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‘September Issue’ finds the heart and fun in high fashion

‘The September Issue’

Rated PG-13

Grade: A

Now Showing - Landmark Hillcrest, AMC La Jolla 12

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“There is something about fashion that can make people nervous,” explains Anna Wintour, the much revered and feared editor-in-chief of American Vogue Magazine. “It makes them feel excluded.” These are the first words we hear from the legendary Wintour in “The September Issue,” a new documentary that is the first to go behind the scenes of this iconic fashion magazine.

Exclusiveness is, in fact, the entire point of high fashion and Wintour proudly leads the charge both on the pages of Vogue and on her own tiny frame, which is always impeccably dressed and topped off with an angular bob hairdo that tightly frames her pinched face. This insistence upon exclusivity is one reason why so many “normal” people scoff at the fashion world where feathers and fur are discussed with as much seriousness as health care reform and Afghanistan.

Director R.J. Cutler is well aware of the mainstream audience’s likely cynical view of fashionistas like Wintour. But instead of trying to convince them of why they should take it seriously, Cutler playfully exploits the inherent silliness of the industry and, in the process, introduces us to a cast of real-life characters that you can’t help but connect with – whether you like them or not.

You must, of course, begin with Anna herself. A woman whose last name need not even be uttered because, well, if you don’t know who they’re talking about, you have bigger problems. Anna rules with absolute power. One of her underlings has no problem comparing her to the Pope (and she isn’t kidding).

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We watch as Anna glides through Vogue’s hallways, arms crossed and often wearing sunglasses, flicking her eyes at clothing and layouts reverently held before her. She easily dismisses a colleague’s weeks of hard word with a quick blistering comment, then walks brusquely away to leave them to wallow in misery. Anna is the embodiment of pure, cold judgment; the girl you hated in high school, who could easily crush your soul with one small snub.

But there is some serious joy to be had in watching Anna make people squirm. Whether it’s her frazzled-looking editors (none of whom seem to find time for the fashion, makeup or hairstyles they spend their days touting), a designer as prominent as John Paul Gaultier, or the CEO of Neiman Marcus, they all desperately seek her approval – and rarely get it.

But she must be doing something right, having held her post for more than 20 years in a notoriously wicked industry. Her greatest accomplishment, we are told, was being the first to put celebrities on the covers of a fashion magazine. Although some purists feel this sounded the death knell of high fashion, everyone agrees that it was a brilliant business decision. Yet, even with starlets like Sienna Miller gallivanting around at photo shoots, Anna is still the biggest star there. Everyone else is merely a prop to wear the clothes and sell the magazine.

Not surprisingly, we learn very little about the real Anna underneath the ice queen. And I’m sure that’s no accident on her part. But the little bits that do peek through -- her daughter’s total disinterest in fashion, her siblings being “amused” by her career, her father’s control over her destiny – are enough to keep you intrigued. Plus, she wouldn’t be “Anna” if we knew what made her tick.

It’s through her longsuffering underlings that we learn what it’s like to live under the cold gaze of Anna Wintour. We meet Thakoon, an appreciative young designer being personally groomed for stardom by Anna herself. We romp on the tennis court with comical Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley, clad entirely in designer duds, who tells us he’s only exercising because Anna told him to.

But by far the most lovable character is Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director and a true artist and visionary in her field. Grace has worked alongside Anna from the very beginning and their relationship is the heart of both the film and the magazine. They butt heads frequently, both knowing that Anna will always win. But Grace’s deadpan humor and natural comedic timing make even her disappointments a pleasure to watch.

No matter how cynical you are about fashion, there is simply no way you can walk away from “The September Issue” without an appreciation for the artistry contained within at least some of the pages of a magazine like Vogue. And even if it somehow misses that mark for you, you will undoubtedly be entertained by this better-than-fiction “Devil Wears Prada” movie.