R.J. Cutler, Spending 'September' With Anna Wintour

RJ Cutler on a fashion runway i i

Model Filmmaker: R.J. Cutler convinced Vogue doyenne Anna Wintour — famous for her Sphinxlike reticence — to let him document the process of putting together the magazine's biggest annual issue. Roadside Attractions hide caption

itoggle caption Roadside Attractions
RJ Cutler on a fashion runway

Model Filmmaker: R.J. Cutler convinced Vogue doyenne Anna Wintour — famous for her Sphinxlike reticence — to let him document the process of putting together the magazine's biggest annual issue.

Roadside Attractions

In an industry built on extreme skinniness, the September fashion magazines are fat — 584 pages in this September's issue of Vogue. And that's with ad pages down 36 percent from last year.

For the past two decades, Vogue has been shaped, sculpted and pruned by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, she of the twig-thin figure, the trademark sunglasses (worn indoors) and the highlighted brown bob.

She's famous for her inscrutability, too — but the Sphinxlike style-setter is the central figure in The September Issue, a new documentary about Vogue. Director R.J. Cutler says he's still not entirely sure why Wintour agreed to let his cameras in the building.

"We look for people who have a need to tell their stories," Cutler says. "Here's somebody who everybody's heard of — who's caricatured throughout popular culture, in movies, novels, even in The Incredibles there's an Anna Wintour-esque figure."

To say nothing of The Devil Wears Prada.

"And yet nobody really knows who she is," Cutler says. "To be honest, it was a very easy sell. We met, we started talking. ... This is very Anna: She's probably not going to meet with you unless she's interested in working with you. And by the end of maybe a 20-minute meeting, we were off and running."

The narrative frame for The September Issue is the assembly of 2007's monster edition — 840 pages and 4.1 pounds of fashion obsessions.

"It turns out to have been the single largest edition of any magazine that's ever been published," Cutler says, "It's almost as if the day we stopped filming, the whole world changed." The economy has soured since, and media companies of all stripes have retrenched, but "at that moment, for that year, we really captured a very particular period of time."

Behind The Image, A Woman With Doubts?

In one surprisingly revelatory moment in The September Issue, Wintour talks about her family; she has a brother who finds low-income housing in London; a sister who's involved with farmers'-rights issues in Latin America; another brother who's a political editor for the Guardian in the U.K.

Anna Wintour at a fashion show i i

Wintour took the reins at Vogue in 1988, after stints at Harper's Bazaar, New York magazine and other titles. Roadside Attractions hide caption

itoggle caption Roadside Attractions
Anna Wintour at a fashion show

Wintour took the reins at Vogue in 1988, after stints at Harper's Bazaar, New York magazine and other titles.

Roadside Attractions

"I think they're very amused by what I do," Wintour says quietly. And then, hesitantly and sadly: "They — they're amused. So ..."

A vulnerable Anna Wintour?

"Everywhere she goes, the waters part," Cutler says. "The entire industry responds to Anna's taste, her likes, her dislikes.

"And yet this is a person who — like so many other powerful, successful people — has doubts. She's human."

Down The Hall, And A World Away

The September Issue offers another surprising personality, a kind of counterpoint to Wintour: Vogue creative director Grace Coddington. Assertive, acerbic, a former model with a mane of flame-red hair, Coddington joined the magazine the same year Wintour did — and she's a dramatic presence onscreen.

"Within the fashion world, Grace is every bit the legend that Anna is," Cutler says, "and so the idea that these two women would be working a few doors down from each other, it's quite amazing."

And the two are a study in contrasts.

"Anna's office is a kind of freezer of efficiency," Cutler says. "Yet then there's Grace Coddington's office, just a little bit down the hall, where, y'know, there might as well be a hookah pipe in the middle — everybody's lounging around, relaxing, being creative, being thoughtful. It's an incubator of creativity. Grace is forever wanting to push certain boundaries, Anna is forever ... supportive, but in her way — being an editor, cutting things."

That tension, Cutler believes, informs each and every issue of Vogue.

"As Grace says early on in the movie: 'A lot of people have come and a lot of people have gone under Anna Wintour's reign at Vogue,' " Cutler says. " 'And the reason people go is because they can't take the heartbreak.' "

The film, Cutler thinks, captures some of that heartbreak — and something else, too.

"You see a woman, Grace Coddington, who's willing to have her heart broken," he says. "She's willing to fall in love, month after month, with this extraordinary work she's doing."

Coddington comes across, in a sequence toward the end of the film, as a style maven with a human touch. When a photo spread gets scrapped, Cutler's film crew gets drafted to participate in a last-minute replacement shoot. When Wintour sees the photos, she points to a cameraman's midsection, suggesting a digital tummy tuck. Coddington sails to the camera guy's defense.

"Personally, I think it's better that you're not skinny-skinny," she demurs. "Everybody isn't perfect in this world. I mean, it's enough that the models are perfect — you don't need to go to the gym."

And that, Cutler says, was one battle in which Grace Coddington's aesthetic triumphed: The cameraman's photo was printed exactly as it was shot.

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