In the opening montage of the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, an army of skinny beauties dresses for work, donning some serious looking clothes and footwear. As film critic David Denby wrote in The New Yorker, "It's like the lock and load scenes of soldiers strapping on their weapons in war movies." By the time the girls hit the streets of Manhattan, they're ready to battle the dark forces of frumpiness.
An adaptation of Lauren Weisberger's spiteful roman à clef about her time as assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the movie wants us to believe that everyone who works in fashion looks like she stepped out of a glossy magazine. In a new documentary that chronicles the making of Vogue's September 2007 issue however, the earnest junior editors look about as glamorous as Anne Hathaway's Devil character before her Cinderella transformation. "Isn't it enough that the models are perfect?" asks Grace Coddington, Vogue's 68-year-old creative director who dresses in lose fitting black garments and whose chief accessory is a wild corona of bright copper hair.
The comment comes at a moment in The September Issue when Coddington is arguing against air brushing out of one photo the paunch of a male civilian. But she could just as easily have been talking about Vogue's underlings, a rumpled vanguard who appear in the documentary mostly in undistinguished pants and shirts, with sweaters tied haphazardly around their waists, their pretty faces devoid of make-up and their hair uncombed.
Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs, the beleaguered minion in Devil, might have gotten away with raiding the closets at the fictional Runway magazine. But no one, it seems, borrows clothes at Vogue - though temptation must be rampant. The long, narrow corridors are lined with racks of finery - the best of the dresses, coats, jackets, blouses, suits, sweaters and gowns to come from designer ateliers. The editors cull a few treasures to show the boss, and when they wheel the metal racks holding their selections down the long expanse of carpet into Anna's light filled office, the moment takes on the solemnity of a religious rite. When a male editor's choices are rejected by the editrix whom one staffer likens to the pope, the young man moans, "I'm going to kill myself. What am I going to do now?"
Who actually wears these glorious duds anointed as Vogue-worthy remains a mystery. Much of the fashion in the magazine is too fantastical even for Anna Wintour. Her style, which hasn't changed much in her 21 years in fashion's top job, is classic and feminine with an emphasis on printed dresses by Oscar de la Renta, Caroline Herrera and Prada; Chanel suits and fur trimmed coats. She does not appear to wear new hot labels like Jason Wu and Thakoon (though she promotes them in her magazine). Nor does she wear the edgy, asymmetrical looks or jumbo platform shoes with complicated vamps favored recently by trendsetters. She seems very fond of a lovely necklace of flat amber beads, which she wears with several outfits, but otherwise, her jewelry is minimal. Immaculately groomed, she never veers from her cool, formal persona. In the film she wears jeans - white, worn first with a turquoise Izod shirt and then a sweater - only on the weekend for a segment shot at her country house on Long Island.
From a sartorial standpoint, it would all be very disappointing if not for André Leon Talley, Vogue's six foot seven inch African-American editor-at-large who pursues style like the Holy Grail and provides the documentary with a shot of true fashion sass. When we first meet André, he's complaining about the "famine of beauty" in his life, while wearing a Fendi sable with plastic insets over a bespoke Richard Anderson suit and Charvet gold tie. Later, in a meeting with designer Isabel Toledo, he sports a Valentino caftan in jade cotton chintz printed with ferocious looking black panthers with rhinestone eyes. The fabric is from the designer's couture collection in 1968 at the height of radical chic, and is perhaps his hipster salute to the militants then underfoot.
Talley also supplies the film with its most amusing scene: When Anna Wintour urges him to lose weight, he takes up tennis (which also happens to be one of her passions), but not before outfitting himself in full Richy-Rich regalia: vintage diamond Piaget tennis watch (which he dryly notes is not really such an extravagance because he can wear it off-court, too), blue Ralph Lauren shirt and white pants from Damon Dash, and a collection of gleaming leather Louis Vuitton tennis accouterments, including a racket cover and water bottle case. "I have to approach life with my own aesthetics of style," he explains from a courtside bench, having exhausted himself after a few minutes swatting at balls.
Talley's avoirdupois and High Camp preening are dazzling counterpoints to the bland toilettes of Vogue's junior editors, fashion's "grim vigilantes," in the words of writer Gay Talese. From the outside, their world may seem like a sequined dreamscape of beauty and luxury, but in reality, putting out the Bible of style every month is hard, even tedious, toil. Of course, they doll-up when they need to. A recent Vogue party celebrating the opening of The September Issue at New York's Museum of Modern Art was a sea of gorgeous women - many of them Vogue employees - in gorgeous dresses. They just don't wear them to work.