Gracing us with her Presence

Gracing us with her Presence


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‚Ķ) 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…

On Coddington's early model make-up look…
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…
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)…
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…
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…
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 Ghesquière's hardworking attitude…
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…
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.



Leave a comment
  1. Rosey

    2012-11-26 at 1:17 PM

    This book looks amazing, I can’t wait to get it even more than ever now!

  2. Kate

    2012-11-26 at 1:17 PM

    She is so lovely! I can’t wait to read/devour that book!

  3. Miss Coco

    2012-11-26 at 1:27 PM

    I want this book, I love Grace

  4. Gabrielle

    2012-11-26 at 1:39 PM

    I ordered it a week ago, can’t wait to read it!

  5. Joy.

    2012-11-26 at 2:02 PM

    I really can’t wait to read it!
    With Love,

  6. Serdane

    2012-11-26 at 2:22 PM

    She is so nice ! i love her career.


    2012-11-26 at 2:25 PM

    GREAT ! I will buy it asap.

  8. Duck

    2012-11-26 at 3:37 PM

    Urghh wish I’d been able to make it down to see her! More and more living out of London is SUCKING

  9. Dip It Black

    2012-11-26 at 5:20 PM

    Love her!
    Beautiful book! Defenitely a book every fashion lover got to have!

  10. Ana

    2012-11-26 at 5:59 PM

    There was (and still is) just something about her…
    Grace, indeed.

  11. ari

    2012-11-26 at 6:09 PM

    Great review! We all love Grace!

  12. Tara

    2012-11-26 at 6:22 PM

    I don’t really like the idea of investing in a clunky, picture-heavy and oft over-priced tomes on fashion – they may look gorgeous on the coffee table but when will one actually read them? But, Coddington’s memoirs seem different – more personal, quirky yet still, ultimately, fashion-focused. A good read, if not a good buy.
    Best Wishes,

  13. Joy

    2012-11-26 at 7:19 PM

    thanks for writing about her. i don’t think i would get a chance to really read the book so thank you for the exerpts. she rly does seem like the most wonderful person in the industry.

  14. Sophie

    2012-11-26 at 8:57 PM

    Looks like an amazing book and I LOVE the cover! Pretty exciting that it’s signed as well:)

  15. alicejane011

    2012-11-26 at 9:03 PM

    It seems like a really good book to have around! The quotes are so insightful!

  16. Sophie

    2012-11-26 at 9:16 PM

    I REALLY want to get that book. I’m expecting it for Christmas 🙂 I live about 40 minutes away from London and REALLY wanted to go to the book signing but I had loads of mocks at school so my parents wouldn’t have let me have the day off and I hadn’t planned it well enough in advance to bunk off although to be honest it would have been well worth it! I cannot put into words how happy I would be if I had a career like Grace Coddington. I would be the happiest person ever and every day would be like Christmas! Ha! I’d be pretty much just as happy if I had a career like yours, Susie <3 but working for Vogue full time is my ultimate dream of ultimate dreams!

  17. david

    2012-11-27 at 12:54 AM

    hey susie! as always love your documentation- what camera do you use btw to take the pics of this and your previous posts?

  18. The Provoker

    2012-11-27 at 11:06 AM

    It was a great talk, I remember hearing your camera snap with you raising your hands up and I was thinking “I wonder who that was” lol. So cool to have been in the same talk with you, I probs should’ve gone up to you but there were SO many people trying to swarm out and I guess everyone was trying to get their book signed lol. Glad you enjoyed it and got yours signed 😉 Next time I’d promise I’d say hi xx

  19. Suzi

    2012-11-27 at 11:28 AM

    I really MUST have this book. Hmmmm…it would make the PERFECT stocking filler.
    Suzi x

  20. Home of Fashion

    2012-11-27 at 1:29 PM

    Sounds like a fascinating book, will definitely have to check it out. She sounds like she has had such an interesting career and of course the picture look great too!

  21. Aude

    2012-11-27 at 3:49 PM
  22. susie_bubble

    2012-11-27 at 4:02 PM

    I acknowledge those flaws that the Economist highlighted but despite those flaws, I still got a lot out of the book. I really don’t think this is a book for someone who isn’t familiar with all the names, places and style epochs that she talks about. It’s for someone who are fashion enthusiasts and want to immerse in a world that they did not experience. Or if they did experience it, then they’ll read it familiarity.
    For people who might not get so excited over say YSL in the seventies, then I think they’re going to be disappointed. This certainly isn’t an acutely personal memoir but one that holds back as and when Coddington wants. She is still controlling the mystique around her and not revealing every single detail which is fair enough. In the scheme of great autobiographies, this one may not rank so highly but the content for fashion lovers like myself is enough for me to give it the thumbs up. I suspect there will be a few literary critics that won’t see the same merits in it as I do…

  23. Maya

    2012-11-27 at 10:10 PM

    I just got my copy in the mail and I’m really excited to read it. I think those of us interested in fashion will have much to gain from her breadth of experience, as you astutely point out.
    I was shocked to hear that she has never read books. Reading, to me, is such an important learning experience. Your opinion on her prose is very honest and verbalizes what I feared after seeing that fact in a WSJ interview.
    Nonetheless I know that I will learn so much from her memoir.

  24. Angela

    2012-11-27 at 11:38 PM

    Fantastic! Another book on my Christmas list and so worth it.

  25. Anna Joo

    2012-12-01 at 5:38 AM

    Love your posted ! could you know me shich use to your camera !

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