Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue magazine, had always flown a bit under the radar. Despite her wild, fiery red hair, she kept a low profile. That is until she was featured in the documentary The September Issue. In her memoir, Grace, she talks about being super resistant to being involved in the shoot. She writes:
"Eventually I thought, 'If you can't beat them, join them.' Besides, Anna had hauled me into her office one last time and told me, 'They really are coming to film your shoot. They are going to film your run-through, and this time you cannot get out of it. There will be no discussion.' So I definitely had a gun to my head. 'But if you put me in that movie, you will hear things you won't like,' I warned. 'I can't pretend. I'll be so focused on the shoot that I will probably blurt out anything that comes to mind.' (What I secretly thought was that if I said anything too bad, they wouldn't use it - which is why I'm caught swearing like a trooper throughout the entire movie.) There had been other documentaries about the fashion business that I'd been filmed for, but my contributions had always ended up on the cutting room floor.
When I saw the final cut for the first time, I was in total shock. There was way too much of me in the film. Later, one crew member told me that the forceful dynamic between Anna and me strengthened the movie."
It was actually during those cursing, passionate scenes that I fell in love with Grace Coddington. When I read in Entertainment Weekly that she was publishing a memoir, I treated myself to the hard cover book ($35 dollars!) as a Hanukkah gift.
The book arrived from Amazon with a bright orange cover to match Grace's signature hair.
I was thrilled to discover the book included tons of sketches Grace had doodled herself. She explains in the book that she never takes photographs at runway shows, she sketches the looks she likes best. On the inside cover of the book is sketch of her with many of Vogue's best known editors.
The book begins in Anglesey, an island off the northern coast of Wales, when Grace grew up. Her parents ran a hotel so she was constantly meeting new people as they checked in and out. Her curiosity was so much greater than her childhood small town that she regularly took the bus to the next biggest city to see movies in the theater.
At the age of eighteen, Grace left home and moved to London to pursue modeling.
That same year, 1959, she won a modeling competition held by British Vogue. That very first moment of validation helped to set the rest of her career in motion.
As Grace's star rose in the modeling world in the 1960s, she began traveling regularly to Paris. Her face became a constant in French Elle. When she describes those early modeling years in Paris, the book begins to feel like a mash up of The Paris Wife and The Andy Cohen Diaries - romantic descriptions of the City of Light mixed with incessant name dropping (in the best way). On page 84 she describes an encounter with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones:
"I kept my small rented apartment in West London Studios to use when I was not with Albert in Paris. The old brick building was popular with a number of successful young photographers, one of whom, Eric Swayne, was a particular friend who made a habit of dating the most eligible girls in London, such as the leggy model Pattie Boyd before she married the Beatle George Harrison, and Jane Birkin before she got together with French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Eric was equally friendly with cool, newly famous folk like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. They sometimes came over and hung out in my studio. One afternoon not long after I had moved in, Mick had come over and starting making out with me. But just as it was about to get interesting and I began thinking, 'Here I am, kissing THE Mick Jagger,' the telephone rang - it was Albert, whom I had not yet started dating, inviting me to Paris for the weekend - and the moment passed."
At the height of her modeling career, Grace was in a very serious car accident that disfigured her face. Despite not being able to work as a model for quite some time, she remained in the fashion world, eventually working at British Vogue. After a long tenure, she winds up moving to the U.S. to work for Calvin Klein and eventually, as most people know, landing at American Vogue.
At this point in the book, Grace shares stories from some of her most memorable photo shoots. On page 217 she describes a shoot with Mike Tyson and Naomi Campbell on the boardwalk in Atlantic City (the two were dating at the time).
"Eventually, Tyson returned for more photographs, having packed in a few meetings about tactics and training along the way, and at a certain point he whispered something to Naomi, who came over to us, giggling again. 'Mike wants to do a nude with me,' she said. 'What? Where?' I asked, my jaw dropping. 'Here.' She indicated the boardwalk, which had been overrun by even more onlookers. Bruce was completely up for it, so in the next second, Naomi has brazenly whipped her top off, Tyson had peeled off his shirt, and she was lying facedown on the mountain range of muscle that was his chest, while Tyson's manager, Don King, held back the leering, hooting goggle-eyed crowd. Afterward I flung around Naomi's shoulders the cashmere blanket I always take with me on a shoot to provide comfort and protection for the models. Bruce snapped away as they walked back to the location van. Tyson was gently holding her hand. Naomi looks young, fresh and vulnerably pretty. It's my favorite picture in the story."
Grace writes an entire chapter about her relationship with the incredibly famous Anna Wintour. She talks about their ability to trust each other fully and be honest when they have polarizing opinions. She also offers many tidbits that really do humanize Anna, a woman normally thought of as cold and ruthless. Here she talks about Anna supporting a shoot idea with Ben Stiller to help promote the movie Zoolander.
"It was Anna's decision, the moment Hollywood talk turned to Zoolander, the comedy film in which Ben Stiller plays a knucklehead male model, that he should be taken to Paris and shot by Annie for a couture story (besides vintage, Annie absolutely loves shooting couture). I have to say, I hated the idea, not merely because I respect Paris couture for its purity and exquisite workmanship but because an advance screening of the film revealed it to be a crass and truly mind-numbing experience. I think it was decided upon, really, because Anna had a crush on Ben. (She gets these occasional crushes - Ben, Puff Daddy, Roger Federer.)"
Can you imagine Anna Wintour having a crush on Puff Daddy?
Towards the end of the book, Grace talks about all the advances in technology and mobile that have dramatically impacted the way fashion photography and information is consumed. Below she describes throwing a reporter out who tried to take photos behind the scenes before a runway show.
"Everyone has a cell phone or camera, including all the models getting ready behind the scenes, so everyone knows exactly what's happening in real time. There are no secrets anymore - everything has been texted, tweeted, or e-mailed all over the world way before the show has even begun.
During the time I worked at Calvin Klein, Carrie Donovan, formerly of Harper's Bazaar but by then elevated to the powerful position of fashion editor of The New York Times, attempted to send her photographer backstage at one of our fashion shows. I threw him out. Then Calvin came running over, demanding to know why I had done it. I said I thought that seeing what we were doing ahead of time would ruin the surprise, and besides, the guy was in the way. 'No, no,' he said. 'It's for Carrie Donovan. You've got to allow it.' That was the beginning of the end. Now it is complete mayhem back there, with probably more pictures taken behind the scenes than of the models on the runway."
In addition to sharing stories about her childhood, her modeling career and her time as a magazine editor, Grace gets very personal in this memoir. She shares intimate details of her multiple long-term relationships (and marriages) with Albert Koski, Michael Chow, a Vietnamese photographer named Duc, Willie Christie and Didier Malige. Didier is Grace's current partner. He is a fashion hair stylist so they are often able to work together in addition to sharing their personal lives.
Grace also opens up about her relationship with her sister, Rosemary, who had a very tumultuous adult life. Rosemary passed away at a young age, sparking Grace's attempts to adopt her nephew, Tristan. Grace's love for Tristan is matched only by her love from her cats. In fact, she devotes an entire chapter of this book to her furry friends.
I loved Grace. It takes you behind the scenes of the fashion world, a glamorous industry that feels out of reach for most. Pictured below is one of her favorite shoots, a spread that re-enacts Alice in Wonderland, starring present day fashion designers.
I also appreciated that alongside the glitz and glam, Grace also shared the harsh realities of her failed relationships. If you are looking for a beach book or a book to take on a long plane ride, I highly recommend this memoir.