As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book … without pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a documentary about the making of the September issue of Vogue leads me down a winding path.
The September Issue. Roadside Attractions. 2009.
This behind-the-scenes look at the making of the September 2007 issue of Vogue explores the process of putting together the magazine’s signature copy of the year as well as the life and character of the figure at its helm, editor in chief Anna Wintour. The film explores editorial sessions, the backstage work assembling outfits for each image, the elaborate shoots (including a less-than-successful cover shoot held in Italy), and the photo review sessions at which each page layout is determined. In addition to Wintour, viewers meet other editors, most notably Grace Coddington, Vogue’s Creative Director, who opposes Wintour frequently and whose work is largely responsible for the lavish and artistic look of the fashion spreads. Director R. J. Cutler focuses on the process of putting Vogue together, and the personalities behind it, by blending direct interviews of Wintour (and others commenting upon her) and footage of the daily grind at Vogue. The result is a remarkable mix of intimacy and distance that makes for compulsive viewing. Cutler keeps the pace quick with episodic plotting and offers viewers lush visual details: of clothes, photo spreads, and a wide assortment of spaces (including cities, offices, and houses). Perhaps most notably, Cutler’s film is scrupulously straightforward in its characterizations. The powers at Vogue, and Grace reminds us that there is indeed more than one, are not stereotyped in his film but instead are left to reveal one another. The end result is a rather wistful and enigmatic portrait.
Bill Cunningham New York. Zeitgeist Films. 2010.
Fans of Cutler’s film should be directed to Press’s documentary of another fashion icon, Bill Cunningham. Cunningham is a photographer and columnist for the New York Times, but to say that is akin to saying Andy Warhol is simply a painter. Cunningham is an institution, a hard-working figure that can be found on the streets of NYC taking photos of any one who catches his eye. His images appear every Sunday in the Style section of the New York Times as Cunningham captures real-world fashion with an amazingly rich and expansive sensibility. Press follows Cunningham around the city streets by day, into the rarefied domain of lavish charity parties at night, to the fashion shows of Paris, and most revealingly, into Cunningham’s New York Times office and his tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall. Press interviews a number of people for perspective, but wisely leaves it up to Cunningham to be his own biographer, which he manages with great discretion and charm. Like Cutler, Press has created a film rich in visual detail, with a similar episodic structure, engrossing pace, and straightforward characterization. The two films also share the same mix of interviews and while-it-is-happening filming that helps create an intriguing mix of intimacy and distance. Cunningham emerges as a wistful, earnest, and charming man and this film about his life is a heart-felt treasure. Viewers who want to see more of Cunningham’s work can be pointed to his two columns in the Times “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” as well as his online videos.
Valentino: The Last Emperor. Acolyte Films. 2009.
From the first frame of this behind-the-scenes documentary, viewers sink into the luxuriant world of Valentino as director Matt Tyrnauer follows the haute couture designer to his fashion show in Paris and his 45th-anniversary extravaganza in Rome. Like Cutler’s film, Tyrnauer’s is also rich in visual detail, indeed it brims over with the glorious dresses of Valentino’s entire career – from red sheaths to white goddess dresses edged in glitter – as well as street shots of Paris and Rome, Valentino’s numerous houses, and the madness behind the stage at his fashion shows. The film largely follows the same format as The September Issue, and mixes photos, interviews, and behind-the-scenes shots. It also shares much of the same aesthetic as it is similarly straight forward in its characterizations, manages the blend of intimacy and distance well, and has an episodic and engrossing pace. However, it is a much more exuberant film because unlike Wintour, Valentino and his partner Giancarlo Giammetti are not reserved. In hilarious asides Valentino rejects Giammetti’s hints that he might want to tan less and that his stomach is sticking out. Yet, while the mood of Tyrnauer’s work is largely upbeat, the glittering charm of Valentino’s world is undercut by the looming prospect of his company being sold once more, the result of which would mean he would lose a great deal of control. Given that this did occur, the film ends on the same wistful note as Cutler’s. For those who want to examine the designs of Valentino, suggest Valentino: Themes and Variations by Pamela Golbin.
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens. PBS. 2007.
This documentary biography follows Leibovitz from her start at Rolling Stone through her work for Vanity Fair and Vogue. Coming of age in the 1960s Leibovitz attended art school in San Francisco and fell into work at Rolling Stone where she became friends with Hunter S. Thompson and documented the rock-and-roll scene. Her iconic images of that period included the raw and piercing portraits of the Stones, John Lennon, and Patti Smith. Her move to Vanity Fair ushered in her glamour portraits, the statement shots of Donald Trump, George Clooney, and the pregnant and nude Demi Moore. Her fashion work for Vogue is featured as well, including Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette. However, the documentary does not just focus on the images for which Leibovitz is famous, but also delves beneath them to the life she has lived. In doing so it is a far more intimate experience than The September Issue even as the two share similar pacing, the mix of interviews and while-it-is-happening filming, and simply stunning visual detail. Viewers, who enjoyed Cutler’s film because it highlighted strong women creating the iconic images of our times, will find this film equally engrossing. Those wanting to see reproductions of Leibovitz’s photographs can be pointed to her collections such as Annie Leibovitz: Photographs 1970-1990, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, Annie Leibovitz at Work, and Pilgrimage.
The Devil Wears Prada. 20th Century Fox. 2006.
Viewers who want less objectivity about Wintour than Cutler’s scrupulously balanced documentary might want to turn to David Frankel’s film starring Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, and Stanley Tucci. While Streep creates her own version of a law-unto-herself-editor, the film is based on a novel that is widely assumed to be a thinly veiled account of Wintour and Vogue, written as it was by a former assistant to Wintour. The movie follows the beleaguered figure of a fresh-out-of school journalist who ends up taking a job at the most important fashion magazine in NYC. Not a whit interested in fashion, she must learn to navigate its glittering world to keep her job but finds that doing so extracts a huge toll. The movie is bright, funny, quickly paced, and includes many glamour sequences featuring lovely outfits, behind-the-scenes gossip, and details about the daily workings of a magazine very much like Vogue.
Sex and the City. New Line Cinema. 2008.
When it comes to fashion on screen few have matched the aesthetic of Carrie Bradshaw – with her ballerina dress, initial necklace, and luxury pocketbooks. The long running TV series overflows with style, but the movie also does a fine job highlighting everything from haute couture (the Vogue wedding dress fashion shoot is worth viewing on its own) to iconic dresses from past decades. The film, about four friends, their love lives, and deeply bonded friendship picks up where the series ends, and largely follows the TV series arc – with Carrie and Mr. Big settled in a relationship that breaks up in spectacular fashion and then reforms. For fashion junkies Carrie and company have long been the go-to-women around town. If a focus on clothes drives your viewers interests, you might also want to suggest other fashion filled films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Clueless, and the 2006 version of Marie Antoinette.
L’Amour Fou. Sundance Selects. 2009.
Cutler’s film might spark interest in fashion documentaries in general, and while there are any number of wonderful films (including Signé Chanel, Unzipped, and Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton), consider suggesting this elegiac remembrance of Yves Saint Laurent, narrated by Pierre Bergé, for its deeply reflective stance and insider take. The film traces Saint Laurent’s early and stratospheric success with Dior, the creation of his own house, his passion for art, and his long battle with depression. In French with English subtitles, the documentary features photographs, archival film footage, contemporary tours of the three main houses in which Bergé and Saint Laurent split time, and Bergé directly telling his story of Saint Laurent. Framing it all is the sale of the art and furnishings Saint Laurent and Bergé collected over 20 years. As viewers watch that collection being disassembled and auctioned off in a gala event at Christies, it creates the effect of watching Saint Laurent’s world, and therefore Bergé’s, fade away. For those who want to spend more time studying in detail the designs of YSL suggest Yves Saint Laurent by Florence Chenoune and Farid Muller.
Oliva, Alberto and Norberto Angeletti. In Vogue: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Fashion Magazine. Rizzoli. 2006. ISBN 9780847828647. $75.
If The September Issue created sustained interest in Vogue and the process of creating the magazine, then this lavishly illustrated volume makes great companion reading. In particular, the attention to the layout of the magazine, including editorial meetings and proof shots that did (and did not) make the issues offers further insight into how the magazine is created each month. Illustrations range from cover shots of the very first editions, the celebrity-infused style Wintour created, and stunning images taken by a who’s-who of photographers. But as richly illustrated as the book is, it is also full of essays that make for insightful reading, including one by Susan Sontag and others addressing the philosophy of Vogue’s various editors. Also suggest Vogue: The Covers by Dodie Kazanjian and Eve MacSweeney’s Vogue: The Editor’s Eye (out this October) and Nostalgia in Vogue. For those who focused on Grace Coddington, suggest her new book, Grace: A Memoir, out this November and, if you happen to already own a copy, as it is sadly OP, Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue.
Vreeland, Diana. D.V. Ecco. 2011. 208p. ISBN 9780062024404. pap. $16.99.
Diana Vreeland was the editor of Vogue during the birth of celebrity fashion in the early 1960’s through the start of the 70’s. Before that she worked at Harper’s Bazaar, writing the “Why Don’t You” column that suggested outlandish activities, before becoming Fashion Editor for the magazine. Like Wintour, her word was law in the fashion world and she helped create the careers of many fashion designers and gave Jackie Kennedy style advice. In her joyful and emphatic cross between an autobiography and an essay, her incandescent personality bursts forth in rambling, anecdote-filled stories and observations about fashion, style, and life. Readers who enjoy D.V. might also want to read Allure by Vreeland (which Jackie Kennedy Onassis persuaded her to write), Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, and Diana Vreeland by Eleanor Dwight. The website dedicated to Vreeland’s life and work is also a great resource for readers.
Bolton, Andrew. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Yale UP. 2011. 240p. ISBN 9780300169782. $50.
When it comes to fashion, few institutions have offered such a wide and extravagant view as The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This spectacular catalog for the 2011 McQueen exhibition is a grand example of the shows produced by the Institute. McQueen is known for his theatrical, innovative, and imaginative work and Bolton’s book opens with essays that places that work in context. Following the essays are stunning photos of McQueen’s clothes, both full shots and details, accompanied by quotes from McQueen on each garment. Bolton’s curatorial efforts in translating the exhibition to the page are exemplary and should help fill the demand The September Issue created to see the work of legendary fashion designers in more detail. Readers also might enjoy Chanel: The Vocabulary of Style by Jerome Gautier, Dior Couture by Ingrid Sischy with photographs by Patrick Demarchelier, Fashion History by Akkio Fukai, and The Sartorialist.
And finally, a coming attraction:
The documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel is due out on September 21st. It is the first full-length documentary about Vreeland and features her unique voice as well as a number of fashion insiders. It should be a wonderful compliment to many of the titles mentioned above. Check out the trailer.