Absolutely Fashion: bringing The Devil Wears Prada’s plot to British Vogue

When discussing Vogue, the same narrative comes up time and time again.

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Vogue – it’s an institution so recognisable and familiar the world over that it has fostered its own legends. When discussing Vogue, the same narrative comes up time and time again: the Vogue offices are a place where creativity and commerce clash, and the production of every issue sees a battle between business titans who see sales as the only priority, and the women who want to showcase original and emotional work.

In the docufilm The September Issue, it was personified by the professional tensions between Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour: with Coddington’s love’s labours cast aside to make way for more marketable shoots. In The Devil Wears Prada, its Andy’s “aspiring serious journalist” values against Miranda Priestley’s Wintour-inspired ruthlessness. In the BBC’s new documentary Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, it’s editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman versus everyone ese.

The influence of these two films on the documentary is obvious. We open with shots of Shulman looking concerned in a taxi, before stepping out into a throng of paparazzi flashing their cameras. Presumably it’s meant to conjure up the final scene of The Devil Wears Prada (and is also very similar to the opening of The September Issue) – giving audiences an expectation of Wintour-like behaviour before we’ve even truly begun. “She’s one of the most powerful women in the fashion industry,” our narrator, and eyes and ears Richard Macer, tells us. He asks one staff member: “If she doesn’t like something, will she let you know?” “Yes,” she laughs, before descending into a Molly Bloom-esque affirmative soliloquy. “Yes, yes. Yes…”

After the foreshadowing taxi cold open, we meet Shulman in stages: first we see her office and her empty chair. We meet her assistants in the little annex next to her office (where much of The Devil Wears Prada is set), who joke about their status as mood barometers for the entire office, before looking horrified by their own on-screen candour. Then we follow the back of Shulman’s head through office corridors into a meeting with Victoria Beckham (a technique favoured by both The Devil Wears Prada and The September Issue). It’s palpable how much Macer wants to craft the same story – asking Shulman if she ever feels lonely in her job (the emotional climax of The Devil Wears Prada, of course, comes when Priestly confesses her lonliness to Andy). Shulman simply responds that she’s surrounded by too many people every day to feel lonely.

If Shulman is our Wintour or Miranda Priestly, Macer is our Anne Hathaway – hamming up his outsider status and unfamiliarity with Vogue as a publication and a brand. “I decided to keep a diary,” Macer tells us, before supposedly reading from it in an overly earnest, bordering on mocking, tone. “September 7th 2015. Bought a Vogue for the first time ever yesterday. It’s quite intimidating – the thought of entering the offices of the fashion bible.”

Whether intentional or due to a lack of availability on Shulman’s part, Macer doesn’t offer a straight portrait of Shulman as a hardline, no-nonsense boss. He meanders – spending time with Fashion Director Lucinda Chambers (we see a charming moment between her and Mario Testino discussing how they met through Vogue, lending each other lunch vouchers) and Creative Director Jamie Pearlman. (Pearlman is not quite the Coddington of the piece – but she has a similar air of good intentions, a desire for genuine originality, and exhaustion with the pace of the industry.) Macer even makes time for the poor, neglected men of the fashion world, musing:

It must be strange being a man working at Vogue. There are a handful of them here. As a kind of inversion of the wider society, men here seem to be the underlings, and the women dominate. Whenever I pass one of them in the corridor, we share a look that is quite hard to explain, but is best described as – well, a look.

Macer’s asides are funny but very strange – in a Northern accent they could be an Alan Bennett monologue from Talking Heads. “At lunchtime,” he drawls at one point, “Lucinda grabbed a hot dog. She offered me a chip, but she was walking so fast, I had to run to keep up. So I didn’t get one.”

Macer returns to the tried and tested narratives of the world of Vogue, focusing on a battle over two Kate Moss covers – one artsy, one mainstream – as a microcosm through which to explore the push and pull between commerce and creativity. Which one will Shulman choose? (Spoiler alert: the mainstream one.)

But the issue of which cover to choose suddenly evaporates into thin air when a dramatic twist comes in the documentary’s final minutes. Kate Moss is out, and Rihanna – supposedly not due till next month –  is in, because a competing publication had a similar cover lined up for the same issue. That competing publication is American Vogue, and Macer has an interview lined up with – yes, you guessed it – Anna Wintour, who doesn’t know about British Vogue’s shady move. “Please don’t tell her,” Pearlman begs Macer. Cut to some artsy shots of the back of Wintour’s bob before a cliffhanger ending.

In the end, this latest instalment in uncovering the Vogue legend cannot resist returning to the iconic protagonist we all know and fear. Shulman can’t compete.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.