Saturday, 15 June 2013

Remembering the Anna Wintour / The Devil Wears Prada / The September Issue ... question.

The Cameras Zoom In on Fashion’s Empress

“The September Issue,” a documentary about the creation of a single, very fat issue of American Vogue in a far-off gilded age (i.e., 2007), has little to say about fashion, the real ins and outs of publishing or the inner workings and demons of the magazine’s notoriously demanding meanie-in-chief, Anna Wintour. Rather, this entertaining, glib movie is about the maintenance of a brand that Ms. Wintour has brilliantly cultivated since she assumed her place at the top of the editorial masthead in 1988 and which the documentary’s director, R. J. Cutler, has helped polish with a take so flattering he might as well work there.
To judge from the flurries of behind-the-scenes evidence, however, if Mr. Cutler did work for the exacting Ms. Wintour he would still be doing reshoots. Shot on digital with an eye for sumptuous color by Bob Richman and briskly edited by Azin Samari, the 88-minute movie opens with Ms. Wintour explaining that “there is something about fashion that can make people very nervous.” Certainly she unnerves her staff, as you soon see from all the huddled bodies and popping eyes. Even the more self-possessed, like Candy Pratts Price, seem in the grip of awe. Is Ms. Wintour the “high priestess” of the magazine, an off-camera voice asks. “I would say pope,” Ms. Price says with a queasy smile.

Many will grasp this distinction, having already watched supplicants kiss the ring in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada,” with Meryl Streep as a thinly disguised, fictionalized and Americanized version of Ms. Wintour. Etched in acid and often hilarious, the performance, while not wholly modeled on Ms. Wintour, helped humanize her public profile, lessening the sting of the original book, a roman à clef by one of her former assistants, Lauren Weisberger. The documentary continues this humanization largely by showing Ms. Wintour very hard at work, rather lonely and sensitive about her British family’s low opinion of fashion. She’s a poor little rich girl swaddled in fur and iced to the bone.

She’s also pretty funny, perhaps at times accidentally so. Much of the movie’s pleasure comes from the utter ease with which Ms. Wintour plays the Red Queen of fashion and orders off with their heads (and even tummies). In the case of the British actress Sienna Miller, the cover girl for the September 2007 issue, which gives the movie its structure and hook, the head in question receives the 21st-century version of a severing: it’s Photoshopped to unreal perfection. However lovely, Ms. Miller proves a problematic Vogue ideal for the editors, many of whose own faces are somewhat surprisingly scored with wrinkles. It’s a mark of how pitiless Ms. Wintour can come across that you end up feeling a bit sorry for Ms. Miller.

In truth Ms. Wintour was just doing her job. Yes, there’s cruelty here, but of the most attenuated kind: she says no, employees tremble. The strongest, like the flame-haired Grace Coddington, the magazine’s longtime creative director and the documentary’s hugely diverting stealth star, seem to have figured out how to survive with their dignity intact. Most of the truly ugly stuff in fashion — the models starving themselves, the exploited Chinese workers cranking out couture fakes and the animals inhumanely slaughtered for their fur — remains unnoted in “The September Issue,” much as it often does in Vogue. And while the movie shuns any overt discussion of money, it includes an instructive scene of Ms. Wintour playing the coquette with one of the magazine’s important advertisers.

Of course it really is all about money. Despite being crammed with glossy images of beautiful, weird, unattractive, ridiculous and prohibitively expensive clothes and accessories, Vogue isn’t about fashion: it’s about stoking the desire for those clothes and accessories. It’s about the creation of lust and the transformation of wants into needs. Almost everything in this temple of consumption, including its lavish layouts and the celebrities who now most often adorn its covers, hinges on stuff for sale. Some of that stuff comes with a price tag, but some of it is more ephemeral because Vogue is also in the aspiration business. Mr. Cutler doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about any of that, which makes his movie as facile as it is fun.

Given this, it’s no surprise that Ms. Wintour is doing her part to flog the documentary: she gave a party in its honor and recently appeared on David Letterman’s show, with and without her signature sunglasses, her glazed stare and tight smile firmly in place. The movie affords you many opportunities to marvel at the parsimony of that smile and wonder if she’s as bored as she looks, even while waiting for an agitated Stefano Pilati, the creative director at Yves Saint Laurent, to show his newest collection.

“That’s pretty,” she says, in a voice so drained of affect it’s a wonder he doesn’t commit seppuku with his scissors. You feel bad for Mr. Pilati, but it’s Ms. Wintour’s hauteur that makes you laugh and keeps you willingly at her side.

“The September Issue” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some understandably nasty words.

The September Issue

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by R. J. Cutler; director of photography, Bob Richman; edited by Azin Samari; music by Craig Richey; produced by Mr. Cutler, Eliza Hindmarch and Sadia Shepard; released by Roadside Attractions. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes.

Think the boss in The Devil Wears Prada was a total monster? Well she was even scarier in real life

She was the girl who wrote the book which became the film. She had Anne Hathaway playing her, Meryl Streep playing her tyrannical boss, and a world aghast at the, let's face it, sheer ghastliness of what life was really like in the fickle world of fashion magazines.
If revenge is sweet, then for Lauren Weisberger it was a double spoonful as her debut novel catapulted into the New York Times' bestseller list, was translated into 27 different languages and sold to 31 countries, before the film adaptation went on to gross more than $300 million worldwide.
The Devil Wears Prada was the story of a young girl, fresh out of university, working in New York as an assistant to a fashion magazine editor who possessed a frosty leadership style.
When she wrote it, Lauren had just left her job after 11 months as an assistant to American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who possesses such a frosty leadership style she is known as Nuclear Wintour.
Seven years on and Lauren still looks a touch shell-shocked by the commotion she caused. 'I don't think anyone can ever be prepared for that level of attention,' she says.
'I was just excited that someone wanted to publish the book and that I could tell my family they could actually buy it in a store. But for it to sell and have it made into a film, too, was a complete whirlwind for which I wasn't prepared.'
Tall with coltish limbs and long blonde hair, 33-year-old Lauren does not physically resemble the darkly beautiful Hathaway. But wearing the tiniest trace of makeup, she looks like she's just stepped out of a Gap advert.
She plonks herself down at the table in the cool but not-too-cool Pastis restaurant in New York's Meatpacking District, looking most definitely not a part of the high-gloss Devil Wears Prada world.
Her jeans and sweater have been selected on the basis of comfort rather than label and the only vestige of the high fashion world she briefly inhabited comes in the shape of the Chanel sunglasses perched on her head.
She corrects the assumption that Hathaway was playing her  -  'she was playing Andy, the character in my book'  -  but the parallels between Lauren's tenure on Vogue (in 1999 and 2000) and Andy's stint on the fictional Runway magazine are too delicious to ignore.
In The Devil Wears Prada, Andy Sachs, a smalltown girl, lands a job as PA to Miranda Priestly (played by Streep).
Miranda  -  the stick-thin, steak-eating editor of top-selling New York fashion magazine Runway  -  is by turns capricious, thoughtlessly cruel, wildly extravagant and demanding, dismissing minions not with a 'Thank you' but with an abrupt: 'That's all.'
So terrifying is she that no one will ride in the lift with her and she issues impossible demands to her brow-beaten (though immaculately attired) staff.
As her new assistant, Andy forms a friendship of sorts with Miranda's senior assistant Emily (played by Emily Blunt) and though her job is fraught (the endless latte runs to Starbucks in high heels; the constant worrying about her weight when compared to the sylph-like beauties who populate the office), Andy also benefits from the perks of the job such as taking her pick of the designer clothes in Runway's heaving fashion cupboard.
When Emily gets sick, it is Andy whom Miranda commandeers to accompany her to the prestigious Paris fashion shows. But after realising that the more she has blended into Runway's world the further she has moved away from her real life, in particular her boyfriend, Andy gives up her job and, in that highly American fashion, becomes true to herself once more.
Though Lauren has over the years remained tight-lipped about her time working at Vogue for Anna Wintour (stick-thin, steak-eating and with a nickname like Nuclear Wintour, probably not the chummiest of bosses to work for), today she is in a more relaxed mode.
'It wasn't a one-to-one portrayal [of Wintour],' she says. 'But of course my time at Vogue informed the book, there's no denying that.'
Lauren, like Andy, would never have dreamed of getting in the lift with her boss, and though terribly slim, she still felt dumpy next to her pin-thin Vogue colleagues, saying: 'I knew I was tall and thin, but I was short and fat there.'
Where she differed from Andy was that she 'never got to raid the closet because I never had time, although the other girls did and they wore the most fabulous things to parties. And I never went to Paris. French Vogue provided Anna with assistants when she was over there.
'And unlike Andy I couldn' t force myself to wear high heels. It was expected of me, but I ran all day, all over the office, up and down the building 1,000 times and to Starbucks six times a day, so there was no way I could manage even a 2in heel.
I wore these horrible, black platform boots with a thick rubber sole because there was no choice. And even though for a couple of weeks I made the boot-to-high-heels switch under my desk, I just had to forget it in the end. She would stare at them in disgust and it was a stare that conveyed her displeasure pretty clearly.'
The 'she', in this instance, is pretty self-explanatory.
'People have said it was "boss betrayal", but that wasn't what it was. I worked there for a year and it was a hell of a year  -  crazy, exciting and hard.
'I left the job to work for a travel magazine and took a writing class at night. I'd had this crazy work experience which not a lot of people had had, so I wanted to write all the stuff down that was in my head. I hadn't even intended for it to be a book.
'When it was published, people kept saying "It's so brave of you to write this", but it wasn't bravery  -  it was stupidity and complete naivety. I didn't think anyone would read it, let alone have an opinion on it. Had I known about all the fuss that would ensue, I would have been paralysed. But people attributed things to the book that I hadn't intended.'
Still, her tenure at Vogue certainly provided Lauren with ample writing material. 'The strangest thing about my time there? Wow, how can I pick?' she grins.
' How they believed it was acceptable to show their midriff in the workplace and how they'd come in to work wearing leather trousers, stiletto heels and furry tops [Lauren, it must be said, hails from rural Pennsylvania].
'They wore the most outrageous outfits and even though they all
looked fabulous in them, it was hard to think of any other corporation where that would have been acceptable. They'd go to the filing cabinet dripping in jewels and even though I was there for almost a year, that aspect of the job continued to amaze me.'
Was there ever any comeback from Wintour or her people?
'No, not a thing. But what sent the biggest message of all was that silence. The book was getting so much hype and so much publicity, but not a single Conde Nast publication [Vogue is published by Conde Nast] mentioned a word  -  not my name, the title, anything, and that pretty much told me where they stood on that.'
So popular was The Devil Wears Prada that when The September Issue  -  a film documentary following the real goings-on at American Vogue  -  was released last year, many believed that Anna Wintour had only agreed to be the subject of the film in order to mitigate the reputation she had acquired since Devil.
The September Issue showed Wintour opening her doors and  -  shocker!  -  smiling. 'And it was a surprise to me, too, when I saw the movie,' says Lauren, 'because I did not see those things when I was there.
'I went to see it with my husband and it was amazing how much everything looked the same, even though I hadn't worked there for years. Anna's office looked the same and the people were the same  -  so much so that I started getting cold sweats from the flashbacks! I was shaking by the time I left the cinema!'
She says the book's success gave her the opportunity to write full time. Her new novel, Last Night At Chateau Marmont, out this week, is an equally zippy read.
It follows the fortunes of a young couple whose lives change when the husband, for years a struggling musician, hits the big time, leaving his wife to cope not only with the change in dynamic of their relationship, but also with the emergence of an incriminating photo featuring her husband and a young girl.
It is a dynamic Lauren is unfamiliar with personally (she has been married to playwright Mike Cohen for two years and they are expecting their first child in December): 'But I'm an avid reader of gossip magazines and I've always wondered what it feels like for the spouse in that kind of relationship, when they themselves aren't famous.'
The 'civilian' in the relationship must get quizzed constantly about their spouse in much the same way Lauren is constantly asked about The Devil Wears Prada, 'but I can't be anything but flattered by that,' she adds graciously.
'The movie brought it to a new level and even though as a writer you're not supposed to like how they interpret your story on film, I loved it and thought it was spot-on.
Anne Hathaway was just wonderful and Meryl Streep, well, what can you say? I hadn't envisaged her originally  - not that I had envisaged anyone for the role  -  but she was as good as it gets.'
Lauren even got to film a teeny cameo in The Devil Wears Prada as the nanny to Miranda's twins  -  a cameo she admits now she is 'hard-pressed to locate after several viewings'. 'But I was on set all the time during the making of the film and they were very inclusive,' she says, 'even giving me a chair with my name on it. It was such a once-in-a-lifetime thing and so removed from my normal life.
'I'm the type of person who watches American Idol in my pyjamas. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me.'
Before the film was released, Lauren and Anna Wintour attended the same preview screening, 'I was blissfully unaware until people told me afterwards. Honestly though, I do not exist in her world.
'We don't travel in the same circles, we don't run into each other and she would not be able to pick me out from a crowd of three. And I'm very, very comfortable with that.'
And what would Lauren say to Wintour should they ever bump into one another? She smiles slowly and says nothing. What more, quite frankly, needs to be said?

Art imitates life: The parallels between Lauren's tenure on Vogue (in 1999 and 2000) and Andy's stint on the fictional Runway magazine are too delicious to ignore

Nuclear: Lauren spent 11 months as an assistant to American Vogue editor Anna Wintour

The September Issue: Anna Wintour unmasked in The 'real' Devil Wear's Prada
Fearsome American Vogue editor, Anna 'Nuclear' Wintour allowed director RJ Cutler unprecedented access to film what really happens at the world's top fashion magazine.
Truth, it is sometimes said, is stranger than fiction. When it comes to Anna Wintour, the fearsome editor-in- chief of American Vogue, that is most certainly the case. Does anyone remember The Devil Wears Prada, the movie adaptation of the novel about life at a New York fashion magazine, in which Meryl Streep played the despotic editor who reduced her staff to jelly, tears and occasionally, nervous breakdowns? Written by Wintour's former assistant Lauren Weisberger, everybody thought it was based on her old boss, who has been at the helm of the magazine since 1988. But nobody really believed that it was a true depiction of her. Surely Wintour - or Nuclear Wintour, as she is often referred to - wasn't that bad? Surely Streep's character was just a gross Hollywood exaggeration?
It would seem not. For Wintour, 59, has taken the unusual step of letting cameras film a documentary about the magazine the New York Times once described as being "to our era what the idea of God was, in Voltaire's famous parlance, to his: if it didn't exist, we would have to invent it."
The result is The September Issue, a riveting and brilliant film that makes The Devil Wears Prada look like an episode of The Care Bears. The cameras follow British-born Wintour and her army of editors for much of 2007, as they create the biggest edition of the fashion year (the September issue, which that year had 840 pages, an incredible 727 of which were adverts).
Until this week, when it premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, only a handful of fashion insiders had been allowed to watch the 88-minute film. They had all been sworn to secrecy. For months the internet has been awash with speculation about the documentary, which earned director RJ Cutler a grand jury nomination at this year's Sundance festival. The excitement surrounding it was enough for me to travel all the way to Scotland to watch it.
It follows Wintour around the shows - she famously once got Milan fashion week moved to fit into her schedule - and proves that she doesn't just run a magazine: she runs all of fashion. When she meets the head designer at Yves Saint Laurent - a man we must presume to be reasonably powerful - she is disparaging enough of his collection for him to become flustered and rethink it; she has no qualms in asking Prada to "re-interpet" some of their designs. She does all of this in her trademark giant dark sunglasses, precision-bobbed hair and Chanel suit, a look that has not changed for years. Wintour may influence fashion, but she clearly considers herself to be above it.
Anna - or Ahhnna, as her staff refer to her - does not talk very much. There are only a few occasions when she speaks directly to camera; her permanent poker face says more about her than she ever could (tellingly she admits in her trans-atlantic drawl that she admired her father, Charles, a former editor of the London Evening Standard, because he was "inscrutable").
She throws out a shoot that cost $50,000 because she doesn't like it. When a stylist asks why the pictures of a model in a rubber outfit have been removed from a story about "texture", the art director replies that for Anna, rubber is not a texture. Another staff member picks out a jacket from a rail and wonders out loud if her boss would like it, before thinking better of it. "No, of course she won't. It's black. I could get fired for that."
Meanwhile, the magazine's publisher, Thomas Florio, when asked about Wintour's steeliness, has this to say: "She's just not accessible to people she doesn't need to be accessible to. She isn't warm, because she's busy."
"It's like belonging to a church," says Candy Pratts Price, who runs the Vogue website.
"And Anna is the High Priestess?" asks the director.
"I would say she is more like the Pope."
Despite Wintour's all dominating presence in the Vogue offices, she is surrounded by a cast of colourful characters. There is Andre Leon Talley, her editor-at-large, a portly man who plays tennis in top-to-toe Louis Vuitton and complains of "a famine of beauty". Then there is Grace Coddington, a former model who also hails from the UK and started at the magazine the same day as Anna and is now her number two. With wild red hair and not a scrap of make-up on her face, Coddington could not be more different to Wintour. Their relationship is intriguing. Coddington is perhaps the only person who stands up to Wintour (staff members really do scatter out of her way, and when one designer meets her, his hands are shaking) and Wintour clearly respects her for that. At the end of the film, the editor-in-chief reluctantly concedes that she could not live without Coddington.
The September Issue must be the only film in which Sienna Miller is reduced to a bit part. As a Hollywood A-lister and the magazine's cover girl, you might think that the staff of Vogue would treat her with the appropriate reverence, but instead Wintour complains that her hair is "lacklustre", that she is too "toothy" and that you can see her fillings in the pictures. Even Mario Testino, one of the world's most famous fashion photographers, is not spared the wrath of Wintour. When his photographs of Miller in Rome arrive, she is not impressed by the selection. "Where are the shots of her outside the Colosseum?" Wintour asks.
"Mario didn't like the Colosseum," says an assistant, and you half expect Wintour to demand that it is rebuilt.
So how on earth did director RJ Cutler get Wintour to agree to be filmed? "This will come as a shock to you," says Cutler, "but all I had to do was ask." Cutler produced The War Room, the 1993 documentary about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Who was more frightening? Neither, he says. Did she like it? "I think it would be fair to say that she would have made a different film to the one I did." Did she meddle? "Of course she did - she's Anna Wintour. But at Sundance she said 'I made many suggestions to RJ - but let's face it, it's his film.' I respect her for that."
They are still in touch. "She is astounding really," continues Cutler. "She is like an historical figure that walks amongst us. I always explain her this way: you can make a film without Steven Spielberg's blessing, you can produce some software without Bill Gates' blessing, but you can't get into fashion without Anna Wintour's blessing."
Some have suggested that this may be Wintour's last year as Editor-in-Chief at American Vogue; the September Issue would certainly serve as a supreme act of self-commemoration. But, for a documentary about fashion, there is a surprising poignancy to it. On the surface Wintour may seem ice cool, but her demeanour is underpinned by a deep insecurity. She says that "people are frightened of fashion - because it scares them they put it down. They mock it because they are not part of it." Her siblings all have serious jobs - one of her brothers is the political editor of the Guardian - and she thinks that "they are very amused by what I do." She looks pretty grim-faced as she says this.
Wintour has never struck me as the kind of person who would seek acceptance from anyone - she leads, everyone follows - and yet here we see her desperately craving acceptance from her family. It is sad; touching even. At one point we meet her charming daughter Bee, who wants to go into Law, despite her mother's keenness that she should become an editor. "Some of the people in there [the Vogue office] act as if fashion is life," says Bee to the camera at one point. "And I know that it is really fun, and amusing. But there are other things out there."
Deep down, her mother would most probably agree.

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