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Are the September Issues Still Relevant?

In the 10 years since the "Vogue" documentary was released, the media landscape has drastically changed — as has the role of the once all-important fall fashion issue.
Vogue, September 2019. Photo: Inez and Vinoodh

Vogue, September 2019. Photo: Inez and Vinoodh

"The September Issue", the movie that put the annual Vogue fashion bible on the mainstream's radar, was filmed in 2007 and released in 2009. Just 10 years later, it seems like a lifetime ago: It captured a time when New York Fashion Week still took place in the white tents at Bryant Park, when Anna Wintour took calls on a flip phone and read emails off of a Palm Pilot, when fur was very much in and when a critique from Wintour prompted a young Edward Enninful to announce that he wanted to kill himself. It's clear looking back just how much the state of magazines — and the fashion industry at large — has changed, and as a result, so has the significance of the September issue.

September issues have historically been considered the biggest fashion moment of the year for magazines. Packed with glamorous editorial shoots, prime advertisements and trends that will soon debut in stores, it holds a special space in the industry. "The issue acts a big reset moment for people," Glamour Editor-in-Chief Samantha Barry tells Fashionista. "It marks the end of summer and ushers in a return to life and routine for people. It forecasts what's to come in the rest of the year." It's also a way to show off the pull magazines have with advertisers; it's to be believed that the more pages an issue has, the better a publication is doing financially.

"When we put out the September issue of Vogue, the first thing the reporters usually ask us is how much does it weigh and how many pages," Vogue's publisher at the time, Tom Florio, is seen telling his ad sales team in "The September Issue" right before directing them to market the brand "like it's never been marketed in its entire 114 years." Fast forward to the end of the film and Florio announces to Wintour that the magazine is up 100 pages from the year prior; in total, the 2007 issue included "840 pages of fearless fashion," as the front page callout reads. The news is met with cheers and applause.

Sienna Miller and Anna Wintour at a screening of "The September Issue" in August 2009. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Sienna Miller and Anna Wintour at a screening of "The September Issue" in August 2009. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Of course, things are much different today. Last year, The New York Post declared September issues "dead," pointing to a lack of publishing funds. While it seems publishers stopped reporting on ad page counts a couple of years ago, citing that revenue comes through many different channels now, there's no denying that the issues aren't as thick as they used to be. Not to mention the many, many, many print magazines that have shuttered over the last few years.

The trend forecasting purpose of the September issue has also become largely irrelevant with the immediacy of digital and social media, as Gabrielle Korn, former editor-in-chief of Nylon, points out. "The traditional point of a September print issue is to reveal that year's fall fashion, but people no longer need a magazine to tell them what's about to be 'cool' — they already know," she explains. "What can a publication tell them that they don't already know? What is a brand's authority in the space if a reader has access to the same info and resources?" According to Korn, these are questions editors should be asking themselves.

Though much of the original luster of a September issue has faded, one thing providing some hope is the remaining allure of the cover. A good cover will capture the attention of the internet. People will share the image with their followers — often with accompanying praise. In rare cases, they will actually read the story and in rarer cases go out and buy an issue. Whether a reader gets to that final step, it's the initial engagement that's important and noteworthy.

As Alyssa Bereznak explains in her piece titled "How The Magazine Industry's Identity Crisis Is Playing out On Its Front Page" for The Ringer: "A magazine cover is all at once a cultural statement, a conversation starter, a negotiating asset, a digital selling point, a mood." She continues: "Print magazines are indisputably in decline. But even as publishing companies trim their brands and legacy titles grow thinner each month, their covers still capture the public's attention. The cover is a concept so ingrained in our lives that it may even outlive the industry that made it indispensable. In the meantime, it's one of the reasons the industry still exists."

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While I've personally noticed a recent uptick of attention being directed to covers all year long, it's the reveal of the buzzy September issue that people most anticipate. It's akin to Christmas morning, each of us wondering if we're going to be excited by what's under the metaphorical tree or disappointed, forced to wait another year to get what we want. Who's going to receive the honor is often a topic discussed amongst close friends and colleagues, because that's what it still is: an honor, an accomplishment, a major milestone for those selected. Some of this year's American September picks include Angelina Jolie for Elle, Christy Turlington, Alicia Keys and Celine Dion for Harper's Bazaar, Julianne Moore for InStyle and Iggy Azalea for Cosmopolitan.

Celebrities are generally the go-to cover choices, and have been since the '90s when Wintour made the shift from models to featuring actors, musicians and political figures. They're what sells after all, and the bigger the name, the more loyal the fan base, the better the chances of virality. However, it seems that the publications competing to book these talents are realizing that they can't pull from the same pool of recycled celebrities anymore. Brands need to evolve and do more in order to stay relevant in the digital age; readers want more than just beautifully styled photoshoots, they want content with substance.

British Vogue, for example, recruited Meghan Markle to guest edit its September issue and feature 15 trailblazing women "who have effected positive change in the world," according to its website. Some are known, others less so, and many don't have a direct link to the fashion industry. Even though American Vogue tapped the somewhat predictable Taylor Swift (posed like the famous Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster) for its September cover, the stories inside are more forward-thinking. "This September we're celebrating what we feel is important today, and for the future: designers who are unabashedly creative, the importance of sustainability and responsibility, and the value of clothes which are meant to last,” Wintour writes in her editor's letter. "September is still beautiful, it's still about the biggest fashion narratives of the season, yet it's also our opportunity to focus on making a stand, to take a position on the values and issues that are important to us — and our readers."

Glamour, September 2019. Photo: Danielle Levitt

Glamour, September 2019. Photo: Danielle Levitt

Glamour decided to take perhaps the biggest stand of all this season. Barry says the publication's most important issue is always Women of the Year, but that September still "holds cultural significance" for the brand. "It's truly an all-hands-on-deck issue that involves many months of planning," she says. And since going digital-only, the team takes an all-encompassing approach by incorporating video and photography and social moments. 

"It's the issue where we all take a step back and consider the overarching message we want to convey about our position in style and fashion," Barry explains. This year that includes highlighting plus-size models (Seynabou Cissé, Iskra Lawrence, Alessandra Garcia Lorido, Yvonne Simone and Solange van Doorn are featured on the cover), reclaiming the F-word in fashion, and promoting fashion that is size-inclusive, diverse and accessible to all women. Almost echoing Wintour's sentiment, Barry adds: "A really good September issue should move the needle forward for a brand's mission and viewpoint."

For so long, the narrative surrounding print has involved its death, but that's not necessarily its fate. According to the Association of Magazine Media, 191 new print magazine brands, with a quarterly or greater release, launched in 2018. That's a 46% increase from the year before. Most if not all of these are indie magazines, some with niche appeal and others simply looking to reach an audience that's often left out of the mainstream media conversation. Online publications, similarly, are helping to fill a void. One includes a digital magazine, funnily enough, titled The September Issues, founded by photographer Mary Rozzi. The mission, according to the website, is "to make fashion a feminist issue, and to create a platform for artists to explore and create work that reflects the evolution of art and culture." Additionally, with each issue, they align themselves with a group, charity, or cause, like Planned Parenthood, Me Too, or Crisis Text Line. As Rozzi told WWD: "I wanted to reinvent what a fashion magazine can be and, as a magazine, we're working to subvert traditional media, while building on the foundation of what came before us."

In the very first scene of "The September Issue", Wintour is seen declaring, "I think what I often see is that people are frightened of fashion and that, because it scares them or it makes them feel insecure, they put it down. On the whole, people that say demeaning things about our world, I think that's usually because they feel in some ways excluded or, you know, not part of the 'cool group' so as a result they just mock it." There's some truth to that; for a long time, a lot of people felt left out of fashion, and many still do. But the movement that's happening within the industry now gives space for those people, the same ones who might've "put it down" before, to feel included. And September issues have the ability to usher them in even faster. 

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