wonkawintour

Whenever anyone says they don’t care for fashion I think of Meryl Streep as an ash blond, looking down her nose – and I wish (like Woody Allen with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall) I could just call out Streep from the crowd to give her speech.

In The Devil Wears Prada, Streep plays Miranda Priestley, the figure based on US Vogue‘s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. This is one of the early exchanges she has with her new PA, Andy Sachs, whom Priestley has perversely selected because Sachs has admitted her ambition to be a “serious” journalist:

[Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy sniggers because she thinks they look exactly the same.]

Miranda: ‘Something funny?’

Andy: ‘No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.’

Miranda: ‘This… ‘stuff’? Oh… ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?  … And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.’

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After finance, fashion is the second biggest industry in New York, employing 175,000 people. And Anna Wintour, apparently, has sat on top of the $300 billion global industry for 20 years. As RJ Cutler, who made the new documentary about Vogue, The September Issue*, explains it in the Guardian:

‘Anna is fundamentally telling these men what to put on their shelves. She’s sitting there as minister of fashion for the world … and declaring what we shall wear. You not only see her advising Neiman Marcus on what to buy, but you see her selecting the designers who will design for Gap and the clothes they will design.’

The doco doesn’t get around to telling you very much about the fashion industry or its economics, and never displays the brilliant rhetoric of The Devil Wears Prada. But here at least, for a tight 90 minutes, life is more compelling than art (or, maybe because it has been edited into art). What it dwells on is the figure of Wintour and how it’s like to work in the Vogue office and talk about fashion all day. Wintour, who is as thin and well preserved as the Duchess of Windsor, will be 60 in November. She is very, very cool. As her publisher Tom Florio said, ‘Anna doesn’t do warm. I’ll have to be warm enough of the two of us.’ Anna is so cool she has banned the colour black, any size over 6** and anyone but rich from her magazine.

gc1What the film also discovers is Wintour’s other half – in several senses – at the magazine, the creative director Grace Coddington. Grace is hot, flaming. RJ Cutler again: ‘Coddington was scary. She’s the second scariest person in the world. The day I met Grace Coddington, the first thing she said to me was “go away”. She threatened to quit [Vogue] … I eventually managed to say to her: “give us one chance, then maybe you’ll give us a second chance” – and that’s what happened.’ Which was a good thing because she proves to be the soul of US Vogue.

Grace, who is nearing 70 (the irony of the elderly dictating the world of fashion!), looks like the wilder sister of Viviene Westwood, with her mane of frizzy red hair, her shapeless black (rebellious black!) dresses, and her flat pumps. Her freckled, makeup-free former model face with its car-accident scars is a grand wreck, hovering somewhere between noble and ugly. Seeing the results of her “Paris ’20s” shoot (shot in NYC ), or watching her direct the “Couture” shoot in Versailles, it’s hard not to marvel at what she has wrought. The celebrated names may be those of the photographers Patrick Demarchelier or Mario Testino, but as the film documents, the real artist is Grace. (After the film, my 87-year-old father-in-law was moved to exclaim, ‘The photography is beautiful!’) And like an artist, Grace is not so easily restrained. She is the only one in the film who speaks her mind and pushes back on Wintour, and that includes people like YSL’s designer, Stefano Pilati, who is reduced to a grimacing wreck. (After he tries prevaricating for a few seconds at a private showing, Wintour flatly interrupts: ‘Can we start now? Where’s the eveningwear?’ And seeing the all black and grey collection, ‘You’re not feeling colour?’)

Having given the film the go-ahead, Wintour remains still and tight-lipped. But having eventually accepted the film crew Grace is frank. ‘I think we understand each other,’ she says of Wintour – they started at US Vogue on the same day. ‘She knows I’m stubborn. I know she’s stubborn. I know when to stop pushing her. [pause] She doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.’

What I thought of the movie after leaving the cinema is again best expressed by the director: ‘Really, this is a story about two women, using the world of fashion as a background. Throughout the film, you see the collision between them: there is Grace, the person with the art and the craft, and there is Anna, who has the vision of the business. It takes Anna until the last possible second of our documentary, but she then acknowledges that she and Grace couldn’t do without each other.’ It is then that the witholding Anna calls Grace a “genius”.

One wonders whether Wintour will regret her odd moments of vulnerability. As when she lets on that her two brothers and her sister – involved in journalism, housing for the poor and trade unionism – find her job “amusing”. As when her clearly beloved daughter, Bee, says to camera, ‘Some of those people act as if fashion is life. I know that it is really fun and amusing. But there are other things out there.’ Bee is studying to be a lawyer. How comical, how amusing.

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*The September Issue, because the big issue in fashion happens in September. ‘September is the January in fashion,’ says an editor. The issue in the doco, the September 2007 edition, turned out to the biggest in Vogue‘s 114-year history at 840 pages … of which 725 pages were ads (86%). The September 2009 edition is a diet-lite 584 pages, of which 427 are ads (73%).

**In a 60 Minutes interview  Wintour said: ‘I’d just been on a trip to Minnesota, where I can only kindly describe most of the people I saw as little houses. There’s such an epidemic of obesity in the United States, and for some reason, everybody focuses on anorexia.’

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The great Meryl/Miranda speech in The Devil Wears Prada:

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