In and out of Vogue: a passionately fashionable life
MEMOIR:The US magazine’s veteran creative director has written a fascinating account of her career, from modelling to working with Anna Wintour
Grace: A Memoir, By Grace Coddington, Chatto & Windus, 333pp, £25
RJ Cutler’s 2009 documentary The September Issue is, writes Grace Coddington, “the only reason anyone has ever heard of me”. Coddington is the creative director of American Vogue, and she became the surprise star of Cutler’s fascinating look at the production of the magazine’s biggest edition.
In contrast to her stern boss, editor Anna Wintour (whom Coddington describes as having “an almost Margaret Thatcher-like, straight-faced control”), Coddington came across as emotional, funny and creative. At the end of the film, she turns the tables on the documentary crew who’ve been following her for months, using them as living props in a last-minute fashion shoot.
Coddington grew up on unglamorous Anglesey, in north Wales, where her shabbily genteel family ran a hotel. As a teenager, she moved to London, where she worked as a waitress before winning a Vogue modelling competition.
Her gossipy account of model life in the early 1960s is very entertaining, and the photographs of her modelling days show a beautiful young woman with a remarkably vivid, expressive face. It’s the sort of character she still looks for in models today.
In the late 1960s she moved to the other side of the camera, joining the fashion team at British Vogue, where she worked for 20 years, refining her romantic, imaginative style. In 1988 she joined the team at American Vogue on the day Wintour started as editor. Twenty-five years later, she and Wintour have a close, sometimes stormy relationship. Coddington clearly respects and even likes Wintour but is clearly frustrated by some of her editorial decisions: she doesn’t approve of the new focus on celebrities, for example, though ruefully admits that stars are now needed to sell magazines. Nor is she a fan of Vogue’s broader scope. “A little nostalgia for the days when fashion came first doesn’t do any harm.”
Coddington’s life has been devoted to fashion, and she seems uninterested in any other issue. She admits that she never reads books, and she is so politically naive that she refers to CND as “Cut Nuclear Defence”. On Vogue’s groundbreaking trip to China in the 1970s, she was more interested in the style of the Mao suits than the reality of life in the country. Though she clearly has a sense of humour – the book is full of her own witty, charming cartoons – she takes fashion very seriously and doesn’t appreciate mockery from outsiders. (She found Ben Stiller’s glorious Zoolander “a crass and truly mind-numbing experience”.)
As she notes repeatedly, she has always been very reserved and has no interest in baring her soul on the page. Two terrible accidents blighted her London days: in one, a car crash sliced off her left eyelid, leading to multiple operations and derailing her modelling career; in another, the car she was driving when seven months pregnant was overturned by football hooligans, and she miscarried. “This turned out to be the only time in my life I was able to conceive,” she writes. “The incident was one of the most traumatic of my life.”
But she goes no further, and what she really felt about these horrific experiences and their consequences is left to the reader’s imagination. This is fair enough – she shouldn’t have to expose her emotional pain – but in a memoir it does create a sense of distance. She’s most open when talking about her late friend Liz Tilberis, her longtime partner, Didier Malige, and her beloved cats, but you can’t help wishing she’d be a little less restrained and even dish some serious dirt on her peers and colleagues. The slightly rambling narrative style doesn’t always help either.
But she’s still extremely likeable, and if you’re interested in fashion, and how one of the most creative visionaries in the business views her work, the book is irresistible. Amid all the name-dropping and tales of dinners and outings are fascinating insights into the working practices of photographers from Ellen Von Unwerth to Helmut Newton, and the ways the fashion world has changed over the decades.
Although she is passionate about her world, she is remarkably unpretentious about it. She may be Vogue’s creative director, but she simply considers herself a stylist. “I certainly don’t think fashion photography is art, because if it is art, it’s probably not doing its job,” she writes. “In fashion photography rule number one is to make the picture beautiful and lyrical or provocative and intellectual – but you still have to see the dress.”
And yet her work suggests that a fashion magazine really can produce art. As a teenager who loved both British and American Vogue, I always paid attention to the names of the photographers but never noticed who had styled each shoot. So after reading Grace, I unearthed a pile of American Vogues from 1992 to 1994. As I flicked through them for the first time in many years, I recognised the fashion spreads that enchanted me as a teenager: a cheerful swimwear shoot inspired by Esther Williams movies; a narrative shoot about a jilted bride with a party of black-clad bridesmaids; a witchy girl with tumbling red curls lolling in a caravan, dressed in Marc Jacobs; a portfolio of the autumn-winter 1993 collections presented with the dreamy formality of 18th-century portraiture. These vivid, romantic images have been burned into my visual memory for nearly 20 years. When I looked at them again, I saw that every one was styled by Grace Coddington.