In the opening pages of Grace, the newly released memoir from Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, the author confesses that she is that rarest of birds: a reluctant celebrity. Although Coddington has lived a life of glamour and adventure—one filled with friendships with the famous and a few love affairs with them as well—she has never been a boldface name outside the fashion industry. A natural introvert, she has been utterly content with her relative anonymity.
All that changed with the release of The September Issue, the 2009 documentary by director R.J. Cutler that took viewers behind the scenes as the Vogue staff assembled its most important issue of the year. The star of that film was the magazine’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, but the emotional heart of it was Coddington. Her importance cannot be overstated. It is Coddington who tutors the audience on the authentic, creative satisfaction that can be found within the frock trade. And her long-standing professional relationship with the self-consciously inscrutable Wintour reveals more about the fashion boss’s character than an entire genre of tell-all biographies and tabloid gossip. Audiences were fascinated with Coddington because she was the key who unlocked—if only for a few moments on screen—the mysteries of Wintour, as well as the fashion industry over which she reigns.
As a result of The September Issue, Coddington became part of the popular culture conversation. And now the ivory-complexioned editor with the cloud of red hair is no longer only a widely admired and respected leader within the fashion industry, she is a celebrity murmured about on the streets, on blogs, and on Twitter.
A memoir was practically inevitable.
Who is this woman stubbornly standing up for romance and stylish fantasies in the face of a fashion industry driven by cold financial calculations and the cult of tawdry celebrity? Who is this woman going toe-to-toe with Wintour, when all others appear to tremble, and who excels because of it? Coddington, the reluctant celebrity, shares the facts of her life in her memoir but she is grudging with emotional revelations. She is not one to self-analyze.
Indeed, even when Coddington was interviewed for the upcoming HBO documentary, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, she bluntly rejects the filmmaker’s invitation to consider a more complex or metaphorical interpretation of her work. In a wholly flattering film devoted to the elusive process of fashion photography—and celebrating the 120th anniversary of her employer—Coddington stubbornly refuses to articulate much more than logistics.
Coddington was born in Anglesey, an island off the coast of Wales, and grew up during the tail end of World War II. She spent her childhood in a charming hotel run by her family, which might have given her a rarified and enviable youth were it not for the profoundly British habit of building hotels on extremely cold, wet, and rather desolate landscapes. Like so many young girls, she tried modeling as a lark, a way of escaping the humdrum and finding glamour.
With her height and slight physique, as well as an old-fashioned beauty reminiscent of a Renaissance painting, she found some success. Her career, however, was sidelined after an auto accident in which, among other injuries, her left eyelid was detached. After five plastic surgeries over two years, she was finally able to return to work.
This is the first of many instances when the reader nearly gasps at how quickly and unemotionally Coddington recounts the details of a startling event that surely must have turned her life topsy-turvy or at least given her a moment of psychological unrest. For a woman whose livelihood had come to depend on her appearance, the sudden damage to her face barely seems to register as much more than an inconvenience. Coddington may indeed be a calm soldier when faced with such challenges, but she neither acknowledges that this is a rare trait nor explores how she came to such meditative acceptance.
There are tantalizing snippets of love affairs and brief trysts— including a dalliance with Mick Jagger.
Coddington is not a particularly forthcoming memoirist. There are tantalizing snippets of love affairs and brief trysts—including a dalliance with Mick Jagger. But none are discussed at length.
She works with all of the great names in modern fashion photography—Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz—and becomes friends with many of them. She knows every significant designer, from Calvin Klein, for whom she worked briefly as design director, to Nicolas Ghesquiere, with whom she regularly dines. But a reader will never learn about the underpinnings of these friendships. The stories are told solely through the lens of clothes and the next great photograph.
This breezy tone is particularly frustrating when Coddington dispenses with her own miscarriage—and the fact that it marked the only time she was able to conceive—in little more than a single, dismissive paragraph. If such an event is worth revealing, it deserves more than a passing glance. It’s especially jarring since she offers such lengthy analyses of the appeal of various models, from the chameleon Linda Evangelista to the eccentric style of Kristen McMenamy. Indeed, she unleashes more passion in her brutal assessment of Tyra Banks—“You could see she would go on to do something else, with her big tits and incredibly thin ankles, she was never cut out to be a serious model”—than in her arm’s-length descriptions of various love interests.
As Coddington comes into her own as a fashion editor and ultimately as creative director at Vogue, her patience becomes more rationed and her disdain for the changing nature of the business more pronounced. For someone who has long been enraptured by the essence of fashion, it’s understandable that she is critical of the influx of popular culture onto her hallowed ground. The descriptions of her making her way through celebrity-chasing throngs of paparazzi will make any fashion purist smile.
But the reader never learns whether Coddington is equally distressed about fashion’s increased economic clout, its more powerful impact on the political stage and its elevated place within visual culture. How does she feel about a fashion-dabbling artist like Cindy Sherman, for instance? The influence of Michelle Obama on the masses? Or all those new Chinese consumers?
Readers will invariably zero in on the later chapters, those devoted to Coddington’s relationship with Wintour. Theirs is a complicated marriage of opposites—each is made better by the presence of the other. It’s easy to imagine Coddington marching off in disgust at the popularization of the industry were not for the Kevlar-coated Wintour absorbing the existential blows. And Wintour would be far too pragmatic without Coddington’s fanciful agitprop. The reader knows this mostly because of The September Issue but also because Coddington speaks more finely on this subject, perhaps because she realizes that she must tell her readers something more than the film already has.
But while readers learn the facts about Coddington’s life at the top of the fashion heap—working with some of its most influential stars and crafting some of the most memorable images—they don’t really learn what only she can reveal: how it feels to be Grace Coddington.