Book review: Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington

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THE arrival of Grace Coddington’s dishy memoir can be traced back to RJ Cutler’s 2009 documentary about the inner workings of Vogue magazine.

Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington

Chatto & Windus, 416pp, £25

Although Anna Wintour, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, appeared at first to be the main subject, the film was hijacked by the feisty, grousing Coddington, Vogue’s creative director, who was seen fighting hard for her own ideas, reacting bitterly when they were rejected, generally upstaging her boss, and coming across as the brains of the operation.

Fashion insiders already knew Coddington – not just from her earlier books but from the extreme, hallucinatory beauty of the photo spreads she dreams up, styles and supervises. But Grace credits Cutler’s documentary The September Issue as “the only reason anyone has ever heard of me”. She’s being modest of course. One of the film’s surprises was that Coddington, who by her late sixties (she is now 71) had the look of vengeful wraith, was once a fresh-faced young beauty with a high-profile modelling career. Grace contains many pictures of her, from her Welsh girlhood to the London fashion world at its most fab, then on from British Vogue to its US edition. At first she could look like a young Garbo. She did couture sophistication and 1960s futurism with equal ease. She says that she was the model on whom Vidal Sassoon created his famous five-point haircut and that she was drawing doll lashes below her eyes long before Twiggy did it. Her appearance changed most dramatically after Eileen Ford, queen arbiter of the modelling world, plucked her eyebrows to give her an ethereal quality – and to eradicate a natural look that never came back.

Grace is more than a companion piece to all these pictures. But since Coddington has “barely read two books in my life that aren’t picture books”, the text here (on which she collaborated with Michael Roberts) is light and glossy. It is also charmingly forthright, as when Coddington recalls the use of push-up bras and heated hair rollers at the start of her career. “You had these if you were madly up-to-date and avant-garde, which I was,” she says. She had many impetuous romances, yet approached everything with an eye for fashion. “Stripy cotton pyjamas” figured in her first sexual affair.

Coddington was working as a waitress when she was asked to model for Norman Parkinson, the fashion photographer she then most admired. She describes her first job with him as an assignment to run through the woods naked and says, “I had a lovely time.” Soon she would run with the best-known models and photographers of London’s Chelsea elite.

Abruptly she mentions the ghastly car accident that severed one of her eyelids. The injury was miraculously repaired, but it sidelined her for a while and pushed her to affect dark and heavy eye makeup. Today, still a provocateur who prefers extremes to the dull middle, she lightens the area around her eye sockets to achieve what she calls “that pale, bald Renaissance look”. It’s a look that sends a spooky message to the conventional beauty world.

Coddington’s work as an editor does not outglam her youthful adventures. But it’s at the heart of this book, and she presents it with passion and whimsy. She fills the book with comedic sketches of friends and colleagues. Her captions are wittily self-explanatory. To Azzedine Alaia, known for his tightfitting designs, “Tell me Azzedine, does my [behind] look big in this?”

It happens that Alaia is also known for a scornful attitude toward Wintour, just as Coddington has come to be. So this memoir includes an appreciative chapter about Coddington’s working relationship with Wintour, about how much Wintour loves her children and works hard.

Yet Coddington gets her digs in too. It’s nice that Wintour has done so much to make Vogue a global brand, Coddington says. “Nevertheless, a little nostalgia for the days when fashion came first doesn’t do any harm.”

One of the best aspects of this book is its appraisal of the styles of major fashion photographers. She bristles at diva behaviour (Annie Leibovitz’s perfectionism is mentioned) and is astounded by photographers who don’t travel outside their comfort zones.

One of her funnier stories involves Puff Daddy’s wanting to appear smack in the middle of a Leibovitz two-page spread despite being told he would disappear into the fold. Another, about the Lewis Carroll fantasy shoot that is one of Coddington’s greatest triumphs, tells of Tom Ford’s arriving, impeccably dressed, to play the White Rabbit. But the photo would depict him going down the rabbit hole. Ford found himself upside down against a slope of black velvet. So he asked the ever-resourceful Grace to keep his necktie out of his face and to keep too much sock from showing.