Some juicier behind-the-scenes drama and a more revealing examination of the creative process might have bulked up “The September Issue,” vet documaker R.J. Cutler’s fly-on-the-wall look at Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her team of designers, stylists and photographers as they assemble the magazine’s most anticipated edition of the year. But what remains is still a dishy and engrossing peek inside the fashion world’s corridors of power — every bit as slickly packaged as the publication it seeks to uncover — that should rivet couture enthusiasts in endless trips down the cable runway.
Cutler was granted full access to Wintour during production of the magazine’s enormous and influential September 2007 issue, and her cooperation may explain why the result feels like a kid-gloves treatment of the notoriously icy and imperious fashion-world icon. Wintour certainly comes across as a tough cookie, but at no point in this largely admiring portrait does she seem as monstrous as her fictional alter ego in “The Devil Wears Prada.” She does, however, seem just as powerful — a woman whose knack for spotting and shaping trends has earned her a privileged position in command of both a multibillion-dollar global industry and said industry’s coverage.
Pic’s most glamorous interlude is a Rome shoot with actress-model Sienna Miller (whose hair and teeth come in for some knocks from the staff). But for the most part, d.p. Bob Richman’s camera is content to prowl the magazine’s Gotham offices, showing how the decisions made by models, photogs and designers in far-flung European locales matter less, in the end, than whether they meet with Wintour’s approval. And Wintour — shown brusquely poring over garment racks and photo spreads — says no much more often than she says yes.
Candidly venting her frustrations at Wintour’s often blunt dismissals, Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, surprisingly, emerges as the docu’s most sympathetic and engaging figure (humanizing glimpses of Wintour’s home life notwithstanding). A former British Vogue model, Coddington has worked with Wintour for two decades, and their relationship, animated by mutual suspicion and grudging respect, is among the pic’s chief pleasures.
Like the hit movie version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The September Issue” often resorts to bubble-gum montages (edited by Azin Samari), hurling evening wear, headdresses and pop songs at the screen and inviting the viewer to get lost in the magnificent chicness of it all. The clothes are fab, to be sure. But a more rigorous, analytical approach would have offered more insight into Wintour’s aesthetic criteria (about the only concrete thing we learn is that she likes fur and hates black) and reinforced her belief, shared early on, that fashion is more than just expensive fluff.
Cutler grants ample screen time to young American designer Thakoon Panichgul, who touchingly offers himself as an example of the many rising talents Wintour has championed over the years; other industry luminaries interviewed include Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier and designers Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang and Jean Paul Gaultier. Offering abundant comic relief is Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, whose personality and flamboyant fashion sense match his outsized frame.