The September Issue was released in 2009 to great fanfare because it had breached the doors at US Vogue and revealed that yes, indeed, they do photoshop anything deemed unattractive off a person before putting the pictures in the magazine. Last week I saw the September issue in my “recommended” bin on Netflix. I scrolled through it and landed on a frame of Grace Coddington. She was unlike anything else I had seen associated with the film. I was immediately intrigued by her wild red mane. Then she was speaking. Eloquent, genuine, she seemed. I rewound to the beginning and watched the entire film. Grace Coddington left me giddy, inspired, and charmed.
The September Issue chronicles how the magazine prepares the most important issue of the year. Grace Coddington who has been working at Vogue for over 30 years is a creative director. While everyone else in the film looked frazzled, timorous and generally like they were about to throw up into the camera, Coddington was cool as an English summer day. She worked hard at the preparation stage, enjoyed the shoots with the photographers and models, and then she defended her work with a quiet ferocity that I found thrilling and adult. She did not pitch a fit when something was cut. She expressed her dismay but then she rallied and did something spectacular, with which no one could argue.
Her pages are simply amazing. She published a 700 USD book that I would buy if I could afford it! The clothes are fabulous, the models are poised, but what sets her pages apart is the mood and narrative she weaves into the costumes. She develops a story with each frame. A film in still photographs.
Perhaps her most ingenious spread that September was the one she shot two days before the issue closed. She was told to reshoot the Color Blocking Spread and, in a flash of genius, she decides to use the camera crew in the shoot. She shot the models as they are being captured by the photographers. She gives the viewer the glamour, the beauty, and the backstory of how it’s put together all in one take. A kind of documentary about the making of the photos. Genius. Then, she asked the editors not to airbrush the cameramen because she thought their flaccid girth added realism to the shots.
When Grace travels with Anna to Paris for Couture fashion shows, she seems completely disinterested in the glitz. Instead she looks out of her taxi window hoping to glimpse real life that might inspire her. She walks through the parks at Versailles like a Victorian heroin on the frozen grounds of her lonely castle. She wraps herself in her black sweater. Her flaming red hair, wild in the wind. She says “I think I got left behind somewhere because I am still a romantic. You can’t look back. You have to charge ahead…” And ahead she marches as she stages a remarkable photoshop in the Versailles palace. She manages to make a gaudy set – overwrought fer forgé, Baroque wall paintings, everything in a shade of gold over a slightly different shade of gold – look like a mere background because she puts the emphasis on the model’s expressions. Suddenly she is not frozen in the 18th century. She is alive before us, intrigued, fatigued, bored, caged perhaps in her golden coop.
The filmmakers capture interesting details that reveal the subject’s personalities without having to ask them questions. Grace orders pies for the model, urges her to eat, and worries about whether she can breathe in the tightly pulled bodice. It’s incredible that with everything that she must juggle she remains so grounded, so human and her creativity remains unalloyed. She is a woman of transcendent creative powers.
Looking like a character from a Klimt painting with her long loud explosive red mane, Coddington has a quiet confidence about her that shoots through all the bullshit. She is frank, determined and honest. She is fair with Anna Wintour whom she sees a great strategist. Grace is concerned with the art of the spreads.
It’s unclear what concerns Anna. As an editor she has to please a board and that must be something that weighs on her mind as much as the artistic content of the magazine. She is not a liberal talker. She answers the questions but offers no elaboration. The most revelatory sequence is one where she is unhappy with a spread of pictures from Rome and you see her wilt from her anger. She tries to control herself, she says. I feel like she probably has a soft core but maybe that’s for another film. She admits that her children are her weakness. And, she looks mildly disappointed when her daughter tells the camera she does not want to be a fashion editor, that she believes that fashion is amusing but that there are more important things in life…And so there are.