The September Issue, director R.J. Cutler's rare peek behind the doors at U.S. Vogue magazine ' specifically, the assembly of their September 2007 edition, a record-smashing, 5-pound, eight-months-in-the-making behemoth of pre-collapse publishing spending ' is a jarring acknowledgment of the magazine's unique place in global culture. It's unique for its female empowerment: Since 1892, the magazine has employed only women, seven of them total, to preside over its nearly $1 billion revenue core. And it's unique in its power: At one point, Vogue's legendary editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, straight-up tells the CEO of Neiman Marcus what will go on his shelves. Then he asks for her help with late delivery trucks. The mag often seems like a textile throwback in its hands-on physicality, as Wintour makes editorial decisions by browsing her fingers across racks of clothing and splaying out physical proofs on a whiteboard. And like the movie business, the magazine is often overlooked in regards to just how many people around the world are employed because Vogue lavishly hawks the goods they manufacture, design or transport.
In its way, The September Issue is about expert craftsmen toiling away at a factory, albeit an unimaginably glamorous one. For all the speculation and gossip about Wintour and her ice-queen demeanor ' she's the 'devilâ?� of the book and film The Devil Wears Prada ' the boss here is simply the decision-maker of a huge company. The ax she wields on the difficult, artistic, massively expensive work of her creative directors, photographers and assorted geniuses is, at least in the film, in service of the magazine and its need to stay far ahead of the curve in fashion. She's not Meryl Streep; she's Henry Ford with a bob.
But Wintour does have her victims, and a frequent recipient of her heartbreaking decisiveness is Vogue's creative director, Grace Coddington, a still-elegant former '60s model who went on to work under Wintour as a savant of conceptual design. Wintour needs Coddington desperately, constantly, and Coddington slyly uses that fact to poke and prod her boss, sometimes to get her way and sometimes just to watch Wintour squirm. We follow Coddington's efforts to put together an elaborate, gorgeous shoot ' at an estimated cost of $50,000 ' only to watch as Wintour sets the resulting photos to the side in a kill pile without batting an eyelash. As Coddington warned would happen at the beginning of the film, her heart is broken. Nonetheless, she's still forced to accompany Wintour to France for meetings. She doesn't pretend she's all right, and the tension between the two elevates to a kind of subdued stand-off that couldn't be manufactured by Cutler or his editor.
As the deadline looms, it's a marvel to watch Wintour and Coddington ease into their focus zones and get the job done. Because, after all the red-carpet events and glad-handing with power players, Vogue is still a huge magazine that doesn't just put itself together.