Saturday, January 12, 2013

It Girl: Grace Coddington

Seemingly all at once, there are several books and movies featuring longtime Vogue creative director Grace Coddington. And one she has written herself, which I read over the holidays, Grace: A Memoir. Admitting that she's probably only read two books in her life, Grace is more surprised than anyone that she has written a memoir. But public appearances and interviewer questions stirred thoughts and memories after the release of The September Issue. So the woman who spends her life behind the scenes orchestrating fashion photoshoots became a celebrity, answering questions about her life story. In the film, Grace's forthright manner and passion for her creative vision was in direct contrast with Anna Wintour's cool, sometimes Arctic, demeanor. This made for great drama and the audience couldn't help but relate to and root for Grace. Especially when Anna was slashing an entire fashion spread dreamed up and made real by Grace, who very vocally and emotionally fought back.

Born in 1941 on Anglesey, an island on the north coast of Wales, she grew up in a hotel run by her parents which she describes as "a plain building with whitewashed walls and a sturdy gray slate roof, long and low, with the understated air of an elongated bungalow." Grace says she grew up with "sand dunes, rugged monochrome cliffs, druid circles and bleakness", seeing "beauty in the bleakness." At fifteen, she spent her days drifting in her little sailboat named Argo "in grand seclusion." All of which makes perfect sense today, that she appears to be down-to-earth but creates such elaborate fantastical fashion spreads. And always interested in clothes, she made most of her wardrobe on a Singer sewing machine using Vogue patterns. I can certainly relate to that. And she says that as a child, she read her older sister's Vogue saying she liked it for the fantasy of looking at beautiful clothes and getting lost in its pages.

At eighteen, she knew if she stayed on the island her only career choices were "working in a clock factory or a snack bar", so in 1959 she ventured to London with a girlfriend to try modeling. Grace enrolled in the Cherry Marshall modeling school. (A quick search and I learn that Cherry has an interesting story too, one that I plan to explore.) Grace had early success with modeling, winning a Vogue competition and posing for the top photographers like Norman Parkinson.

And so with modeling, her adventures into the fashionable world begins. Casually and anecdotally, Grace mentions the names of friends, lovers and co-workers, all celebrities today. Names like Mick Jagger (she made out with him), Vidal Sassoon, all the fashion photographer greats and her first husband Michael Chow. Then in her late twenties she was told that she was getting too old to be a model and that she should be a fashion editor, so she got her first editing job at British Vogue.

The book has great photos, capturing the feeling of the time. Above is a 1981 photo of Grace with hairstylist Didier Malige, colleagues on fashion shoots then, but now life partners for over thirty years. I love her look in this photo.

Grace's sketch of the front row who's who at a fashion show. 

"With Anna at a Versace show. Photo: Arthur Elgort, 1998"
In the book's introduction, Grace modestly says "I'm always surprised that people who've seen the movie (The September Issue) respond to me in such a positive manner. Maybe it's because I come across on-screen as so emotional. It makes me appear idealistic, in contrast to Anna, who is by nature much more determinedly and quietly controlled. Or maybe it's because I appear to be put upon." Grace is loyal to Anna, writing about "the creative push and pull of the way Anna and I work together." Her thoughts on The Devil Wears Prada?: "its portrayal of fashion is utterly ridiculous".

The memoir contains a selection of Grace's fashion spreads:

British Vogue, shot by Helmut Newton, 1971.
That's Grace in the pool above and below in the black bikini.

Grace's elaborate and fantastic Alice in Wonderland multi-page creation for American Vogue.
Photos: Annie Leibowitz, 2003.

Coinciding with Vogue's 120th anniversary, In Vogue: The Editor's Eye, an HBO documentary about the fashion editors premiered recently, not having HBO I haven't seen it, but I'm hoping to soon. And of course, It-girl Grace is featured. And the same for the gorgeous companion book, Vogue: The Editor's Eye, which is on my wish list.

In her memoir, Grace takes the reader up to the present day when she celebrates her 71st birthday at a party thrown by Anna Wintour. Nearly everyone important to fashion was there. In a toast to Grace, Anna says "To me you will always be the heart and soul of the magazine, its guardian at the gate, its beacon of excellence..."

Grace is an inspiration for sticking to her passion and vision. Having worked in the fashion world for over fifty years, it must be pretty cool to be an "It" girl at the age of 71.


  1. I remember being curious to learn more about Grace when I saw The September Issue. Great to know about her new memoir!

  2. Lovely article! I absolutely adore Grace Coddington. She did a personal appearance as a part of her book tour at LACMA a couple months ago. Unfortunately I found out too late to get a ticket. Pout. But her memoir is on my reading list so thank you for your synopsis.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I loved reading about Grace Coddington. Thank you for the lovely tribute. When I think of an "it" girl of indeterminate age, "C" comes to mind, that lovely ageless woman we both know. She remains the most stylishly elegant woman I have ever known.