When Vogue editor Anna Wintour made an uncomfortable appearance on Letterman a few weeks ago, an ominously telling moment came when the host held up a copy of the September issue. Wintour was there to plug The September Issue, the new documentary about her magazine. "Our Biggest Issue Ever," the cover he held read. "840 pages of FEARLESS FASHION."
It's an impressive claim, and 840 pages is a lot of Vogue - a lot of fashion, and a lot of the other stuff Vogue is very good at, including the feature journalism, the arts coverage, the food coverage. Vogue is a really fine magazine, broad in its cultural sweep, crisply written and edited, elegantly designed. So what was ominous?
What Letterman was holding was the September 2007 issue, the one featured in the movie. This year's September issue boasts a less extravagant claim: "584 Pages of STYLISH STEALS & SMART SPLURGES."
That's a dramatic reduction. And in its alliterative way, the magazine has gone from touting fearlessness to telling readers that they should, if they want to be fashionable, spend wisely and, if they must, steal. Today's Vogue is the recession Vogue, sapped by a devastated advertising market as well as print's decline. I even detect a hint of fearfulness in Wintour's slumming on talk shows at all. It seems she hopes the documentary - which is hyped in the September 2009 issue - will give the magazine a much-needed boost in hard times.
That might happen. On the other hand, R.J. Cutler's documentary, which counts down to the publication of that blockbuster 2007 issue, might just frighten a lot of people. What this tight closeup on the highly influential magazine suggests is that the people involved in putting it together are, well, freaks.
Wintour is icy behind her omnipresent sunglasses, which remind me of the shades worn by poker players on those late-night TV shows. She's devastatingly critical of employees and seems to think nothing of tossing out $50,000 worth of work. When editor at large André Leon Talley is advised to lose some weight, he treats it as an occasion to splurge on jaw-droppingly expensive tennis fashions and accessories, including a pile of Vuitton luggage and a Piaget watch probably worth the cost of a small car.
And although Vogue putatively is a journalistic enterprise, Vogue people - and fashion magazine people generally - think nothing of digitally altering material as it suits them. Eyeing two pictures of actress Sienna Miller, photographer Mario Testino proposes, "How about I put this head on this body?" This is the same technology that, you'll recall from the 2004 election, fraudulently put John Kerry and Jane Fonda together at an anti-Vietnam War rally.
Still, excesses and all, The September Issue is a fascinating look at an important cultural institution. It's clear that the magazine is good because the people who make it are passionate to the point of ruthlessness. And there's no denying that Vogue's fashion spreads are gorgeous - are art. That's thanks to the care of people like creative director Grace Coddington, a Vogue veteran who, in the course of the film, is devastated to see one of her spreads diminished, one page at a time. "You have to demand, otherwise you'll be blamed," she says wearily.
But as I watched The September Issue, I remembered a thought I had as I recently watched Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about the titular fashion designer: I want to know more about the models. They are lovely, mysterious, tragic. Unlike the others, they are not identified, and they almost never speak (one sweetly complains that she can't eat any pie because she's about to squeeze into a corset for a shoot). They march around like robots. They stare blankly. Their images are digitally sliced and diced. But they're just like us, yes? Do they not bleed?
Well, the film's most inadvertently chilling line comes from Coddington, whom we've been encouraged to think of as the gentle, beleaguered humanity of Vogue. At a shoot she has a cameraman photographed, then frets when it appears his gut will be Photoshopped out. "Please do not retouch Bob's stomach," she says on the phone.
She wants, we learn, to reassure readers: "It much more makes the point that you're real people and not" - here she pauses - "models."
Could be, but The September Issue never answers a question Letterman rightly put to Wintour on behalf of real people everywhere: What does haute couture have to do with the rest of us?