NEW YORK — No doubt about it, Anna Wintour is the brains behind Vogue. Nothing brings that into clearer focus than the new documentary "The September Issue."
But the film exposes someone else at the magazine's heart: Creative Director Grace Coddington.
Coddington seems to pump passion and artistic integrity into the pages while not being swept up in the celebrity frenzy that seems synonymous with fashion these days. She's not quite the picture of glamour, either, with her wiry red hair, an almost entirely black wardrobe and a series of hippie-ish shoes that look more Birkenstock than Manolo Blahnik.
And yet when the Vogue staff wrapped up the September issue of 2007, the biggest in the title's 117-year history, Coddington could say that she drove all but one of the main fashion features – the semi-disastrous cover shoot with Sienna Miller.
In fact, she does say it, and uses a tone that seems smug and is a bit of a dig at Wintour, who had doubted some of Coddington's plans. "I meant it tongue-in-cheek, but I do make those remarks. Unfortunately not everyone sees it the same way I do," she says.
That was always fine – at least until the film, which chronicles the back and forth between the two strong-willed women and opens in New York on Aug. 28 and select cities on Sept. 11.
"It was a complete surprise to me that, in the movie, I'm in quite a lot. ... There are cameras around Vogue a lot – there are cameras around Anna a lot, but I usually end up on the cutting-room floor," Coddington says.
"They filmed for months before they turned the cameras on me at all. Anna had given them complete access so they were a bit annoyed when I kept slamming the door in their faces. And when it came to the shoots for that issue, she basically said, `They are coming along and it's not an option.' ... But once they started coming on all the shoots, there was no point in being grumpy about it."
The relationship between Coddington, camera and crew evolved into a warm one, and Coddington, 68, comes off as the unsung heroine. "If you can't beat them, join them – and I liked them," she says of the filmmakers.
Filmmaker RJ Cutler went into Vogue unsure of the story he wanted to tell, other than to offer a more intimate glimpse of Wintour, who wields power like few others in both fashion and publishing. He spent more than 8 months inside Vogue's hallowed halls at Conde Nast headquarters.
The movie shows how top designers are at Wintour's beck and call, and that her power-broker reputation is not unwarranted. She comes across not as unkind but as a cool perfectionist, and she rarely lets her guard down.
The "defining dynamic" in the workplace was Wintour and Coddington, Cutler says. "There was rawness, energy, excitement and conflict."
And more than a little bit of drama.
Asked about his favorite moments, all of Cutler's choices featured Coddington, like the day she came to cinematographer Bob Richman saying, "I have an idea."
She tapped him as a prop in a photo shoot with model Caroline Trentini. The final picture had him jumping in the air, equipment and all.
Wintour liked it – but made the comment that Richman's belly would need to be airbrushed to a slimmer shape; Coddington wouldn't hear of it. If the atmosphere captured by "The September Issue" is true to life, Coddington is the only one who stands up to Wintour that way.
"I think we both respect each other, or at least we both say that in the movie. I infuriate her, she infuriates me, and we're both a bit stubborn, but we're always respectful," Coddington says. "I think she's an amazing editor."
Cutler and Richman, meanwhile, developed a genuine affection for Coddington.
"She is charming, delightful, passionate and so committed to celebrating beauty and her revolutionary notion that clothes, models and photographers could tell stories and not just be objects," Cutler says. "Every billboard, fashion magazine spread, every advertisement we see today has been influenced by Grace Coddington."
Richman says with a laugh, though, that Wintour certainly made a lasting impression on him: "I do go to the gym now all the time. It was probably the heaviest I've ever been, shooting that – and that was my 15 minutes."
Coddington started her career in front of the lens, winning a modeling contest sponsored by British Vogue in 1959. She switched roles to become an editor a decade later, after a car accident. Coddington says she and Wintour ran in the same circles in London and both came to the U.S. in the late '80s.
(Calvin Klein hired Coddington as design director in 1987 but she joined Wintour at Vogue, on Wintour's very first day as editor in chief there, in 1988.)
Coddington sounds wistful for the old days of fashion and magazines when the artfulness of the clothes was what mattered most. She really has no use for any Hollywood hoopla.
"I stay far away from the celebrities. I am not very good with them. Normally I don't like to shoot actresses because I lose sight of fashion when I do and I love fashion," she says. "They like to dictate the hair, the makeup, the clothes, the photographer – and that's annoying. I like to do that."
Never mind that she's a film star now.
"A lot of people have said they've seen it (`The September Issue') but I don't think it'll change my life," she says. "I don't think I'll be Sarah Jessica Parker and not be able to go down the street."