11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

When Vogue Says No: Beyond The September Issue

When creative director Grace Coddington shoots a $50,000 photo spread for Vogue and it ends up on the cutting room floor, she wonders if it ever existed at all. Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, if her art isn't out there for the world to see, it may as well be a figment of the imagination. Publication equals validity, even for the creators of one of the world's most famous magazines.

Much has been written about The September Issue, R.J. Cutler's documentary about the top names on the masthead at Vogue that hit movieplexes in the heartland Friday. Critics have frothed at this fly-on-the-wall look at U.S. Vogue's influential decision-makers, whose fetishes, whims, and personal rules of style dictate the multibillion-dollar fashion industry. And rightly so: Cutler's work deserves the praise.

But in all their overwrought analysis about whether or not the doc's primary subject, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, is indeed the devil who wears Prada, what those critics and bloggers have failed to recognize is that The September Issue has much less to do with the cult of personality than with the innerworkings of an exclusive club - a club that also happens to be the model for the way almost all magazines operate (or at least the way they operated in 2007, before the publishing industry imploded).

Because the nature of publishing is subjective, every publication has its internal structure of driver and passenger POVs. With Vogue, there's no question who's at the wheel. Yet Wintour wouldn't be complete without Coddington - they are classic yin and yang: the former is an exacting curator with a Teflon exterior who only peeks from behind her bob to flash a coquettish smile - and a spark of warmth - when mentoring CFDA/Vogue Fashion fund recipient Thakoon or discussing her daughter Bee's post-college plans; the latter is a flame-haired wood sprite with a genius eye for fashion's fantasy side who believes "whatever you see out the window can inspire you" (Cutler captures this moment perfectly as Coddington gazes wistfully out over Versaille's lush grounds during a Galliano shoot). Together, these two women - who started at Vogue on the same day decades ago - embody the age-old power struggle of art vs. commerce.

Aside from comic relief provided by the brilliant Andre Leon Talley (the magazine's editor-at-large, who huffs and puffs up and down a tennis court while draped in a Louis Vuitton blanket), there is nothing flimsy or disposable about Cutler's vignettes. Yet the poignancy of these glimpses is not derived from the film's ability to illustrate how trends are made and destroyed, but instead in the way it makes striving look beautiful.

It's not manual labor, mind you, but these folks do work hard. The drab carpet and cubicles in the Vogue offices are a far cry from TV's glossy "Ugly Betty" MODE surroundings. And while no one would argue that 840 pages of cash-flush ad sales wasn't uncommon pre-2008, the seeming superfluousness and excess of transcontinental travel and endless re-shoots of $5,000 dresses are balanced by surprisingly long hours, bags under the eyes, and two very different levels of perfectionism that, come press time, leave both the 59-year-old Wintour and 68-year-old Coddington exhausted.

In the end, Coddington's artful spreads make it back into the September issue. Her relief and satisfaction at seeing page upon page of colorful couture combinations are an affirmation of the positive, especially after hearing the word "No" so many times. Rather than villainize Anna Wintour, though, the scene makes one wonder what the magazine would be without her. My guess is that, when it comes to Vogue, there's more than one hero in this story.