Famed American photographer Richard Avedon had once said, "Fashion is how we live in the world," and director R.J. Cutler cites it as an answer over the role fashion plays in a seemingly unadorned reality. For as much as one wishes to believe that clothing does not, in fact, make the man, it is a difficult argument to pose against the statistics that one in ten Americans will purchase the fall issue of Vogue magazine, and that the industry of fashion is a pivotal factor behind cultural and economic influence. Clothing is individual expression, and it is both the armor and invisible cloak with which one adorns themselves every day before facing the world, and Cutler's new documentary, The September Issue, seeks to examine the surprising frailty within the ivory towers of haute couture.

So how does an acclaimed documentarian like R.J. Cutler, who holds credits with such projects like The War Room, American High, or
30 Days, find social relevance in the seams of hemlines? Much like the chronicling of a political team taking a candidate to the White House, taking an influential magazine to press is much the same -- it is driven by its people, obsessed with a passion to succeed and accepting nothing less than excellence, amid emotional sacrifices.

Now in its fourth year,
The Bellevue Collection Fashion Week played host to the premiere of director R.J. Cutler's documentary, The September Issue, at the debut of Bellevue's six-day celebration of style. Already this year's film festival darling, the movie had the unprecedented freedom of taking cameras into the venerable halls of Vogue magazine to film the making of their prominent fall issue, and rarer-still, a strikingly genuine glimpse at editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, a figure as renowned for her influence over the fashion industry, as she is her inscrutable personality. Along with Wintour, a rogue's gallery of style figures are brought forth, and through the film's patient narrative, the fine viscose of pretense is peeled back to reveal a vulnerable texture more complex and sublime than any woven textile.

At the beginning of the film, amidst a mad rush of sumptuous images and a flurry of celebrity flashbulbs, Wintour's crisp, cool voice rings clear: There is something about fashion that makes people nervous. It is something not fully understood or realized, so it's easier to ridicule it or pass it off as frivolity. People are scared of fashion. A bold statement, but the visual parade of soundbites and anxious co-workers scrambling to prepare for her entrance into the building are proof of Wintour's reign as the all-knowing steward of this publishing vessel. The story establishes her public image as an icy regent lording over the style masses, a nod to the caricature in Laura Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada, but the facade drops away and an executive-minded leader emerges. Sharply intellectual, decisive to a fault, cameras follow Wintour as she clips through her daily decisions with nary a hint of hesitation, nor a brandishing of the mythic claws she is so infamously known for concealing beneath a mink sleeve. The film does not seek to pander to public expectation. In a scene at a Yalta-like brunch of fashion industry moguls, a brusque comment by Neiman Marcus CEO Burton Tansky over the need for retailers to be able to manage the finite supply of luxury goods against the strong demand the magazine creates, elicits a shrewd acknowledgement from the fashionista. While peers would rather discuss stylish details, it is Wintour who agrees with Tansky that less is more, and the bottom line of commerce cannot be ignored. The distinct void of absurdity in the way she operates Vogue makes it ironic that it is a magazine that bears so many slings and arrows of facetious excess.

A curious portrait of a woman who is very much her strict Victorian father's daughter takes shape. Director Cutler makes note in the press conference that one can tell a lot about a person when they talk about their family, and Wintour shares a surprising amount of her personal background. Her daughter eschews her mother's legacy, looking towards a future in law. Wintour's siblings, all equally influential figures in publishing and the world at large, are described as simply being "very amused" at what their sister Anna does, a pedantic remark that is quoted lightly, but clearly the sentiment leaves razor marks in Wintour's passion. A delicate vulnerability is revealed, even if only for glimpses throughout the film, but they are compelling reminders of the soft underbelly of this sphinx-like figure. Those rare moments are both poignant and scalding in their honesty.

To balance the judicious yin of Anna Wintour comes the artistic yang of Vogue's creative director, Grace Coddington. A wild mane of ginger hair contains the artistic mind behind the magazine's most conceptual fashion spreads for over thirty years. Having a similar background to Wintour, Coddington started out as a model before becoming involved in the publication and moving steadily through the ranks to eventually establish her directorship title. Where Wintour's view of the magazine is a measured balance of aesthetic and commerce, Coddington speaks of the magazine through the dreamy looking glass of adolescent memories and its escapism from life in a small Welsh town. It's no wonder that her distinctive layouts are panoramas plucked from an imaginarium of surreal delights, as they speak to her own passion behind fashion's ability to transport a person to somewhere truly otherworldly. It's also little surprise that her abstract concepts are often at odds with Wintour's editor initiatives. The two women spar often, sometimes with veiled glee, and other times with genuine animosity -- most notably when a key spread, art directed and shot under Coddington's helm, is surreptitiously cut by Wintour. It is easy to brush off her anger as the tantrums of a frustrated artist, but Coddington's counterpoint is reflected in a poignant quiet confession. While on location at the palace of Versailles outside of Paris, she stares out at the lonesome horizon of the celebrated gardens, musing that she felt she got left somewhere behind, and that she was still a romantic. The clothing, designers and photographers disappear from the audience's mind. Coddington's brilliant artistic insight is presented like a delicate insect trapped in amber, preserved for future generations to marvel at, but trapped all the same, as her passion and devotion to her vision will never release her from a struggle to reach that artistic ideal. One cannot help but feel grateful for her art, and the passion to wrestle this beast every month, and hopefully for many years to come.

This is not a movie simply about expensive clothing and an excuse to moon over catwalk glamour. Real people inhabit the story, and a particularly compelling relationship between these two halves of Vogue's braintrust is defined. Neither Wintour nor Coddington can thrive without the other. In the pre-screening discussion with R.J. Cutler, he describes that his takeaway from shooting this film is the relationships, and the same level of trust he and his crew patiently earns from his skeptical subjects is a hard-won victory for the benefit of audiences' delight. Spanning the quiet, introspective moments of subject interviews to the dry gallow's humor of the magazine's office nearing their final deadline, the aloof world of fashion becomes tangible and human. After seeing The September Issue, it is difficult to look at an issue of Vogue without recognizing the world Richard Avedon spoke of, acknowledging the very real faces that populate this landscape of fashion and how their lives influence and inspire our own.

A very special thanks is extended towards R.J. Cutler for presenting his film, Vogue magazine for partnering with
The Bellevue Collection for this year's fabulous Fashion Week, STIR Martini + Raw Bar for hosting the stylish afterparty, and a big merci to Bellevue.com for providing the media pass that let me experience this amazing film.

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1 comment:

  1. How fun! I can't say that I ever know about these sorts of events. Sounds like an incredible evening and your review of the movie makes me want to see it stat!


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