Sunday, March 7, 2010

The September Issue

I am definitely the wrong person to write about fashion, but here goes.

I went to Barnes and Noble last week and purchased the R.J. Cutler documentary on the making of the September, 2007 issue of Vogue, quite literally the bible of the fashion industry. Cutler is the award-winning director of the documentary on Bill Clinton’s race to the White House, entitled The War Room.

In this new DVD, officially titled The September Issue: Anna Wintour & The Making of Vogue, Cutler followed Wintour and her staff around for eight months, January to August 2007, while they produced, photographed, wrote, and assembled the largest issue in Vogue’s history. As Candy Pratts Price, Executive Fashion Director of says in the film, September is the real new year in fashion, the time when everything changes. Magazines devoted to fashion often have their largest issues in September when fall fashions, first previewed during Fashion Week in the spring, hit the streets of New York, Milan, London, Paris, and Los Angeles.

I will be the first to admit that I do not understand fashion, but I recognize the importance of the industry to the economy. What I like about Cutler’s film has more to do with how Anna Wintour and her staff operate, and how a major magazine is put together in the twenty-first century when traditional journalism, magazines and newspapers, seem headed for oblivion.

Surprisingly, assembling the fall issue of Vogue involves a variety of old school publishing techniques. Often in the film, we see Wintour and her art department in a small room looking at a white board with rows of mock-up magazine pages. They move them around, pull out some pages and add others. Large size pages are printed and examined, and the smaller versions are adjusted accordingly.

Meanwhile, Grace Coddington, Creative Director of the magazine, works with a number of models and photographers to capture the iconic images readers have come to expect from Vogue. As Senior Vice-President—Publishing Director Tom Florio says, Vogue is not just a magazine, but a brand. To watch Coddington create the brand is a study in art history.

One shoot in a restaurant in New York resembles a salon in Paris. She uses the photographer Brassai as an inspiration, and the pictures are nothing less than high art, featuring shadows and light and sumptuous sets that belong in a museum. Of course, she then has to stand by while Wintour rejects some of them for being “too busy.” In the end, the issue contains all of Coddington’s shoots and only one by Fashion Director Tonne Goodman, the spread featuring actress Siena Miller shot by Mario Testino. This is a testament to Coddington’s eye for color and image, as well as her creativity.

There is a moving scene in the film where Coddington tours Versailles. She reminisces about her long career, first as a model, then at British Vogue, and finally landing in her current spot at the American version. In some ways, the 69 year-old feels “left behind.” In voice over, as we pan the opulent grounds of the palace of the Louis XIV, she tells us that one cannot stay behind, but must charge forward into the future. She is someone who has had her fingers on the pulse of fashion for more than four decades, so she knows all about charging into the future.

Anna Wintour is another marvel worthy of study. Her management style is clean and crisp. Much has been made of her abrasive behavior, her arrogance, her eccentricities, but she is a no-nonsense boss who knows what she wants and is not afraid to demand it. Even the CEO of Neiman Marcus, Bert Tansky, asks for Wintour’s help in getting the designers to deliver their product on time. As Editor-In-Chief of the magazine, her hand is in every department, but she excels at the visual, and some of the most interesting scenes in the film come when she is working on how the photographs and words will lay out in the September issue.

Sally Singer, Vogue Fashion News/Features Director, talks about Wintour on “She is fantastic because she’s clear. The thing about Anna that’s so good to work for is she knows what she wants. She doesn’t need to be shown five things to get the one she wants. She’s clear from the start. It’s your job to listen, and if you have objections to the final vision—if you’re someone who can think through to the end of a project at the start—it behooves you to voice them. She listens, and you have that discussion then…There’s no tricks, deceptions or emotions. It’s just work. It’s rigorous and interesting and forward-thinking.”

Cutler also wrote about Wintour’s work in a piece on the Huffington Post. He lists four aspects of her management style that he came to admire while working on the documentary. Lesson one was to keep meetings short. “…At Vogue,” he writes, “…meetings are long if they go more than seven minutes and everyone knows to show up on time, prepared and ready to dive in.” Lesson two, trust your instincts. Wintour specializes in “knowing what she wants, making clear decisions and moving on.” Lesson three, surround yourself with great talent. “Anna Wintour knows that you’re only as good as the people who work for you,” Cutler says. Lesson four, don’t look back, a sentiment echoed by Grace Coddington as well. “Fashion’s not about looking back,” Wintour says at the end of the film. “It’s always about looking forward.”

There is a lot to be learned from The September Issue, by those interested in the world of fashion, and those who want to study an incredible manager of talent, art and people, bringing the entire collection of parts together to produce an extraordinary product. The documentary is a fascinating look at a world most people are not familiar with, and a personality in Anna Wintour that is a revelation in her own right.


  1. I couldn't figure out why, years ago, I loved looking at Vogue so much, because I certainly couldn't afford, much less ever desire to wear, some of the clothes showcased. But Sally Singer, whose interview you referenced, nails it: "Fashion is one of the great eliexirs--a great, fun thing people can do to pick themselves up." That link provided an interesting revelation as well--a fashion professional telling young women not to just jump on the fashion bandwagon, but to "get a real education in a discipline with some history" and to "pay attention to what you're reading in college and high school." I used to ride the bus with a 70+ year old woman who simply devoured Vogue every month. She is an expert self-taught seamstress who made a prom dress for her granddaughter that took 2 months to complete, it was that complicated--from a pattern constructed by hand after viewing a photo in a fashion magazine. Vogue, to her, was high art. An interesting departure from your usual subject matter but somehow, still carrying the same message--at least it comes through loud and clear following the threads (no pun intended), from the business strategies of Wintaur, to the success of publishing endeavors in general, to Singer's ruminations on education: Educate yourself, learn, pay attention, be focused and clear, follow through. A great posting, Paul--makes me want to go out and find a Vogue again (or that CD mentioned).

  2. Thanks, Annie. In a weird way, the film and the linked articles gave me a lot to think about in regards to my teaching and my management of the English Department. I have already utilized some of the techniques I have seen and read about and they work. Goes to show that we can learn from anything, even subjects that are outside of our normal sphere of interest. In fact, Grace Coddington, the Fashion Editor in the film, says that one of the best pieces of advice she ever received was to pay attention to everything. Do not sleep in the car, do not allow your attention to falter because everything is important. Great lesson for me and for my students.

    Take care.

  3. Paul, I enjoyed this piece as well. You’ve both made very good points. But don’t let Annie fool you — that pun was most definitely intended.

  4. William, now you have me wondering: when Annie writes to me about the Canadian geese and their twice yearly migrations, is she really talking about geese?

    It is, in fact, the philosophical question of the moment: when is a goose just a goose?

    Thank you for commenting and adding to the intrigue of my rather banal original post.

  5. They are just geese, ha ha. (Though, maybe I should ask them next time they fly by. Something tells me a few might balk at the idea of being termed "just" geese. ("What--flying across continents, wing flap by wing flap, day afert long day isn't enough? We gotta be MORE than just geese?!! Harumpf.") :)

  6. My limited experience with geese has taught me that they do have large egos. They think "they are all that," to use the kids' lingo because they travel twice a year without GPS. They are also arrogant about being originally from Canada, and tend to look down on our American goose (and don't get them started on ducks!) as a poorer cousin who lacks health care, wilderness areas, and dwells in the cities.

    Oh, well. I think it is time to take them down a notch or two.

    Thanks for the dialogue, Annie.


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