Ten Observations on The September Issue from an Advertising Suit (who can’t count)

I finally saw The September Issue at the weekend.  I loved it.

This post will betray two things about me:

  1. I see everything through the filter of advertising, but I guess after 20 years that’s inevitable. And it does make me thankful that I decided against becoming a taxidermist.
  2. I also know more about fashion designers than any man should readily admit

Anyway, during the course of The September issue, these ten thoughts occupied me:

  1. Whenever Anna Wintour gets in her Towncar she fails to put on her seatbelt. As a Suit, this negligence alarms me.  But imagine what it’s like for TV Producers to have to watch this.  First, the majority of TV Producers are female.  Second, absolutely without exception they will all have been to see The September Issue. In the first week of its release. And they will have been horrified by the seatbelt oversight. You want to be focusing on the rather fetching cardigan Anna’s wearing, when in fact all you can see (or not see) is her absent seatbelt. And all you can hear is a quiet, but insistent, interior voice saying ‘reshoot’.
  2. Anna Wintour has a great office. (The version imagined in the The Devil Wears Prada, is actually even cooler, but the real version is great anyway.) It demonstrates the true depths of my shallowness, that I don’t mind admitting that one of the main things that motivates me is the idea that one day I’ll get to build my own office in its image.
  3. Decisiveness works.  Right or wrong, it’s better than vacillation.  It’s entirely possible that you might make the wrong decision. But making it early at least means that the bulk of your time goes into doing something great with it. So even the wrong decision is at worst a well-executed, highly polished, wrong decision. Which usually stops it from looking like a wrong decision to most observers.
  4. To outsiders, the people at the extremes define the industry.  Andre Leon Talley is a nutjob.  He’s an eccentric, cape-wearing, fruitcake. He’s very probably a genius, but he, more than anyone else in the film, defines the fashion industry to those who view it with suspicion.  No amount of talent or inspiration can override the image of a man with a Louis Vuitton Water Bottle case prattling on about his aesthetic. He comes across as absurd and indulged. The advertising industry has the same problem.   To outsiders (read, clients) the extreme figures characterise our industry, such that we’re not defined by the real success of our work, but by the imagined failings of our characters.
  5. At a really basic level, Anna Wintour is ashamed.  Fashion is an enormous, and important, industry. So too, magazines.  She’s inarguably one of the most important figures in both. But she’s ashamed of what she does.  She wants her family to take it, and her, more seriously. She wants it to be more significant than it is.  But she’s weighed down by what she knows others believe is frivolous. Sound like an industry you know?
  6. Stefano Pilati comes across like a stereotypical fashion designer. With Anna in the room he’s a bit fawning (despite being a fully-fledged genius). He’s also conspicuously fey.  He does a great job of playing the camp-designer cliché.  But he’s also a big rugby fan who spent time training at the Sydney Academy of Sport and Recreation in the rugby performance programme (at the age of 42).  We like to pigeonhole people. The fashion and advertising industries are notorious for it.  But a film about a magazine provides a reminder that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover.
  7. At one point Grace Coddington is in the back of a car being driven through Paris (I think). She mentions a conversation with a photographer early in her career who tells her to ‘never fall asleep in a car, because you might miss something’. Great advice, clearly taken to heart by someone with an extraordinary eye for detail.
  8. Many people have observed that Grace Coddington comes across as the star of the film, the real reason for Vogue’s success.  I don’t feel that way. I think she’s amazing. She’s a great character with a remarkable talent.  She’s personable and vulnerable, which makes her easy to warm to.  And she’s clearly the creative force in the Vogue world.  But she’s also completely absorbed. She’s single-mindedly, obsessively, admirably focused on the artistic merit of what she produces, to the exclusion of all else.  She judges every shot you see in the movie on its aesthetic value, and takes genuine and understandable offence when others don’t. Namely Anna Wintour. But she doesn’t judge shots on the basis of what readers want, or on the bigger picture of how the magazine works. That’s what Anna does, sometimes clumsily and insensitively, but with the success of the magazine in mind. But we warm to Grace because her motivations seem more pure and genuine. But I don’t think they are.  Anna’s motivations are just as pure and as genuine.  She wants people to get maximum value from the magazine. And for lots and lots of people to buy it every month.  Her ability to harness what Grace Coddington does in order for that to happen is what makes Vogue a success.
  9. On the point above, are the two abilities so contradictory that they can’t ever reside in the same person?  Dave Droga?  Jil Sander? David Abbott? Giorgio Armani? Or is it always the balance of two complementary talents?
  10. Towards the end of the film Anna Wintour is asked about when she’ll retire, when she’ll know it’s time to go. She mentions her father’s retirement, and his explanation that he knew it was time to move on ‘when things just started making me too angry’.  In 20 years I’ve worked with a lot of people who I think find our industry makes them a little too angry.
  11. In the opening scene in the towncar, Ann Wintour asks her assistant about an email from Tom Ford. If, just once in my life, I get to ask an assistant about an email from Tom Ford I will die a very happy man.

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Ten Observations on The September Issue from an Advertising Suit (who can’t count)

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