I think what I often see is that people are frightened of fashion so they put it down," says Anna Wintour even before the opening credits of The September Issue begin to roll. "Just because you like to put on a beautiful Carolina Herrera dress doesn't make you a dumb person," she continues. Then, straight to camera, her famously immaculate make-up and even more immaculate honey-blonde bob filling the screen: "There is something about fashion that makes people nervous."
As any industry insider will be swift to point out, that "something" is personified by Wintour herself, the oft-dubbed "single most important person in fashion" and, for 20-plus years, editor of probably the most successful glossy magazine in the world. With a circulation, at the time of filming, of around 1.2 million, Wintour's Vogue is not the most widely-read magazine in the Condé Nast stable – American Glamour boasts twice that – but it is without question the most influential.
The director R J Cutler and his crew spent nine months inside the American Vogue offices in New York's Times Square – and were awarded unprecedented access to Wintour as she consulted with designers including Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar de la Renta. Cutler was even allowed inside her Greenwich Village home. Here, we see her curling her notoriously spindly limbs into the back of any number of chauffeur-driven luxury cars. There she sits, feline, in the front row at the Paris catwalk shows.
"Is there a way to wear fur this winter?" asks one (visibly nervous) interviewer, as Wintour waits for the lights to go down at the side of the runway before a show. "There's always a way to wear fur," the editrix retorts, as if the Peta [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] protesters who continue to stalk her were the most insignificant thing in the world. "I wear it mostly on my back."
But, for all its high-camp posturing, the film's central narrative follows the relationship between Wintour and her creative director, Grace Coddington, the woman responsible for styling the huge majority of fashion shoots in the magazine. Wintour, all polished frostiness, curt and businesslike to the extreme, represents one side of the Vogue success story. Coddington, flame-haired, make-up free and an imaginative rebel, is the other. However, the latter – whom many have identified as the most compelling character in the film – would never have got to where she is today were it not for the other half of this, fashion's most long-lasting and enigmatic double act.
"She saw the celebrity thing way ahead of everyone else," Coddington says of Wintour, and it is true that, in the latter part of the 1990s, the editor, whose cover stars famously included the then American First Lady Hillary Clinton, spearheaded the rise of everyone from Hollywood A-listers to politicians into fashion's upper echelons. Sienna Miller is the cover star of the September 2007 issue of Vogue which forms the focus of the film; that issue is destined to be the biggest ever in the magazine's history, weighing in at 5lbs and more than 800 glossy pages. For her part, Coddington is rather more elitist in her tastes – she prefers the rarefied world of haute couture, of impossibly grand locations and fashion fantasy at its most unadulterated. "Personally, I don't care if I never see another celebrity," she says, "but if the magazine doesn't sell, I don't have a job. You've got to have something to put your work in, otherwise it's not valid."
Vogue's success is ultimately attributable to Wintour's unique ability to bridge the gap between creativity and commerce, between the type of deliberately inaccessible and escapist world-view that Coddington represents, and the more down-to-earth business of selling clothes in an industry thought to be worth in excess of $30bn (£18bn) worldwide. Far more than The Devil Wears Prada – the film based on a roman-à-clef written by a former assistant at American Vogue – and, even more so than Zoolander, Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter, Ugly Betty and the rest, The September Issue is a remarkably fair analysis of that delicate balance, and of what it means to work in the fashion industry today.
Having said that, at least part of the reason for the hype that surrounds it – in New York, bootleg copies of the strictly embargoed DVD are being shown at fashion parties citywide – is nostalgia. The September Issue is a record of the last gasps of boom time, before recession hit and even this most apparently profligate world was forced to tighten its (crocodile skin) belt.
A case in point must surely be Mario Testino's meeting with Wintour at the Ritz hotel in London, the purpose of which is to discuss the aforementioned cover story with Sienna Miller. "My God, you look amazing in this room," the super-snapper gushes to a stony-faced Wintour who, with uncanny foresight, does indeed appear to be dressed in order to match the over-blown soft furnishings. Sienna Miller will be shot not in the British capital but in Rome, at the Colosseum, no less: "I wanted something with horses, and soldiers. I don't know why but I'm thinking a lot about white," Testino elaborates with all the charm and exuberance for which he is famous.
It's not easy to imagine a conversation such as this one taking place in today's economic climate, where even Vogue is affected by the downturn. For her part, and even at this comparatively unburdened point in her career, however, Wintour is more concerned with the practicalities. "Let's talk about Sienna," she says, bringing the whole shebang down to earth with a steeliness that would stop even the most excitable puppy in its tracks, "because her hair is not looking its best."
Anna Wintour doesn't like black. As a fledgling fashion editor back in 1996 I witnessed at first hand the fallout this by now legendary aversion might entail at a location nowhere more salubrious than the cloakroom of the central location of the Milan women's ready-to-wear collections. In the cubicle next to mine, a young woman was sobbing inconsolably while her companion tried to avoid full fashion meltdown by unearthing the root of the crisis. All that could be seen by any onlooker were two pairs of twig-like ankles clad in the prerequisite spike heels peeping out beneath the door. All that could be heard? "Anna is cross with me," wept the desperate fashion victim. "She says we're all wearing too much black."
In The September Issue, Grace Coddington holds up a black leather jacket and wonders: "Will Anna like that?" Her assistant, clearly well versed in the American Vogue etiquette of responses that are brief to the point of blunt, chips in: "It's black."
Putting her money where her mouth is, Wintour is never seen in black or even dark clothing. She chooses instead neat printed shift dresses by the aforementioned Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Prada and Chanel as well, of course, as bouclé wool jackets, cardigans and sweaters courtesy of the latter, resolutely bourgeois, French status label – all in uncompromisingly pale shades, right down to the always vertiginous shoes. Conversely, Coddington wears only black: utilitarian black shirts, wide-legged trousers, a black sack dress with a split up the back like a surgeon's tunic, flat black sandals that might almost be described as rustic.
While she may choose black for her own wardrobe, she rarely shoots it. Just as mythology decrees, Anna Wintour vetoes every outfit in every shoot that will eventually appear in the pages of her magazine – or not. Coddington holds up a black Comme des Garçons jacket, albeit one with stuffed pink hands appliquéd on to its front, for a "texture"-themed shoot.
Anna Wintour simply says: "No."
Wintour's omnipotence – it might not unreasonably be described as a dictatorship – doesn't stop with her own staff. She steps into a preview of the Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati's forthcoming collection, brushes aside his complaints about stress, and announces: "Can we start now? Where's the eveningwear?" She goes on to wonder, without a trace of a smile, "You're not feeling colour?" Such withering comments would seem harsh at the best of times but, given that American Vogue's support has the clout to make or break a collection, and even a designer's entire career, they carry rather more weight than that.
At a retailers' breakfast hosted by Vogue, executives from the department store Neimen Marcus break into applause upon hearing that the magazine has spoken with Miuccia Prada about her use of tufted mohair and alpaca, which is both unflattering and unsuited to a warmer, southern climate. By way of compromise, the powers-that-be at the label have agreed to re-cut at least part of the collection in more "store-friendly" silks. Neiman's chief executive, Burt Tansky, goes on to bemoan the late deliveries on the part of all too many of fashion's leading lights. "What would you like me to do," Wintour retorts, "rent a truck?" Finally, and as a reminder that Wintour has been the driving force behind the careers of designers including both Marc Jacobs and John Galliano, her bright young hope, Thakoon, wins a Vogue-sponsored competition to design a capsule collection for Gap. "I told you I'd get you into the Gap," says Wintour at the launch party sounding increasingly like, well, God.
It has been widely suggested that Anna Wintour had full editorial control of The September Issue. Certainly, while the initial approach was made by Cutler, the concept to follow the process behind the creation of the magazine's most important issue of the year was hers. The film's director – and let's not forget that he is the name behind documentaries including the Oscar-nominated The War Room that followed Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for the presidency – insists that is not the case.
"The biggest challenge that we faced was the fact that people in the fashion world are very suspicious of cameras," he says. "They're used to a camera being the enemy, something that is prying and looking to catch you in a compromising position, something that's judging you. Of course, our presence is the opposite of that; our cameras were there not to judge but to observe."
With this in mind, the film is an objective portrait of Wintour, her staff and fashion more broadly, and it is that which makes it unusual. Contrary to popular mythology, Cutler continues, Wintour was not given the final cut. "When I said that I would have to have the final cut, she said, 'My father was a journalist. I'm a journalist. I totally understand.' I was glad that she got it, but I was also struck by the fact that she spoke so openly about her father [the former Evening Standard editor, Charles Wintour]. I thought there's definitely something here and I suspected that if I followed that thread, it would lead me to a rich place."
While it would be foolish to think that The September Issue would feature endless footage of Wintour losing her temper, or brandishing a hairdryer first thing in the morning like any other mortal, there are moments of poignancy when this most controlled of characters reveals just enough of herself to suggest that a human heart beats beneath. She talks with warmth about Coddington whom she considers "a genius" and far beyond her own talents as a fashion editor. Of her famous father, meanwhile, she has this to say. "My father decided for me that I should have a career in fashion, that I should be editor of Vogue... I remember when he retired I asked him why, and he said, 'I get too angry.' When I find myself getting really, really angry, it may be time to stop."
Perhaps the single most revealing part of the documentary is where she admits, looking directly at the camera, that her two brothers and sisters, all of whom are engaged in rather more politically-correct professions, find what she does amusing. "They're brilliant. My two brothers and sister are very amused by what I do. They're amused." she says, revealing a professional self-doubt entirely at odds with her public persona. This is only increased by her daughter Bee Shaffer's decision to go to law school rather than follow in her mother's footsteps. "It's a weird world," Shaffer says. "I would never want to take it too seriously."
Wintour tells the camera that her gift is "determination", while her weakness is "her children". By the close of The September Issue, one thing is clear: what makes some people nervous around Wintour is power. And yet, for all her froideur, there are times when the most powerful woman in fashion does in fact appear to care what other people think.
And what people think about fashion, fuelled at least by the media's tendency to reduce it to gross caricature, is that it is at best frivolous, at worst plain immoral. The September Issue goes some way towards exploding that myth, providing a more realistic and nuanced view of a hitherto impenetrable world, which turns out to be predominantly inhabited by intelligent working women at the height of their profession who are as complex as they are inspiring.
'The September Issue' is released 11 September. To watch a trailer, go to independent.co.uk/fashion
Condé Nast: A publishing empire in crisis?
The two tallest gleaming skyscrapers near the southern end of Times Square in Manhattan are home to despondent publishers. One is The New York Times; the other, Condé Nast. Last week, the glamorous magazine publisher released figures that revealed an accelerating decline in advertising: important September issues had lost between 15 and 50 per cent of ad pages compared to a year earlier; Vogue and Vanity Fair, once believed to be recession-resistant, had lost more than a third. The company, which went through a spate of magazine closures and cuts earlier in the year, announced it had hired McKinsey & Company, the much-feared bottom line-focused management consultants.
McKinsey's arrival spells out one thing: the party is over. Its mandate will be to identify cost savings and under-developed areas of revenue stream. In other words, hiring freezes, department cuts, magazine closures. For months, senior Condé Nast editors have been asked to share – yes, share – Lincoln Town Cars and make other small-scale sacrifices.
But the arrival of McKinsey signals that Condé Nast's legendary culture of pampered editors and GDP-sized expense accounts is under comprehensive review. The chief executive, Chuck Townsend, sent out a company-wide memo saying that the firm was "rethinking" how it does business. He said "a realignment" was in order – an instruction more chilling than being the accessories editor sent away for pitching a "pink" story to the US Vogue editor Anna Wintour in the forthcoming documentary.
"It's terrifying! It freaked me out!" says a Condé Nast staffer of Townsend's memo.
Condé Nast Publications in New York is a larger and perceptibly different business to its London and international counterparts. The American operation relies on selling cheap subscriptions and then selling on the enviable information about readership demographics to advertisers. It has been a successful business, one finely polished by Condé Nast to a high gloss. But, in this advertising climate, the model looks more vulnerable than that employed in the UK, or at the company's London-run, expanding portfolio of international titles, where predominant news-stand sales business comes with the readership's value to advertisers ensured.
The US arm is under further stress as advertisers who have not already cut back on spending now question whether, say, $90,000 (£55,000) spent on a page advertisement in US Vogue could be better spent targeting potential buyers directly. And without advertising, the mystique of Condé Nast, and its reputation for presenting a superior fashionable life for those with superior lifestyle aspirations, could quickly tarnish.
Further, any magazine that flourished during the booming consumer markets of the past quarter century must now negotiate the conflict of appealing to consumers who are at least paying lip-service to the idea of desiring less. So far, gut-reaction at Condé Nast titles is to adhere more closely to the advertisers' script: if your magazine depends on watch advertising, publish more editorial stories about men and watches. If it's shoes that pay, more stories about shoes and, presumably, ankles.
But this may not be enough. Magazines with a base-rate circulation below 850,000 are considered unsustainable and Condé Nast, like many US publishers, is highly-staffed and run by a large, well-paid roster of top management. With a profit margin said to be no more than 3 per cent, the company's secretive economics are in need of examination. Financial problems that were fissures are now chasms.
Venerable magazines including House & Garden and newer ones, Domino (an interiors title) and Portfolio (a business title launched in 2007), have been shut down; the numbers at dependably profitable Glamour and Allure are significantly down; web operations are being curtailed as online advertising disappears into the recessionary dissolve; a second wave of closures threatens Details and Wired.
Over the years when the company threw off money – or at least counted on a financial cushion from the Newhouse's family's cable TV and newspaper interests – the chairman, Samuel Irving (Si) Newhouse, could run Condé Nast as generously as a gleaming city-state of fastidiously-produced titles edited by independent, competitive and often indulgent editors – "divas and egomaniacs", with their expensive retinues of faithful servants.
The high-times of the money-no-object business are legend: costly re-shoots; expense accounts that ran to long stays in suites at the Ritz; low-interest mortgages and loans for editors' country-houses, clothing and redecorating. Newhouse, now aged 82, is said to enjoy the drama of his court – the princes and princesses engaging in their set-piece battles and extravaganzas – Vanity Fair's Oscar party vs the Vogue Metropolitan ball – as well as their industry power-broking and outright muscle-flexing (fashion designers are required to offer the Vogue editor a preview of their presentations).
"For years, Si was able to tell the suits to get lost when they wanted to rein in his editorial spending on the magazines, because advertisers were willing to pay premium, non-discounted rates to be in those magazines," says one former editor. "That has changed, and it may never come back. So the role of McKinsey is to convince him to dismantle the old Condé Nast culture and replace it with something efficient, stripped-down and cost-driven." No wonder employees are anxious.
And what of Wintour? Will The September Issue be seen as a testament to a passing era, an effort to deflect criticism (Wintour is said to be deeply wounded at claims that the magazine is out of touch, and the rumours circulating about her retirement), or an elegant attempt to win Vogue multi-media attention and new readership?
Even in this most imperious of institutions, there are signs of change: staff have been redirected online to chart the fashion life – Hamish Bowles' blog Hamishsphere comes to mind – sometimes with great success; fashion people have come to depend on Vogue's Style.com site, which displays every outfit from every catwalk show, for reference. It was no small feat to get Michelle Obama on the cover of Vogue earlier this year, and the US pop sensation Taylor Swift on the cover of Teen Vogue in the same month. The magazine looks more accessible and livelier, and, in a concession to recession, now features some less steeply-priced fashion.
Whatever else McKinsey is contemplating, they won't be recommending Condé Nast shut Vogue or Vanity Fair down anytime soon. Even with a 37 per cent decline in advertising pages, the latest September issue of Vogue still boasts 425 pages – that's tens of millions of dollars in the coffers. Enough, one might suppose, to keep a few of Condé Nast's grande dames of fashion coiffured, nicely-shod and fully-accessorised.
By Edward Helmore in New York
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies