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The frocky horror show

With such a formidable reputation, she might have been best advised to remain hidden behind those signature sunglasses, but the editor of American Vogue has let the cameras into her office. Julia Robson profiles the devilishly sharp fashion journalist ... who doesn't wear Prada

In the world of fashion everything changes ... except Anna Wintour. The sticky-thin scary lady with the trademark bob and dark sunglasses doesn't just edit American Vogue, one of the most powerful glossies on the planet, she sits in the driving seat of a US$300 billion industry, steering it this way and that. Ladies, even if you are not a dedicated follower of fashion, it is highly likely that this woman has been part of your life. What you are wearing will almost inevitably have been influenced by her.

Now, in a documentary by RJ Cutler, an Emmy-winning Harvard graduate who specialises in "serious reality" films, the sunglasses are coming off. If you enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada, you will love The September Issue. It was a surprise hit in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was first shown and where the 57-year-old editrix surprised all by turning up in J Brand jeans, high-heeled Manolo Blahnik boots and a fox-trimmed Michael Kors jacket.

"It is actually my first time wearing jeans to work," she confessed. The film's appeal isn't so much the fabulous clothes, or the designers - from Thakoon Panichgul and Oscar de la Renta to Karl Lagerfeld - talking about the fascinating woman at its core. No, what is gripping is its portrayal of every human emotion, from pain and bafflingly cruel humiliation to compassion, mostly generated, it has to be said, by La Wintour herself - and all just part of a normal day at the Vogue office.

The September Issue is a beautifully tailored insight into this exhilarating, cut-throat, often terrifying world inhabited by stick-legged, Manolo-wearing fashion robots known as the Voguettes. The story goes that the fur-loving, size zero editor, allegedly the inspiration for Meryl Streep's Cruella de Vil-like character in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, gave permission for the documentary to prove, once and for all, what she is really like.

Shot over nine months, the film tracks the Vogue team, led by Wintour, putting together the September 2007 issue. September is traditionally the bumper publication of the year. Weighing in at 2kg, the phone directory-sized magazine is packed with new season designer trends and all-important financially lucrative designer advertising campaigns: seven out of every eight pages are advertisements. The issue was bought by 13 million people.

Wintour gave RJ Cutler, the director, complete freedom to edit the movie: "He showed us the film a little while ago and we made a few suggestions ... all of which he ignored," she mutters. Mostly Wintour appears sullen-faced, crucially chic and acutely hard-working. Most revealing is the stoical relationship between Wintour and her creative director, Grace Coddington. The best bitchy bit is when you hear that the September cover girl, Sienna Miller, needs retouching because of her dodgy teeth and hair. Gritty stuff!

Wintour was born in 1949 in England. Her father, Charles "Chilly Charles" Wintour, was editor of the London Evening Standard, and in the mid-60s he used to consult his trendy young daughter on how to make the newspaper appeal to the youth of Swinging London. "I think it was my father who decided my career. 'You want to be editor of Vogue, don't you?' he decided for me." Getting her dream job wasn't going to be easy however, even for the ferociously ambitious and well-connected Anna.

She took her first job at the achingly trendy boutique Biba at the age of 15, the year she cut her hair in a bob - "I'm sure its very boring and I should change; when I've tried it hasn't worked." Dropping out of a good girls' school, North London Collegiate, where she was frequently in trouble for customising her skirt into a mini, she joined a training scheme run by the London department store, Harrods.

She left, claiming "you either know about fashion or don't", and joined Harper's & Queen as an editorial assistant, becoming known for her innovative fashion shoots. One recreated the works of French Impressionists. Leaving in 1975 after clashing with the editor, Min Hogg - the first of many office set-tos - she went to New York to work on Harper's Bazaar as a junior assistant. She was then appointed fashion editor of Viva and New York magazines and it was here that her reputation for creative fashion shoots, often with jet-set celebrities, was firmly established.

A cover featuring the actress Rachel Ward confirmed her Warholian belief about how celebrities sold covers. This famously led to a job interview with the editor of Vogue, Grace Mirabella, which ended after Wintour told her that the only job she would accept was the editorship. Hardly a shy, retiring type when it came to boyfriends, Wintour dated many older men - celebrities and powerful businessmen.

Before she met and married her first husband, the child psychiatrist David Shaffer, in 1984, her boyfriends had included Nigel Dempster, the London gossip columnist, Bob Marley, the reggae singer-songwriter, Michel Esteban, the French record producer, and Eric Idle, one of the stars of Monty Python. Alex Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue, finally appointed her "creative director" of US Vogue, infuriating Mirabella.

It was a difficult time and two years later, shortly after giving birth to son, Charlie, Wintour was moved to edit British Vogue. The title underwent an immediate and a rapid change which she oversaw, earning her in the process the nickname 'Nuclear Wintour'. Fashion editors at the magazine included Grace Coddington and the late Liz Tilberis, and Wintour introduced high street and street clothes and controversial trends. She also brought in a new wave of models and photographers who preferred a more natural and free-moving style.

Every single outfit for every single planned shoot had to be photographed first on Polaroid and biked over to the editor, sitting on her throne in Vogue House, No 1 Hanover Square, before she gave it the green light - I know this because I was a fashion harpie working in editorial at the time. Because of this, British Vogue was 100 per cent her baby. In 1987, Wintour returned to New York to edit House & Garden, packing it with fashion and celebrities.

Finally, a year later, she snaffled the editorship of US Vogue, which was losing cred to its French rival Elle. Wintour's revolutionary first cover shot overturned the fashion world. It was taken outside on location, rather than in a studio, and featured an unknown model wearing a pair of $50 jeans worn with a $10,000 jewelled T-shirt by Christian Lacroix. Twenty years on, Wintour has been responsible for promoting just about every trend in fashion - from supermodels to grunge.

She has also frequently put her reputation on the line, backing fashion mavericks such as the madcap designer Marc Jacobs, whom she persuaded LVMH to hire as creative director, and John Galliano, who thanks Anna - "my fairy godmother" - for landing him his job as creative director of Christian Dior. "Oh my goodness, in all my success, I mean, without her support I certainly wouldn't be at the house of Dior today," Galliano says in the movie.

"I am a very decisive person," says Wintour. "It's helpful for people you are working with to make decisions." Grace Coddington, perhaps the only person in the fashion world who isn't frightened of Wintour, says: "I think she's a very disciplined woman. If she wasn't, she couldn't do this particular job." She is also a very pampered woman. She lives in a $2 million Manhattan town house with Shelby Bryan, her Texas telecom exec companion, and Condé Nast is said to pick up the tab for her daily hair and make-up sessions. On top of her $2 million (Dh11.9m) salary, she gets a $200,000 annual clothing allowance, which can buy a lot of sunglasses.

About those sunglasses? "Well, they're seriously useful. I mean, I can sit in a show, and if I'm bored out of my mind, nobody will notice." Occasionally in the documentary we get to see Wintour's humour and discover that beneath her bulletproof workplace veneer there beats a heart. "If I am such a bitch how come the same people have worked with me for years?" she asks the camera. What's this? Wintour has friends?

Certainly not the anti-fur mob who target her relentlessly. Or Tina Brown, her journalistic nemesis. If only the documentary cameras had been able to step outside the Vogue offices and film her from a different angle. Those who know Wintour and don't work for her say there is a another side to her. She's not the devil. Most shocking of all, though ... she doesn't wear Prada. * The National

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