If you saw the fashion documentary The September Issue, you will remember the way flame-haired creative director Grace Coddington stomped through the hallways of US Vogue, trying to evade the cameras, desperate as Marlene Dietrich to be left alone.
It was only at the insistence of her editor-in-chief, Anna “The Devil Wears Prada” Wintour, that Coddington was forced to allow the cameramen access to her private world. “My reaction to this intrusive idea was naturally one of horror, because my feeling has always been that people should concentrate on their jobs and not all this fashionable ‘I want to be a celebrity’ shit,” Coddington says in the opening chapter of her memoir. Which begs the obvious question – why continue the fame trip after the cameras have departed by writing a book about yourself?
As Grace reveals, though, Coddington is a cold-blooded pragmatist. When you have become famous against your own will, there is no way to get that genie back in the bottle. Might as well embrace the celebrity on your own terms.
This is Coddington’s contradictory character in a nutshell. On the one hand, she is intensely passionate and creatively driven, yet on the other she is an utterly bloodless creature. Throughout the memoir, her recounting of events is so icily sang-froid it beggars belief. Even the dreadful moment in London when a seven-months-pregnant Coddington finds herself trapped inside a Mini as the car is thrown over by an angry mob of Chelsea football fans, causing her to be taken to hospital, where she subsequently miscarries. “The incident,” Coddington says matter-of-factly, “was one of the most traumatic of my life.” End of story. Keep calm and carry on indeed.
There are no histrionics and Coddington refuses to indulge in bitchy fashion gossip or score-settling character assassinations. Not only is she too emotionally reserved, but she is also too high up the fashion food chain to lower herself to such petty things. Nor is she willing to lower her tone and cater to anyone who doesn’t have at least a rudimentary 101 knowledge of the international fashion industry and its key players. If you do not immediately know names like Nicholas Ghesquière, Natalia Vodianova and Liz Tilberis (on whom there is an entire chapter), this is not the book for you.
For me, however, Grace was unputdownable. Coddington is the Kevin Bacon of fashion – with less than one degree of separation between her and absolutely everyone who has ever mattered. And despite her protestations that she is socially uncomfortable to the point of disorder, she somehow always seems to find herself at the very heart of the beau monde.
In every city from London to Paris and New York, and every era from the Swinging 60s – when she was known as the Cod (a less flattering nickname admittedly than the Shrimp) – to her current role at the age of 71 as Wintour’s right hand, she is a central character.
There is the obligatory chapter on Wintour, of course, which humanises the fashion maven, and could serve as a behavioural template for aspiring editors.
Beyond Wintour, the cast throughout all the chapters is staggering – from Coddington’s kisses with a young Mick Jagger to wrangling with a grumpy Madonna and working with such fashion icons as photographers David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino and Irving Penn.
Fashion is always central to Coddington’s storytelling. When her boyfriend is unfaithful with Catherine Deneuve’s sister, the focus is not on her emotions as much as her outfits. And rightly so. In the mists of time, an old affair no longer seems important – but a white sculpted Courreges shift is well worth reflecting upon.
Like all good fashion stylists, Coddington knows getting shot of the dull stuff and focusing on glamour is crucial. The only time her ruthless ability to edit her own life fails her is the chapter on her cats. They get as much space as Anna Wintour. Proof that even one of the most fashionable, directional women in the world can have a soppy senior moment.
GRACE: A MEMOIR, by Grace Coddington (Knopf, $49.99).
Stacy Gregg is a former fashion editor and author of the Pony Club Secrets series of children’s novels.