Grace Coddington's unexpected elevated status of everyone's favourite fashion heroine was inevitable as soon as the R.J. Cutler film The September Issue had spread its gospel. Previously the flame-haired creative director of American Vogue went about her business in a quiet fashion and now she is stopped everywhere she goes. She has become the "good cop" figurehead of American Vogue for the public to root for, sympathise with and molly coddle, whilst Anna Wintour has been cast as the "bad cop", riddled with aspersions put forth by films such as The Devil Wears Prada.
Now we have another reason to go on counting the reasons why the general public (fashion loving or not as it turns out‚Ä¶) have taken to Coddington so wholeheartedly. Her memoir was released last week to great fanfare and especially in London where she was doing signings and appearances all over the place. I went to see her in conversation with Sarah Mower at Central Saint Martins on Friday where they talked about Coddington's life and I along with every famous CSM alum such as Phoebe Philo, Hussein Chalayan and Christopher Kane and the present students went to get our copies signed. She even popped up on Twitter, a medium that I suspect she isn't too bothered by, to do a Q&A. One wonders how willing Coddington is to be pushing her life out to the world given that she's loathe to step into the limelight. She initially refused to be filmed by Cutler for The September Issue and rebuffed him constantly until she eventually relented. Whilst she has released two previous books before (Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue, which is an expensive rarity now and The Catwalk Cats), her memoirs would open up a personal can of worms that I somehow thought she'd never reveal, remaining an enigma and leaving a legacy of unbounded creativity that's testament in her work.
I bought the book on Thursday morning and had finished it by the end of the day, chomping through the the thematic slash chronological chapters set out in 416 pages of big font, punctuated by Coddington's infamous sketches and wonderful photography both of Coddington herself as well as of her editorial work. Whilst Michael Roberts, style director of Vanity Fair, edited the book with Coddington, it's immediately apparent that the written voice is all her own. She admits to not having read two books in her life that weren't picture books and as a teensy weeny down point, it definitely shows in the prose.
The upside of that though is that the memoir rings true. She flits about chapters in her life, recounting her days as a model working with the likes of Norman Parkinson and David Bailey with nonchalance. She skims over traumatic experiences in her life such as the car accident which resulted in reconstructive eye surgery, her miscarriage and the death of her sister in a matter of factly way. Some might read that as emotional detachment but I'd say it's probably down to the fact that Coddington doesn't want to play the victim card because in all other respects her life is so rich with vitality, friendship and creative stimulation.
Where the memoir really comes to life is when Coddington describes her observations of the various epochs in fashion from the early sixties to the nineties, where so much change was going on, from seeing the stiffened designs of English couturiers of Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell and Dior, segued to the likes of Mary Quant and Andr√© Courr√®ges and Pierre Cardin. The ready to wear sector was growing and English designers were beginning to hold their own with names like Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes and later Vivienne Westwood. You latch onto Coddington's feverish descriptions of Yves Saint Laurent's collections, which informed her style throughout the seventies. Then came her eighties Americana phase, bought on by Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. She reacted against the excess of the early nineties bling by being one of the first fashion editors to explore the grunge aesthetic with Steven Meisel, weirdly foreseeing Marc Jacobs famous "grunge" collection for Perry Ellis. Throughout the decades, she has been true to her own aesthetic and taste predilections, favouring and championing the visionaries of her time from Yves Saint Laurent to Azzedine Alaia to John Galliano and through to Nicolas Ghesqui√®re today.
It's a well known cast of characters that flit in and out of Coddington's life. Photographers like Irving Penn, Norman Parkinson, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber and many more are interesting to read about as key collaborators in Coddington's styling work. Accounts of Coddington's past colleagues such as the former editor in chief of British Vogue and American Harper's Bazaar Liz Tilberis and her British Vogue boss in the seventies Beatrice Miller are heartfelt and speak of close friendship and camraderie. Her charming anecdotes relating to designers like Azzedine Alaia, Karl Lagerfeld and Calvin Klein (the most surprising fact from the book was that Coddington briefly worked as creative director of the American super brand) crop up frequently for light relief. You get the feeling that Coddington far prefers to document observations of her friends in the industry rather than negotiate with her feelings relating to her private life.
She also talks about her work in great detail, each shoot telling of the period it took place in. Coddington frequently reminisces of a time when shoots were shot on film, when there were less people, when you had to think on your feet and when things were more spontaneous and less about fashion credits. She's careful not to disparage the modern day way of shooting. She can see the pros and cons and has a very diplomatic way of seeing the way the industry is today.
There really aren't that many people in the industry who has such a breadth of fashion related tidbits, connections and tales through so many key fashion decades, to call upon and so living vicariously through Coddington's penned words is definitely a treat, despite the fact that often her paragraphs leave you hanging for more details and description. I'd be surprised if most readers didn't get through this tome in less than a day.
No doubt, the book will further cement her fan base and have many a young fashion lover growing up aspiring to a career like Coddington's. The tale isn't quite finished though. At seventy, it doesn't look like Coddington is ceasing soon. As Wintour says to Coddington in one chapter "No, as long as I'm here, you will be, too."
You can see that my copy has been well thumbed and folded in many places so it was hard to pick out my favourite bits but I've attempted to narrow it down‚Ä¶
On Coddington's early model make-up look‚Ä¶
My particular thing was to draw an extra-wide stroke emphasising the crease of the eye socket and add extravagantly long, spidery lines below the eye, a little like doll's lashes, then paint a dot towards the inner corner of the eye for reasons I can't exactly articular except that it looked nice and 'now'. Later I discovered my crazy new eyelash look being called 'twiglets' and credited to the young British model Twiggy. Well, they were very much mine. I was probably doing them before she was born!
On the new wave of French ready-to-wear and chic vs. cool…
For me, the French were always so superior in matters of style. england was cool but never chic. During this particular moment i was very into the angular designs of Pierre Cardin, so my dressmaker would run me up copies of Cardin couture. Emmanuelle Khanh, Dorothee Bis, V de V and Christiane Bailly were among the absolute leaders of the new French ready-to-wear designers.
On attending shows when Coddington began working at British Vogue as fashion editor‚Ä¶
At the shows, the team from American Vogue, with Vreeland in the centre, usually sat in comfort on a deep sofa, and American Harper's Bazaar sat on another. Lowly British Vogue didn't qualify for a sofa.
On meeting Tina Chow (who married hip restauranteur Michael Chow, Coddington's first husband)‚Ä¶
I had already heard from several sources that Michael's bride-to-be, Tina was a very pretty, cool and avant-garde young model of Japanese-American extraction. So, to make an impression, I rushed over to the Yves Saint Laurent salon to borrow something cool and avant-garde to wear. The outfit they lent me was from Yves' notorious Forties couture collection, the one that scandalised all of Paris and included a green box-shouldered fox-fur coat called a 'chubby' that came with leggings and wedge shoes. I then put on my make-up and my little blue velvet hat and went over to the hotel. Meanwhile, tina had apparently heard that I was a very well-dessed person, too, which to her way of thinking translated as very classic, so she was dressed to meet me in a super-traditional English twinset and pearls. Thus, in a strange way, when we did meet, we were wearing each other's clothes.
On Anna Wintour coming to British Vogue as editor in chief and attempting to instil a different way of working at the publication‚Ä¶
It was such a different way of working for me. Anna's mission, coming as she did from the commanding heights of American Vogue, seemed to be take its whimsical little cousin by the scruff of the neck and propel it forward into a brave new world.
I honestly don't know how Anna survived. THere was no spirited atmosphere, no determination, everything was deemed 'impossible' or 'Oooh, i don't think so', and the solution to most problems was 'Mmmm, let's have a nice cup of tea.'
On the competitive atmosphere at American Vogue as Coddington battled it out with fellow editors Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, Polly Mellen and Jenny Capitain‚Ä¶
It was pointless complaining to Anna, saying things like 'She stole my dress', because the reply would simply be 'This is not a girls' boarding school. Deal with it yourself.' However, despite outsiders' elevated view of Vogue as a temple of cool and sophistication, a girls' boarding school – with its sulky outbursts, tears and schoolgirlish tantrums – was exactly what it occasionally resembled.
On working on the Alice in Wonderland shoot (which Coddington says is one of of her favourites she's ever worked on) with Annie Leibovitz in 2003 and Nicolas Ghesqui√®re's hardworking attitude‚Ä¶
The only problem was the dress Nicolas (Ghesqui√®re) had so exquisitely made for the story had asymmetrical rows of ruffles all concentrated on the wrong side of the body for Annie's composition. Outrageously, and to my horror, Annie suggested we either put it on backwards, or he remake it. Without a murmur, Nicolas and his seamstress politely obliged, reconstructing the dress to be a mirror image of its former self.
On dressing the girls herself to this very day‚Ä¶
I think that I am probably the last surviving fashion editor who actually dresses the girl rather than leaving it to an assistant. It is so important to me. The dressing room is the only place you have left to communicate with the model and get your opinion across as to how she should stand and what mood should be conveyed, without interfering with the job of the photographer. I'm told other stylists sit down and direct from behind the camera, preferring to have their assistants tug the clothes straight, turn up the collar and push up the sleeves.