North Shore Book Notes: Grace Coddington's memoir
"Grace: A Memoir" By Grace Coddington. Illustrated by Grace Coddington. Random House, New York, 2012. 333 pages plus illustrations. $35.
Most of us never heard of Grace Coddington until we saw the documentary about Vogue magazine, “The September Issue.” Coddington, Vogue’s wild-haired creative director, butted heads with the renowned editor Anna Wintour in a provocative creative process many of us know all too well. Coddington captured our sympathies and became a bit of a fashion heroine.
She reinforces these loyalties with her entertaining new memoir, “Grace.” This tall, slim redhead from Anglesey, a small island off the northern coast of Wales, manages to insert herself into the thick of the celebrity/fashion world in London, France and America, a position she has maintained from the age of 18 till the present. She is 71 or 72 at this point and shows no depletion of creative spirit or professional drive.
At 18, Coddington moved to London. Had she stayed on the island, where her family ran a small inn, she would have wound up “working in either a clock factory or a snack bar.” Fascinated with fashion, especially as depicted in Vogue magazine (and especially the Norman Parkinson photo shoots), she left home, took a two-week modeling class, got herself an introduction to Parkinson and quickly became a model. Not known so much for her beauty as for her striking features — gorgeous red hair, a certain inscrutability to her sexy solemnity, her endless legs — she became a busy, sought-after model.
There’s never a dull moment in “Grace.” She has a lot of famous friends and ex-lovers, a couple of failed marriages, and professional and creative colleagues that read like the index of a Vogue September issue. From Ralph Lauren to Karl Lagerfeld to Mick Jagger to Keira Knightley to Naomi Campbell to Calvin Klein to Vidal Sassoon, who invented a haircut just for her — she’s known and worked with just about everyone in fashion and in the celebrity scene.
There’s a lot for Coddington to cover in this book, made even more appealing by the inclusion of scores of her enchanting illustrations. She narrates her life as a model and the change from model in her late twenties to fashion editor, eventually to creative director. We read with interest her navigation through the various worlds in which she operates, slowly gleaning a more comprehensive sense of who she is. She’s got a clever, romantic eye that refuses compromise. She’s a perfectionist. She’s anxious but open and game. She manages to make negative statements that come out sounding positive. It’s a tactic worth studying. She socializes and travels constantly for her job but declares herself a homebody. It takes a book of this length to get a sense of her.
And she has strong opinions about fashion. For a time she loved Yves Saint Laurent and wore him almost exclusively. She also appreciated the more minimalist style of the American designer Calvin Klein and she moved from the British Vogue to the United States to work for him as design director. She worked for Anna Wintour twice, first in London and again in New York City at the American Vogue.
Coddington also has a unique vision and a sharp eye for composition. Her spreads are romantic and narrative and highly styled There’s a lot going on and a lot of careful detail. It’s a real collaboration between photographer and creative director. She includes many photographs of herself as a model and she shows many of her spreads as creative director. She has preferences for photographers, selecting them according to her goals for the shoot. She shows the work of several of her favorite photographers including Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Norman Parkinson, Hemut Newton and many more.
As we read, we are also treated to a bit of an insight into Anna Wintour, who is every bit as firm and uncompromising and hard-working as Coddington. For example, she personally manages every aspect of the annual fundraising ball for the Costume Institute, even dressing the guests. The creative “push and pull” that Wintour and Coddington engage in is by now well known and decades old. Though Wintour has said that Coddington is the only one who can actually “grind her down,” she is unparalleled in her vision and determination. Vogue has come a long way under her oversight.
As for Coddington, she writes, “I had no idea how cantankerous and argumentative I can seem until I saw myself in ‘The September Issue.’” Talents like Coddington are focused on the work and persist with their vision. It may simply be summed up as argumentative or willful, but that’s what’s necessary to turn out award-winning spreads that enter the realm of art.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.