On Culture

Robin Givhan on Culture: Anna Wintour, a Woman of Substance in a Glossy World

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, June 14, 2009

A small industry of fiction, biographies and tabloid gossip has blossomed around Vogue editor Anna Wintour. And now she has inspired a feature-length documentary: "The September Issue." Audiences may not find her sympathetic. But director R.J. Cutler accomplishes what has eluded so many others: He makes Wintour human.

Wintour recently celebrated her 20th year as the editor of Vogue, a position that allows her to wield a substantial amount of power in the fashion industry, multi-tasking her way from political activism to designer mentoring to philanthropy to the front row at fashion shows.

The film, part of the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs festival, details the creation of the 840-page September 2007 issue of the magazine from conception to publication. Vogue's circulation is about 1.2 million, and while it is not the largest of the American fashion magazines -- Glamour has twice the circulation -- it is the most influential, thanks to its reach, rarefied aesthetics, pop culture engagement, history and, of course, its editor.

In a business known for drama, outsize personalities and reckless disregard for discipline -- both fiscal and personal -- Wintour is the model of control and efficiency. She is a woman who is never, ever late -- a trait that has left many an ill-prepared designer or publicist emotionally scarred.

Because of Wintour's influence, stories about her demanding personality and tireless work habits have become legend. When Wintour makes a request, people do not just run to do her bidding -- a lot of them scurry. They do this because a call from Wintour can save a designer from bankruptcy, and a photograph in the editorial pages of the magazine can launch a career.

In interviews, Wintour is usually painted as a two-dimensional character who elicits either derision or fear. A recent "60 Minutes" profile of her spent a large percentage of its time dissecting why she is such an unapproachable "nuclear Wintour" -- while the camera lens appeared to be five inches from her face. The interviewer seemed more intent on searching for flaws in Wintour's glossy facade than getting some insight into a woman who has remained at the top of her game for so long. One almost felt sorry for her, as no one -- certainly not anyone whose only crime has been making insecure women feel even more insecure -- deserves to have her pores so closely inspected on national television.

"The September Issue" begins with a similarly extreme close-up. But Cutler's intimate opening foreshadows an examination in which, for the first time, the viewer gets a bit of insight into what makes Wintour such a formidable fashion player, how she wields that authority in ways that affect women who never pick up her magazine and why scampering off to do her bidding is the worst way to win her respect.

Cutler followed Wintour and her team of editors for nine months and went into her Greenwich Village home as well as her Times Square office. Cameras were there in Paris when she hosted a retailers luncheon during Fashion Week. Neiman Marcus executives applaud upon hearing that the Vogue editors have spoken with designer Miuccia Prada about her penchant for fabrics that are too heavy and hot for their Southern markets and report that Prada has agreed to cut part of her collection in a lighter silk blend. Still needy, however, Neiman chief executive Burt Tansky laments that retailers have an ongoing problem with deliveries. The clothes are simply not getting to the stores in a timely manner. Could Wintour do something about that? Her joking response: "What would you like me to do, rent a truck?"

Cutler captures Wintour in her usual sphinxlike posture at runway shows. But he also talks to her, along with her daughter, Bee Shaffer, a college student who is more inclined to pursuing a law degree than an editing job at a magazine.

And an amateur psychologist would find much to dissect in Wintour's brief conversation about her family. Her father was a respected British journalist. Her three siblings are all trying to save the world in various politically correct ways. And what do they think of Wintour's job: mixing couture shoots and Botox stories with political profiles? After a long pause, a few downward glances and a smile that exudes a complicated mix of emotions, Wintour says they're "amused by what I do."

But the scenes that consistently provide the most telling details are the ones that come from Wintour's aesthetic tug of war with her creative director, Grace Coddington. Wintour is a pragmatist with a perfectly trimmed blond bob; Coddington is a self-professed romantic with a billowing mane of red hair. Coddington is prone to extravagance. Wintour must keep at least one eye out for clothes that women -- albeit wealthy, slim and adventurous ones -- can wear.

Coddington and Wintour started at Vogue on the same day. (I worked briefly at Vogue nine years ago.) The women's two-decade-long relationship reveals far more about Wintour's sense of loyalty, her desire to be challenged and her respect for talent than her cautious and restrained remarks in interviews ever will. Coddington is at once impudent and wise. She is as sure of her vision as Wintour is of hers. And Coddington is the only person in the film who stands up to Wintour, who argues with her, who does precisely what she knows Wintour will not like and still manages to come out ahead.

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