Nearly 30 minutes into the 2009 documentary “The September Issue,” we are formally introduced to Grace Coddington, the stubbornly passionate creative director of Vogue. It’s easy to assume that Coddington, with her mane of straw-like ginger hair and very un-Vogue flats, comes from a long line of fashion eccentrics. She is no eccentric.
Coddington’s no-fuss demeanor is a contrast to Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s unflinching iron fist approach or editor at large Andre Leon Talley’s fabulous flowing diva cape-covered world. Coddington delivers a grounding voice and vision for America’s largest fashion magazine. She is also the breakout star — if such a thing exists in a documentary — of R.J. Cutler’s film. How could the woman who steadfastly plants those flats on the floor and refuses to budge during kerfuffles with Wintour not gain notoriety among fashion fans?
The model-turned-editor offered a tantalizing glimpse into her past during the film, but not enough, which is why “Grace: A Memoir” is such a welcome arrival. There is no romanticism or soft focus lens pointed at her recollections. Coddington doesn’t have time for these frivolities at work, nor does she indulge them in print.
But what’s left is a fascinating tale of a girl from a bleak cove called Trearddur Bay in northern England who grows from avid fashion magazine fan to respected, even revered, editor.
Modeling was Coddington’s escape from her gray-skied, wind-swept youth to the soon-to-be swinging London of the 1960s. Her description of her 1959 arrival in the city shows not only how the modeling world has evolved from models-as-mannequins to models-as-recognizable-public figures, it also shows the beginning of Coddington’s fashion education.
Through tales of star-studded evenings, coupled with the charming pen and ink illustrations that dot the book, Coddington details the domino-stacked series of coincidences and acquaintances that led to a career of working with top photographers of the 1960s on covers for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Elle. Her 18-inch waist and geometric Vidal Sassoon coiffures led Coddington to a breezy existence of parties and carousing.
The quick ascent was abruptly sidelined by a serious car accident that Coddington alluded to in “The September Issue.” In “Grace” she offers a smidgen more detail than the three minutes she shared in the documentary, but sadly, not much more.
In less than two pages, she tells of how her eyelid was sliced off in the accident and restoring it required five rounds of plastic surgery. She writes of the accident as coolly as she describes a photo shoot in the Bahamas.
“Things had not worked out quite as I had planned,” she offers, denying readers access into thoughts and fears of a top model who experiences a disfiguring accident that will put her out of work for two years.
That’s the one shortcoming of “Grace.” Coddington seems unable to share her inner biography. The same guarded treatment is given to her two divorces, which she describes matter-of-factly, again subtracting emotion from what was likely a difficult time. A 1960s headline in the now defunct British tabloid The Daily Sketch referred to Coddington as “Cold as a codfish, but hot as a four-bar fire” (Coddington’s nickname was the Cod). Coddington is far from cold, she’s immensely likable, but her reserve is just south of austere.
This is the dichotomy of Coddington. The photo shoots that she carefully orchestrates for Vogue are brimming with romance expressed through billowing, full skirts and multitextured backgrounds. Her emotion lies in fashion. Oh, it also lies with her much adored cats, which get an entire chapter.
She began with British Vogue in the 1960s, moved to creative director of Calvin Klein in the 1980s, to American Vogue in 1989. At this point in “Grace,” we get a look into a world most assume they know from the film “The Devil Wears Prada” — although Coddington is quick to express her distaste for the film.
She wisely devotes a chapter to Wintour, and then launches into stories about photo shoots with a surly Madonna and her own wise thoughts on aging. Her delicious, page-turning life story is practically begging to be made into a documentary or feature film. Coddington would most likely poo-poo the idea, but that’s one of the qualities that makes her so endearing. She is a fascinating woman who, unlike many in fashion, is much more focused on her passions than trumpeting her importance.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.