In the delightful documentary Unzipped, Douglas Keeve chronicles a season in the life of Isaac Mizrahi in just 76 minutes. The film opens with the designer reading a morning-after savaging of his latest collection– “Certainly [Mizrahi’s] sense of how a modern woman dresses after 8pm failed him”, is how one member of the fashion press sums up the effort– and closes with the maestro’s 1994 fall collection, a triumph, that Women’s Wear Daily characterizes as “insane with color”. In fact, Isaac’s journey from death to resurrection is insane with joy. Punctuated by humor (his impersonations of Eartha Kitt and recall of lines from classic black & white films are flawless), lots of mother-love (Sarah Mizrahi— who is prone to calling her boy “My Isaac”– is his biggest and best cheerleader), and flat out wonder (a late-night viewing of Nanook of the North inspires Mizrahi to conceptualize a one piece faux-fur suit “that ladies could just slip on over their bra & panties… to walk the dog… on the Upper East Side, of course”) ‘Unzipped’ is a magic carpet ride that leaves audiences breathless. Yet, for all the times his job renders Mizrahi unhinged, when he confides that “even when it sucks, it’s worth it” we believe him. For Isaac, the process of giving women what they want is obviously a labor of love.
Love is also a recurring theme in Matt Tyrnauer’s 2008 documentary ‘Valentino: The Last Emperor’. Early in the film, Valentino Garavani confesses: “I love beauty… it’s not my fault”, and an unwavering devotion to beauty is evident in all aspects of the couturier’s world. From his mono-focus on the way a strip of fabric should float on an evening gown under construction, to the cut of his perfectly tailored suits… from the well-curated baroque interiors of his homes and offices around the world, to his dispatching staff to touch up sun-burned patches of grass with green paint… from his insistence that all bed linens (whether his own, or those being used in guest quarters) be pressed upon rising to ensure crisp sheets at bedtime, to his decree that each of his five pet pugs have their teeth brushed on a daily basis… this modern-day Sun King insists upon the creation and maintenance of beauty in all aspects of his life even as the cost of doing so threatens the bottom line at his couture house and, by extension, his own fiscal health. When the lights came up in the theater where I first watched this 96-minute-long celebration of 45 years of creative genius I felt like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. Sure, my coach had turned back into a pumpkin and the footmen were scampering off– as mice will– but, even though it was over, I was so grateful to have been to the ball. As the very sound of his name suggests: Valentino is a slave to love, and to share his company is to experience that love.
When The September Issue opened yesterday, I rushed to the first screening looking for more of the love that underpins all great fashion stories. Trailers for R.J. Cutler’s documentary on Anna Wintour promised to humanize the editor-in-chief who is credited with ushering Vogue into the 21st century and notorious for being the quintessential boss-from-hell. On a personal note, I was eager to revisit some of the people who’d helped launch my modeling career years ago: including Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington and photographer Patrick Demarchalier, long-time collaborators who are also featured in The September Issue. Exposure to them, as well as Mizrahi, Valentino and countless others in the industry taught me that there’s truth to the old saw “if you love what you’re doing, it won’t feel like work.” How to explain, then, that sitting through a documentary about the creation of 7th Avenue’s annual fashion bible felt like… work? And that in spite of her dream-like business setting, beautiful clothes & accessories, round-the-clock pampering and proximity to some of the greatest talent in the image-making business– Wintour manages to make her life’s work look… laborious? One hour into this 90-minute production had me checking the time, wondering “Are we there yet?” Thirty minutes later, as the credits began to roll, my only question was “Where is the love?”
The September Issue starts off on a very promising note, where we find Wintour sitting before an enormous picture window, backlit by sunshine pouring into her country home. She’s looking directly into the camera as she zeros in on an ugly truth about the business of beauty. “There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous”, she says. The ultimate insider goes on to share her theory that people often turn away from fashion because they see it as an exclusive, inaccessible, out-of-reach club to which they’ll never be admitted. Summing up, Wintour cautions that it would be a mistake to dismiss anyone who likes beautiful things as lacking depth, because the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. By far, the most honest passage in the film, it’s also note-worthy because we get to Wintour unmasked, literally. Minus her signature over-sized sunglasses, Anna’s large, green eyes belie her reputation for being ruthless and cold-blooded. On the contrary, they telegraph a warmth and vulnerability that’s almost disarming. Then, just when you think it might be safe to dive into her world and splash around for fun, the water turns icy.
Once Wintour returns to town and gets back to business, the ubiquitous blackout shades resume their rightful perch on her nose, the precision bob practically seems to close in on her narrow face, and her sinewy arms entwine and lock across her chest. Except for one scene in which she has to charm retailers (i.e. potential advertisers), Wintour barely makes eye contact when speaking with others, and has a dismissive way of addressing even the people she likes and supports. She rarely cracks a smile, clearly intimidates underlings who shrink in her company and has a body language that is rigid, hunched and guarded. Though diminutive in stature, watching her in action brings to mind a cautionary phrase from London tube because everything about Wintour’s posture shouts: “Mind the Gap!” Quel bummer.
The great lie perpetuated by reality shows like ‘Project Runway’, ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and ‘American Idol’ is that creative genius can flourish in the midst of unrelenting criticism, public humiliation and fear. But, in my experience, the opposite is true. The most memorable images emerge when photographers, stylists, art directors, make-up artists, hair stylists and models do everything in their power to bring out the best in one another. Collaboration and trust are essential. More often than not, successful shoots happen on the most playful sets where music is pumping, theatricality and imagination are encouraged, experimentation is applauded and attitudes are checked at the door. Everything I know and love about the process stands in stark contrast to the way Wintour— inscrutable, unreadable and remote– conducts herself.
Though we see far too little of him, Andre Leon Talley more than makes up for Wintour’s lack of soul. Talley is editor-at-large at Vogue, and a media darling who can be counted on to contribute fresh insights and instant-classic sound bites to any story having to do with fashion or popular culture. Whether in print, or on film, Talley’s larger than life persona comes across loud and clear– and he does not disappoint this time around. He gives The September Issue it’s first shot of adrenaline the moment he appears, bellowing: “THERE IS A FAMINE OF BEAUTY!!!” to Vera Wang in one memorable exchange. His tone carries a gravitas worthy of a CDC warning about the spread of the H1N1 virus, and while over the top, Talley gets our attention because it’s clear that he’s speaking from the heart. An unrepentant clothes horse, Talley has never met a caftan or designer label he didn’t love to flaunt, and his emergence from a chauffeur-driven car at a tennis court, accessorized to the nines with Louis Vuitton, Piaget and Polo, provides much needed comic relief. Still, it’s a pity Cutler didn’t look to Talley for more than site gags and bravura because, the one-time mentee of the late, great Dianna Vreeland possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and is a scholar nonpareil on the subject.
At the other end of the spectrum is Coddington: the peerless editor who’s rightfully being hailed as the true star of The September Issue. From her frizzy red mane to her sensible Teva-like sandals, she is a walking anomaly. Grace may speak softly, but she carries a big stick in the hallowed halls of Vogue. Yet her power does not derive from rattling sabers with anyone or anything. A sure-footed doyenne who is no slave to fashion, Grace simply understands what lies at the heart of great style, and the pictures that result from this love affair are legendary. Though she describes herself as “more of a visual person and less of a talker” she, thankfully, steps out of character long enough to shed some light on how she’s avoided becoming jaded after 40-years as a magazine editor (first at British Vogue, then, since 1988, at American Vogue). Back in the 70’s, she reveals, Norman Parkinson told her “always keep your eyes open.” The celebrated English fashion and portrait photographer went so far as to caution Coddington against falling asleep “even while riding in cars… lest you miss something important… something that might inspire you.” Fortunately, Parkinson’s lesson– that there is no limit to the human heart’s capacity for falling in love, again and again… as long as we pay attention– did not fall upon deaf ears. As Coddington tells the tale, she is standing in the center of a formal Parisian garden, moved nearly to tears as she takes in the beauty all around her. It’s a wonderful metaphor for how she lives her life– this ability to see Paris, as if for the very first time, even if she’s been there a thousand times before.
So… if Coddington is the heart of Vogue magazine, and Tally its soul… then where does that leave Wintour? If an entire documentary devoted to the woman can’t answer that question, then how the heck should I know? I spent an hour-and-a-half of my precious time trying to figure out what excites her, brings her to tears and moves her– and came away with more nada than Prada. I was so starved for information that simply learning her favorite color would have felt revelatory. I can tell you, however, that watching Wintour reminded me of those sad little bubbles that depict depression in TV commercials for Zoloft. And just like those bubbles (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vfSFXKlnO0), Wintour appears lost and dejected with her own fat, little rain cloud threatening to burst over her head at any second. The only difference between her and the Zoloft bubble, is that the bubble actually has the power to elicit emotion and empathy. (No matter how many times I watch those commercials my spirit soars every time the little dude gets his mojo back and goes bouncing off into the sunset with a smile on his puss!) Not so with the Ice Queen; which may reflect as great a failure on the parts of the filmmakers as that of their frosty subject.
I guess the million dollar question is why devote so much footage to the empress when she’s not wearing any clothes? Was The September Issue meant to soften the image-hit Wintour took over her characterization in The Devil Wears Prada? (If so, she should have left well enough alone. At least Meryl Streep’s portrayal was spirited, arch, fun, multi-dimensional, nuanced, sympathetic and too-chic-for-words. A vast improvement over the real deal: it was a gift from the fashion gods.) And what was Cutler thinking? Did he buy into the big lie that in order to be relevant in fashionable circles one has to be affected, aloof and obnoxious?Could he not see through the big lie that Wintour surely tells herself everyday? The one she’s in the business of selling to a gullible public: that she is on par with the designers, photographers, editors and other highly creative people who make her look like a genius? If so, please add Unzipped and Valentino to your NetFlix queue, Mr. Cutler, and study those masterpieces to find out what creativity really looks like. Those flicks are timeless, not because of the Sex & the City-worthy profusion of exquisite clothes, shoes and accessories on display, but because the people at the heart of the stories have a point of view that is manifest through their design. It’s also worth noting that a little charm goes a long way in life, no matter where you work.
Too bad Wintour never got that memo, because if she had, The September Issue might not have felt so passé.