The September Issue: inside Vogue 

For those who revere couture fashion, aristocratic existence and celebrated personalities but aren't afraid of a smattering of politic and cultural commentary, Vogue magazine is both hymnal and scripture. The September Issue, a new film by documentarian R. J. Cutler (The War Room), examines the assemblage of the periodical's September 2007 publication, which became the single largest issue printed of any monthly magazine.

Six months before the print date, the filmmakers tag along to photo shoots, board meetings, runway shows and designer studios while capturing the to-and-fro bustle of the magazine's production. Using interviews with stylists, editors and designers, The September Issue is a limited, if intriguing, bit of documentation.

At the forefront of Vogue's creation is British editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the reputed ice queen rumored to have inspired author Lauren Weisberger's 2003 roman a clef The Devil Wears Prada. But Wintour, whose 25-year tenure with the magazine has given rise to her own personal celebrity, is no Miranda Priestly. While sharing many of the same powerful qualities--"decisiveness," she succinctly declares when asked her biggest strength--she does not come across as the domineering dragon-lady of the book. Rather than being coldly dismissive after speaking her piece at meetings, Wintour becomes absent, her attention seeming to wander approximately 3 feet to the right of her former audience. It's an enigmatic habit, seemingly not unkind, but not the practiced warm geniality of American expectation. When interviewed, she's bright, incisive, even motherly, and always fully aware of the opinion some have that her work is a frivolous luxury. It's unsurprising that her slash-and-burn editing brusqueness is interpreted as mean-spirited, frosty efficacy. What's never fully addressed is why Wintour likes her job.

Counter-pointing Wintour's obtuseness is creative director Grace Coddington, a former model who turned to the print side of fashion following a career-breaking car accident. Although frequently as bullheaded as Wintour, this Welsh couturiere's passion for her work is always evident as she laments axed photo spreads and grumbles over reshoots. Coddington has an amazing sense for stylist arithmetic, the not-quite-science of adding together two disharmonious garments into a stunning whole. With an overwhelming amount of work in the upcoming issue, her gumptious disagreements with Wintour's edits are impassioned, but never melodramatic. Unlike the theatrical histrionics of editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley--his lamenting cries for beauty fulfilling many a layman's imagined stereotype of fashion bigwigs--Coddington is quietly resistant, defending her work, but never becoming a caricature. As the most forthcoming staff member interviewed, she deservedly receives the most screen time.

The September Issue never really finds its mark. Whether through unexplained insiderism, production limitations or merely a directorial choice, the film really doesn't give much more than a surface examination of the magazine's making. We learn that Wintour's daughter Katherine is adamant about avoiding a career in fashion, but we don't discover why. Coddington explains that each staffer must find ways to make themselves indispensable at the magazine, but this is never explored. There is a closetful of pretty faces and clothing to look at, but that's the purpose of reading the issue, not watching a documentary about it. For devoted fashion fans, it's enjoyable to put faces to those names in the periodical's margins, but beyond a few choice pleasures--jet-setting travel montages and runway snippets--there's nothing particularly revelatory or compelling about The September Issue. Although lacking the bite Wintour's reputation would seem to portend, curiosity will carry this film further than its tepid material should warrant. But then, the Vogue name alone could sell a bejeweled horse to a brownstone housewife.

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