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The Lion in Wintour

R.J. Cutler offers a rarely glimpsed peek into the professional life of fashion's grandest dame

Anna Wintour (center) takes it all in with Leon Andr? Talley and Grace Coddington.

By Wendy Ward | Posted 9/9/2009

The famously private editor Anna Wintour introduced a new era of her career earlier this year when she allowed a condescending Morley Safer to interview her on 60 Minutes: She's opening up for the first time in her 20-year stewardship of Vogue. That even a fellow media professional would refuse to give much weight to fashion--an artistic yet materialistic and often frivolous (though not for the faint of heart) multibillion-dollar international industry--would put anyone on the defensive.

"With all the opportunity he had to spend time with Anna Wintour and the fashion world, he didn't seem interested in learning anything other than whether or not Anna's a bitch--which seems, to me, like the dullest question on earth," says documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler, who Wintour invited to follow her and her staff as they put together the biggest issue in Vogue's history. That might be what a well-dressed, fur-loving, unsmiling, sunglasses-wearing pope of the fashion world (according to Vogue publisher Tom Florio) has to do to get a little respect: be seen working on Vogue, the fashion industry bible of which she painstakingly shapes every single page. "I'm telling stories about people who care a tremendous amount about what they do and are doing it as well as they possibly can under high-stake circumstances," Cutler says by phone. "That is clearly what was compelling to me about Anna."

Cutler--who has made documentaries about politics (A Perfect Candidate), American teenagers (Freshman Diaries), and young doctors (The Residents)--originally thought to document the Met Ball, the annual, glamorous benefit Vogue organizes to raise money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's clothing and costume archive. Though the Met denied him access, Wintour was on board.

"And then I met with her, and she suggested the September issue as a framing device," Cutler says. "And I loved the idea, first of all because it was her suggestion, so it meant she would be invested in it--but second of all, because it takes such a long time . . . everything else is what they do while they are doing the September issue."

Cutler lets his camera tell the story of how the largest issue (840 pages) in Vogue's history, September 2007, came to be born. "Cinéma vérité is the foundation of all of my work," he says. "It's an approach to filmmaking and storytelling that I very much believe in. I'm not a polemicist. I'm not interested in non-fiction that is about arguing a point of view."

Cutler catches a side of Wintour rarely seen. Yes, there are scenes of her making deliberate choices about what goes into and what stays out of the issue--often to the chagrin of a staff member who has a different opinion--but also her nurturing young designers and meeting with the CEO of Neiman Marcus over breakfast to decide the next trends to be made, hung, photographed, and sold. "That's part of the role that they [Vogue] play, and even to the extent that humorously, but not without seriousness, Burton Tansky [CEO of Neiman Marcus] asks Anna to help with the shipping problems that they're having because they can't move the stuff quickly enough," Cutler recalls.

He also catches her talking about her family--including her father Charles Wintour, who was editor of the London Evening Standard for many years, and her daughter, Bee, who wants to be a lawyer.

Wintour isn't easy to please, but she surrounds herself with the most talented people in the industry. And whether hearing her sibling's dismissal of her job or understanding that most people don't get fashion (she contends they're frightened of it), her passion is undeniable. And perhaps now, heading toward the inevitable end of her era, she means to defend her vocation to the world.

Wintour's famously cold demeanor contrasts with Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director, who has worked with her for 20 years. Coddington "was very adamantly opposed to participating in the film and she thought it would distract her from her work," Cutler says. "As she got to know us over time, she realized that our approach is not distracting--purely observational. The more she got to know us, the more she enjoyed engaging in that."

Coddington is the messy, sensitive artist with a clear vision whose standoffs with Wintour still result in some of the most gorgeous narrative photos in the issue, even if they were trimmed back in number, and she did seem to relish speaking about her frustrations.

But Coddington's skills can't compete with celebrity: Sienna Miller is on the cover, shot by Mario Testino, and chosen by Wintour, of course. "One of the defining characteristics of Anna's reign as editor and chief of Vogue was her early conviction that fashion, celebrity, power, and global industry would all unite to become kind of an inseparable cultural force," Cutler says. And Wintour's influence is seen on almost every fashion magazine cover, every month.

"I've said before--you can make a movie in Hollywood without Steven Spielberg's blessing and you can publish software without Bill Gate's blessing, but it is very, very difficult to succeed in the fashion industry, right now, without Anna Wintour's blessing," Cutler says. He gained an incredible blessing in his access to Wintour and made a movie that neither demonizes nor glorifies her. The result is a testament to her distinctive, clear vision for what she believes Vogue should be, detractors be damned.

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