How Grace Coddington Stole The September Issue from Anna Wintour

When Anna Wintour agreed to the Vogue documentary The September Issue, she probably thought it would be the greatest stop on the Make-People-Like-Me-Before-My-Contract-Is-Up Tour 2009. Too bad she is cast as the villain to Grace Coddington's triumphant hero.

Coddington is the magazine's creative director and is in charge of the majority of photo shoots. This former model—who worked at British Vogue and Calvin Klein before starting at American Vogue on the same day as Wintour—is often described as a "genius," including by Wintour herself in R.J. Cutler's documentary (out this Friday!). It appears that she is the only person willing and able to stand up to the Ice Queen of the fashion world and still escape with her life.

A consensus seems to be quickly forming that Coddington is the unlikely victor is this glossy cage match. In the New York Times, Cutler says, "[Anna] is cool, [Grace] is warm and languid," he said. "Anna is all about ‘next,' and Grace is most interested in a historical perspective on art and fashion. Every time they got together, sparks flew." The Associated Press writes, "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." Even Maureen Dowd calls it to attention

"There is friction in the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards relationship between the 59-year-old Anna and her closest collaborator, the 68-year-old flame-haired creative director and former model Grace Coddington, who is the only one willing to tweak "the Pope," as Anna is dubbed by a staffer. Coddington tells French Vogue, "We have a real mutual respect for each other, even though sometimes I feel like killing her."

The feisty, flame-haired visionary didn't want to be filmed and only relented at Anna's behest. But watching the documentary, you'd barely know it: she charms Cutler's (and thus, in some ways, Wintour's) film crew and soon is using them for her advantage by talking money with Anna on camera so that she can't cancel her budget. This dame knows how to play the game and isn't afraid to fight dirty, but she doesn't do it in the name of flighty Fashion (with a capital F) but she does it for art, which gives her a nobler cause. Here she is in full-on exasperation:

At one point in the film, she counsels a junior editor who just suffered one of Anna's tongue lashings, "Don't be too nice, not even to me, because you'll lose. You have to beat your way through." And that is just what Coddington does. She admits that both she and Wintour are stubborn, adding, "I know when to stop pushing her, but she doesn't know when to stop pushing me." One of the greatest scenes in the movie comes when the two share a long, awkward, silent elevator ride together on the way to visit Jean Paul Gaultier. It seems the only reason these two tolerate each other is for the good of the magazine.

Eventually, Coddington gets so palsy-walsy that she puts one of the September Issue cameramen into a last-minute photo shoot as a prop. The resulting pictures are fresh and fun and even manage to make Anna smile, although it's not clear if she likes the pics or is just enjoying telling a middle-aged cameraman that he's too fat. When Coddington hears that Wintour wants to Photoshop out his belly, she gets on the phone and threatens the art director and tells him that he has to leave it alone. "Not everything can be perfect in the world," she rails. It is the climax of the movie, where Coddington eventually triumphs over the tyrant, who has been chipping away at her artistic integrity for the entire 90 minutes.

Wintour tries exerting her iron will over everything in order to make it perfect (see an example in the clip below). The portrait the movie paints is not incredibly flattering, where she orders around designers, photographers, and especially editors based on her precarious edicts. The audience can appreciate the way she does business, but not the tactlessness she brings to it.

While the film begins with Anna, it ends with Coddington, her mane of red hair blowing in the wind as she looks out on the gardens of Versailles (where the magazine is doing a photo shoot). She stands still and silent, just taking in the sight. "It's beautiful," she declares simply before returning to work. Yes, Grace, it is. And so are you.