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In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye

Essentially, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye is the story of a picture—the picture you see above. To commemorate Vogue’s 120 years in print, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (colloquially referred to as “her Majesty”) decreed that all of Vogue’s living fashion editors would gather for a portrait by Annie Leibovitz, photographer for the stars. The photo is unmistakably Vogue—a strangely bland gray background; a breezy, ethereal quality to the women’s hair; unnatural but regal posing; and of course, the most Vogue quality of all, exclusivity. The gathering is a rarefied group of the fashion elite, eight powerful women who had the opportunity to create and reflect fashion culture over the course of decades. Needless to say, the women are all wealthy, white, and immaculately coiffed.

Vogue is constantly in the process of affirming to itself and to the world that it is the most important fashion magazine in existence; In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye is simply another extension of that effort, a love letter from the magazine to the magazine, with HBO as mere intermediary. That isn’t to say it isn’t good—it’s quite enjoyable, in fact—but it’s important to remember that Vogue’s running this spin machine, and with style.

The documentary is an attempt to explain why the fashion editors pictured above matter, and further, how essential they are to what we think of as Vogue, the magazine and the brand. It’s not dishy, like The September Issue, a documentary that ended up focusing on the fraught relationship between Wintour and her chief fashion editor and creative visionary, Grace Coddington. Instead, In Vogue is about the creative process of these women, and the many influences they brought and continue to bring together to help the magazine evolve.

The documentary opens with the question: What does a fashion editor do? Several of the film’s notable interviewees—including all the editors themselves as well as designers like Vera Wang and Marc Jacobs and actresses Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker—are flummoxed by this, staring off into space, hemming and hawing. Because the answer seems to be “nothing” and “everything,” a role that requires broad creative vision and minute attention to detail.

Crucially, their expertise is not fashion so much as it is fashion photography. What these women excel at is delivering the photo, consistently, issue to issue. They coax models into certain poses and get photographers to come to work, and they run the interpretation of an idea on location, through clothing, and with the tools they have at hand. If anything their discussion of their work borders on semiotic. They articulate and defend their work by pointing to how it connects to the broader cultural moment, essentially discussing how signs are encoded in their photos, with clothing, of course, as the most significant signifier. It’s fascinating to hear their interpretation of fashion history, and how they view the evolution of Vogue as it corresponds to the evolution of the women’s movement. 

But there is also something frustratingly defunct in their reasoning. Fashion editors aren’t artists, they’re selling something, and this is a reality very few of the documentary’s illustrious interviewees get around to mentioning. There is no justification for the types of bodies and lifestyles that are portrayed and even revered in Vogue’s storytelling, for example. The superiority of blondes and bare skin is assumed, rather than defended (or, rightly, apologized for).

So the entirety of the conversation gets shunted into anecdotes about Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor and wild photoshoots where the editors poured cream on models’ faces and had bees crawl on a woman’s lips. And it’s interesting—even mesmerizing. The story of the model who said she liked snakes—which culminates in this photograph—is too bizarre to not be entertaining, and the way the editors describe their work is with passion, vision, and personality. (One of the editors, an aggressive French woman, orders that the documentary crew rearrange the set entirely so that she can position herself in it to her satisfaction for her interview.)

What ultimately frustrates is Vogue’s obvious self-satisfaction with the beauty standard it has created and marketed. Much is made of creative differences between the editors, but to the casual eye it’s all an expensive playground, impossible and deliberately unattainable. It’s one thing to have designers and supermodels and actresses testify to the transformative power of haute couture—they live in a world that can access it. It’s quite another to admit just how elite the world of Vogue is. Which is why, probably, Wintour and her editors try to frame Vogue as a kind of art magazine, when it is in fact a blatantly commercial enterprise, selling a few carefully cherry-picked artistic visions for a definite end. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be easier to trust the documentary if they’d just admit that up front.

As a history of Vogue, the documentary does a very good, if one-sided, job. It takes you through the editors, their jobs, their visions, and the changing role of the magazine over the last 120 years. Sure, it gets a little too enthusiastic about the sweeping genius visions of Anna Wintour and her minions in the middle. But it ends on a positive note—one that honors these women and the work they did, and moreover, how difficult their jobs can be. And there’s no doubt that Vogue is, and will continue to be, an incredibly influential magazine. What the documentary does achieve with aplomb is an ease in treating fashion as an entirely legitimate art form, an undertaking that is an expression of identity equal to music, film, or other popular culture. For all that Vogue can be frustrating, it is also a magazine run by women for women, a magazine that is invested in women’s self-expression. The production values are good, the stories are interesting, and if you like fashion and/or photography, it won’t disappoint. The HBO interviewers could have asked much tougher questions, but needless to say, this is about celebrating Vogue, not revealing it. 

Stray observations:

  • Priceless interview moments: Crazy French editor yelling at the camera about “attitude”; Vera Wang admitting how terrible it was to work at Vogue; Anna Wintour loftily stating that she will not tear up and give them a “Barbara Walters moment.”
  • The song over the credits is a mash-up remix of some of the most ridiculous interview quotes, made even more ridiculous when taken out on context. It’s pretty amazing. The chorus: “It’s all about the butterfly.”
  • Not one interviewee commented on the blatant exoticism of climbing all over temple carvings in India in couture dresses, which seemed like an oversight?