with Wintour’s young adult daughter, who thinks she’d like to do some serious work, perhaps in law; and when Wintour reveals that her siblings have a low-regard for her work. It is not surprising that they should feel this, given that, according to her, one brother is working in community housing, another as a political editor and a sister is helping farmers in South America. Wintour’s condescending description of their jobs seriously understates the level of their professional ranking.
Ironically, I had intended to see Coco Avant Chanel but decided against it on philosophical grounds. As the film’s title means Coco, Before Chanel, it amused me to come across warnings that it only deals with Chanel’s early life, not because I expect people to understand French but because I would think that you would bother to find out what a film’s title means if you were going to see it. While it seems obvious to me that the most interesting aspect of Chanel’s story would be in how she got started, on reflection and a bit of reading, I was reminded of Chanel’s close association with Nazis during the second World War. Problematic material, to say the least, and for me as off-putting as Wintour’s support for the bloody fur industry and the taking of life for pleasure. It is a case of ugly,ugly, ugly, inside and out.
Blazenka Brysha 17/9/2009
The Real September Issue
After writing the above, the newshound in me just kept digging up the dirt on Anna Wintour, of which there is a landfill quantity on the net. It came as no surprise, given that her trade is the press and that her Jimmy Choos have reportedly trod on many a face en route to power, money and fame. Live by the press and die by the press. In fact, had I known anything more about Wintour than her reputation as a draconian power-wielder, I would have realised that no genuine documentary crew could get within 50 meters of her.
It is said that Wintour allowed the documentary in order to raise her profile and perhaps it worked. After seeing The September Issue, my mother-in-law commented that Wintour was not as hard as she had expected, so, clearly my mother-in-law knew more about Wintour than I did at the time. My friend Vicki Steer admitted to seeing the film and observed that she found Wintour’s power “mystifying”. But what Wintour is like as a person – and I came away from The September Issue with the impression of chilling ruthlessness – is not necessarily directly related to her ability as a marketer of fashion, which is what she is ultimately.
The secret of her power/success is graphically exposed, indeed splashed across the pages of the 2009 September issue of US Vogue. If you count the covers, both sides, it has 588 pages, of which 388 are bought advertising. There is much other product promotion, complete with price tags and where you can buy it, in the editorial pages, including 5 pages called Index that feature masses of products under $US500. There’s even a Kmart cashback offer in an advertorial. Most, but not all the promoted products are from brands advertised in the magazine.
The essence of Wintour is her ability to get advertising money out of Valentino and Kmart, Blahnik and Payless Shoes, Target and Nordstrom, Chanel and Covergirl. Of the 388 pages of ads, 103 are for mass market consumer goods – including the 8 pages from UGG Australia – costing relatively little as units but generating billions for the fashion/beauty industry. The 103 pages do not even include Rolex or Tiffany, staple brands of middle class must-haves. Nor do they include any of the stuff I didn’t automatically recognise as available everywhere, so there would be a percentage in that, too.
The first story in the magazine is on page 278 and it’s about and written by a self-made woman film producer, who had to reinvent herself at the age of 21 when her father lost his $US50m stockmarket fortune in 1997. I am reminded of the bit in My Brother Jack when David, having listened to whinings about the hardships of being the younger son of a British lord, makes the point that it’s tougher being the younger son of a Melbourne tram driver.
After 382 pages of ads, you arrive at the guts of the magazine. First comes Grace Coddington’s Into the Woods, a 13-page spread with a Red Riding Hood theme. Then there are 10 pages on the cover celebrity, Charlize Theron, 4 pages on the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, a 10 page spread on coats and 16 pages of 1940s looks. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel gets 4 pages before we get back to business with 4 pages on Fashion’s Night Out, a global shopping event promoted by Vogue International and spearheaded by the US edition. Retailers put on special events for one day, featuring fashion celebrities appearing at stores like Bloomingdales (Target for the rich). This is important because, “If we don’t shop, people lose their jobs.” That would be especially terrible for Anna because where would she be without her work?
Then come 4 pages on Roger Federer, on whom Anna is said to have a “crush”. Indeed, in her editorial she declares, “Roger Federer is now established as the greatest tennis player of all time.” I do not follow tennis, so I don’t know how true this is but there is ample indication that Federer is Wintour’s pet human. While on the home front, this is followed by 8 pages on British fashion tycoon Gela Nash-Taylor, showing all the splendour of her Tudor manor. Then 4 pages on Jenny Sanford, about whom I learned all I need to know from my colleague Adair Jones in her piece at
After all that you might need a drink so there are 4 pages explaining why bars are more hip than restaurants and which bars are it in New York (just in case you go). Apparently, “a proper bar has hooks in front of each stool” for your handbag. Hot places lead to hot people, so we get 2 pages on Hugh Jackman, then 2 on supermodel Karli Kloss, followed by 18 pages of fashion to keep you warm if not hot: gloves, boots, suits etc.
If you overlook that every fashion item featured in this editorial section is being plugged, there are no ads at all. This is quickly corrected by the above-mentioned Index spread and a few more ad pages, bringing the issue to a thumping close. And that is the real September issue, which is how Vogue was promoting it.
In it there is even an ad for the movie, and in her editorial, Wintour confides, “It is difficult to speak about a film that scrutinises one self but at Vogue, we were happy with the result.” She may speak like the Queen and she may not be able to “write” – having left school at 16 – but she sure knows her business and when she was photographed queuing to see the film, it wasn’t because she couldn’t see it any other way. She was keeping her nose to the ground and doing some first hand market research, because she is a marketer and that is what she is paid a said $US2m plus a year to do.