It might be hard to believe, but 2012 marks the 120th birthday of Vogue magazine. When it first started, there were no photographs, just illustrations, and a focus on society women. When Condé Nast took over in 1909, things changed, with photography introduced and fashion becoming the focal point of the weekly. Of course, the publication eventually became a monthly, and riding the social tides and political changes, it has become the magazine we know today. And to commemorate the journey, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have put together “In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye,” a brief flip through the pages of the magazine’s editorial history, particularly the women whose influence and determination not only allowed the magazine to stay relevant, but maintain its position at the forefront of its many competitors.
Though the documentary fails to delineate the various editorial positions and their responsibilities (at times it seems the magazine has as many editors as corporations have vice-presidents) the common thread between them all is an unwavering dedication to Vogue, and an indefatigable persistence of vision. And they are all mostly linked by a modesty about their achievements, as even the famed Anna Wintour (who got her own documentary with “The September Issue“) tries to play down her position as merely a buffer between the magazine and the corporate owners. Right. And what it may lack in depth, ‘The Editor’s Eye’ makes up for in history and observation, in particularly underscoring that Vogue isn’t just photographs of beautiful people (okay, it’s that too), but truly a creative endeavor that has captured images and moments in time that have lasted for years and years.
For anyone who has scoffed that Vogue has never done any real reporting, the documentary points right to war correspondent (yes, the magazine had a war correspondent) Lee Miller‘s haunting photo spread, shortly after WWII, of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Even now, you’d be shocked to find those images in any newspaper, let alone a women’s style magazine, and sixty years ago it was downright groundbreaking. And indeed, this desire to defy expectations went into their fashion shoots as well. Susan Train, a Fashion Editor in the magazine’s Paris branch, recalls that with the introduction of plane travel, the magazine used the opportunity to shoot in such exotic locations as India and Instabul, well before there were even paths made for tourists, or professionals lugging around models and equipment. And perhaps at the height of these kind of involved shoots is Polly Mellen‘s anecdote about a five week journey with Richard Avedon to Japan for a spread called “The Great Fur Caravan.” And as her first major assignment under famed editor Diane Vreeland (also the subject of recent documentary), it’s a good indication of the trial-by-fire wringer the staff often went through.
But of course, now you’re lucky to get a few days instead of a few weeks to put together a shoot, and as the magazine has grown, the pace has quickened, with creativity often required under the tightest of deadlines. But it’s also a reflection of a lifestyle that has seen everyone become busier, and in the ’90s Vogue realized that their audience wanted a magazine they could relate to, instead of a travelogue to remote places they would never visit, with clothes they’d never wear. Thus the decision to mix haute couture with street fashion, perhaps best exemplified in the November 1988 cover which featured a model in an expensive, baubled (and pretty hideous) Christian Lacroix t-shirt, and *gasp* a pair of regular jeans. The image was so surprising at the time that Wintour relates that the printers actually called the magazine to verify that it wasn’t a mistake.
And it’s this anecdotal approach that Bailey and Fenton use for ‘In Vogue.’ While the duo are best known for the porn documentary “Inside Deep Throat,” this is less investigative, and more of an oral history of a kind. Gathering the magazine’s editors present and past including the great Grace Coddington, Tonne Goodman, Camilla Nickerson, Phyllis Posnick and Babs Simpson, along with actresses Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker, fashion designers Tom Ford and Vera Wang and many more, those looking for a comprehensive, balanced look at Vogue will have to search elsewhere. But as a love letter that plays like a living room conversation with some war stories and nostalgia? ‘In Vogue’ does the trick. [B]
“In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye” airs on HBO tonight at 9 PM.