The September Issue Less Than Flattering?

Juicy details are coming out left and right about R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Anna Wintour and American Vogue. Not only did a screener copy of the unreleased doc leak, but it’s been revealed that one of the two production companies involved is owned by Condé Nast’s arch-rival conglomerate, Hearst.

A&E IndieFilms, in addition to bringing us documentaries like Jesus Camp and co-producing The September Issue, is owned by Hearst Entertainment and Syndication. Hearst Entertainment and Syndication, as the name might suggest, is owned by Hearst. What else is owned by Hearst? Vogue competitor Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour doppelganger Marie Claire, and a raft of other direct pendants to Condé Nast media properties. It’s not clear that A&E IndieFilms’ ownership status meant that anyone at Hearst enjoyed editorial control or creative influence over The September Issue, it is surprising that Condé Nast would accidentally put itself in its rival’s hands.

And it does fit with reports that the documentary is notably harsher on Anna Wintour than previously thought.

Fashion Week Daily acquired a copy of the documentary, which isn’t to be released in the U.S. and U.K. until September 11, and posted a detailed recap of its contents on the Friday before the long U.S. Memorial Day weekend. Cutler opens with a long discourse from Wintour, defending fashion on intellectual grounds, and calling people who criticize the fashion industry frightened:

“What I often see is that people are scared of fashion — because they’re frightened or insecure, so they put it down. On the whole, people who say demeaning things about our world, I think it’s because they feel in some way excluded or not part of the “cool group.” Just because you like to put on a beautiful Carolina Herrera dress of a pair of J Brand blue jeans instead of something basic from K-Mart doesn’t mean you’re a dumb person. There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous.”

It’s often those who themselves are most desperate to be taken seriously who are quickest to project “insecurity” onto others. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Cutler, when he succeeds in getting Wintour to talk about her family, admits that her fellow high-achieving siblings — Patrick Wintour, political editor of the Guardian, Nora Wintour, deputy-general secretary of the Public Services International union, and James Wintour, an official with the Gravesham Borough Council who works in low-income housing — all regard her work with, she believes, “amusement.”

What seems to emerge as a theme of the film, however, is Anna Wintour’s relationship with Vogue stylist and former model Grace Coddington. Coddington, unhappy about the documentary team, threatened to quit the magazine and resisted Cutler’s attempts to film her for months, the director recalled. (Coddington eventually relented, and Cutler’s team’s presence at one of her shoots led to a charming picture of Caroline Trentini and a cameraman, jumping together for an editorial.)

Wintour says that the cameraman’s stomach needs retouching. “You need to go to the gym!” she says, not remotely in jest. (This is the woman who ordered Oprah to drop 20 lbs before shooting her for the cover, and who bullied André Leon Talley into taking up tennis, a sport he is filmed pursuing while decked out in Damon Dash pants, a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, a vintage diamond Piaget watch, a Louis Vuitton towel, a Louis Vuitton racquet cover, and a Louis Vuitton gym bag.) Coddington rejects Wintour’s criticism of the cameraman’s body — “Everybody isn’t perfect in this world. It’s enough that the models are perfect. You don’t need to go to the gym” — but she waits for her boss to leave the room before airing her disagreement.

The film also apparently gives an unprecedentedly detailed look at Wintour’s managerial style and her level of involvement with the magazine. Wintour retains absolute creative control over every editorial shot. She does not shy from killing spreads by talented and proven long-time collaborators, such as Edward Enninful (Coddington’s story with Trentini is a re-shoot of an Enninful effort) and Coddington herself. “I’m in a really foul mood right now because they’ve just killed another spread of my ’20s story, and they’re about to kill another one,” says Coddington, at one point. “And they’re all lying to me about it. It’s just incredibly boring.”

She also kills a spread with models Hilary Rhoda and Chanel Iman, jumping. (This was during Vogue‘s long, just-ended drought of faces of color on its editorial pages — it’s interesting to note that Iman, who is black, was even in the running for inclusion in American Vogue in September 2007.)

It’s no wonder, really, that her publication’s creativity so often ends up channeled into the inevitable jumping editorial, the inevitable lavish-but-boring set piece. Wintour’s nit-picking leaves even the talented eyes and minds around her too hamstrung to function.

If the full film is as critical as FWD maintains, then that means Anna Wintour has made one move worthy of respect: allowing Cutler to film her, no-holds-barred. But will Condé Nast be pleased at the results?

The September Issue, Revealed! [FWD]
More Details from The September Issue Vogue Documentary Featuring Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington [Fashionologie]
Hearst Takes On Condé [FWD]
Film reveals soft side to Vogue’s icy style queen Anna Wintour [Guardian]

Vogue Documentary Is Delicious & Devil-ish

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