Although long familiar and widely revered in fashion-industry circles, Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue, burst into the wider public consciousness as the cussing, henna-haired breakout star of The September Issue, the 2009 R.J. Cutler documentary about the production of the Sept. 2007 issue of American Vogue. An 840-page monument to pre-recessionary tastes that included a Roman travel diary in which Sienna Miller wore a lot of feathers and a Dolce & Gabbana dress that cost $61,000, it was at the time the largest monthly issue of any American magazine ever published. (The Sept. 2012 Vogue finally eclipsed it in overall page count—but in its number of advertising pages, it has never been surpassed.) The movie made much of the relationship between Ms. Coddington and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Ms. Wintour is chilly and superior—one of the documentary’s most entertaining moments comes when a startled assistant jumps out of her way like a vole before an owl—while Ms. Coddington is warm and generous to peers and underlings alike. Colleagues shrink and wither under Ms. Wintour’s judgments, but Ms. Coddington challenges the boss like an equal.
After the film came out, Ms. Coddington writes in her new memoir, Grace (Random House, 416 pp., $35), she started getting recognized on the street. Her newfound popular appeal was judged to be such that Random House paid a reported $1.2 million to acquire the memoir. But was this acclaim earned? It is no great task to seem warm-hearted next to Anna Wintour, and the creative director is hardly bold. In one sequence in the film that is, in retrospect, a bit of a reach, the camera lingers as Ms. Coddington surveys the palace of Versailles while sharing insights like, “It’s sort of strange to think how old it is.” Let that $1.2 million sink in.
Grace begins with Ms. Coddington’s childhood in Trearddur Bay, a small town on Holy Island in Wales. The book proceeds chronologically through her successful modeling career, her transition into working as a fashion stylist and her years of inching her way up the mastheads at British and then American Vogue. Anecdotes careen into one another.Ms. Coddington and her co-author, Vanity Fair’s Michael Roberts, jump from a story about powdering Prince Charles’s nose for a British Vogue shoot in 1969 to a discourse on the primacy of Yves Saint Laurent on the Paris couture schedule of the time to a bit about meeting her ex-husband’s new wife and what everybody wore at that gathering. The effect is somewhat like going ’round for tea at the home of a very cultured, enjoyably potty-mouthed aunt who only needs a little prompting to commence holding forth. Only Ms. Coddington’s stories include that one about the time she made out with Mick Jagger in the late 1960s. And, somewhat more darkly, how she had to “escape” from Roman Polanski after he offered her a ride home then drove to his place instead, “and tried dragging me inside.”
Ms. Coddington writes frequently of her shyness, a feeling that she says she can remember from earliest childhood. Her parents ran a hotel in a remote island community in Wales, but were left in financial straits after the war. She hints that her mother was a hoarder; her father died of lung cancer when she was 11. She says she was so paralyzed by the thought of talking to the other girls at her strict, French-influenced convent school that she had to eat lunch off-campus, and even today she avoids any situation that involves public speaking. But even young Grace could be sly: one of the most charming stories in the book’s early chapters concerns her boyfriend Bob, a Royal Air Force pilot, whom she went to visit on base with his best friend. “Halfway there,” she writes, “we realized we quite fancied each other. And that was the end of Bob.”
Ms. Coddington recounts her love affairs with admirable dispassion. I lost count of the fiancés, boyfriends, flings and live-in partners; the men are simply not the point. An entire marriage is dismissed in a sentence, a divorce in a few words. She writes evenly of tragedy—the car accident that ended her modeling career, the miscarriage she suffered in the seventh month of what would be her only pregnancy after some football hooligans picked up the Mini Cooper she was driving and tossed it on its side—and of heartbreak, like the time her fiancé turned out to be carrying on an affair with Catherine Deneuve’s sister. Unlike so many memoirists who seem intent on demonstrating how cool and hip and outrageous the memoirst is (or was, when she was young), Ms. Coddington writes in a bloodless tone. At one point, she says that she lacks Ms. Wintour’s ability to not care what people think of her: “I care whether anyone—from the mailman to the dry cleaner—likes me,” she writes. But it doesn’t come across in her prose.
The meandering quality of the narrative more than occasionally borders on outright sloppiness, however. The book lacks an index. Anecdotes are short on simple temporal markers like dates, leaving the story to unwind in a maddening series of thens and laters and shortly afterwardses. In one unfortunate passage, she imitates her Korean manicurists’ accents: “They love me. ‘Glace! Glace!’ they shout when I walk in.” In another, she writes that her sister, Rosemary, had a child by a man who left her to move to Nepal and then “soon after” died “under mysterious circumstances on the border with Afghanistan.” Nepal does not share a border with Afghanistan.
As a portrait of the fashion industry over the last 50 years, Grace is necessarily incomplete but often enlightening. In particular, the accounts of the author’s close working relationships with two influential countrywomen—Liz Tilberis, who edited British Vogue before her untimely death from cancer, and Anna Wintour—are fascinating. (Especially once Tilberis becomes the editor of Vogue’s main competitor, American Harper’s Bazaar.) Ms. Coddington’s perspective on various photographers’ working styles and personal tics is unparalleled. Who else has been able to observe everyone from Irving Penn to Norman Parkinson to Guy Bourdin to Annie Leibovitz up close over the course of decades? A story about Bourdin wanting the sea dyed bluer for a shoot is worth the price of admission alone.
Dishy, though, Grace is not. Especially in the passages that concern more recent history, Ms. Coddington too often holds back. The biggest critique of Ms. Wintour is that she tends to be chilly with women but flirtatious with men. She loyally slams The Devil Wears Prada. And when she mentions having lunch with the disgraced Christian Dior designer John Galliano shortly after his firing for engaging in a very public racist tirade (he was caught on a cellphone video telling a couple in a Parisian café, “I love Hitler. People like you would be dead.”), it is only to grouse about the fact that pictures of the two of them eating had appeared online before the meal was over. “Modern life!” reflects Ms. Coddington. No confidences were betrayed in the making of this memoir—at least not of anyone powerful.
The chapters of the book that are told thematically, rather than chronologically, stand out as some of the best. Near the end, Ms. Coddington reflects on beauty. In women’s magazines, “beauty” is normally a euphemism for “cosmetics,” but Ms. Coddington ties together stories about influential makeup artists, Botox, plastic surgery and how her own feelings about herself changed after the car accident that entirely severed her left eyelid. It’s refreshingly intimate. And in another chapter, Ms. Coddington tells the story of her life and work through a discussion of her companion animal of choice: cats. Relationships professional and personal, international moves and all of life’s other dislocations are retold as functions of the felines Ms. Coddington has loved, and the results are entertaining and beautiful. (It helps that a cat psychic makes repeated appearances.) This suggests that structuring the book thematically would have done Grace a great service. The chronological approach means that too many related anecdotes—for instance, some insightful recollections of Vogue’slandmark shoots in China and Russia both before and after the Cold War—are spread far and wide across the book. Grouped together, they would have greater resonance. There’s a submerged theme about Ms. Coddington, Ms. Wintour and Tilberis as three British women of the same generation who forever changed fashion, and the fact that the fashion industry is one of the few spaces in media and business in which women wielding significant power is taken as a given. But that thread goes sadly unexplored.
Ms. Coddington, who claims to have “barely read two books in my life that aren’t picture books,” has a winning voice and admirable common sense. Her own book may be frustrating occasionally, but it’s also fun. She is that mischievous girl who will start a car journey with one boyfriend and end it with another. “It’s hard for me to define what is modern, because I am not,” she writes, and for that, she is a walking counter-narrative to the industry in which she works—romantic and backward-looking while fashion pushes relentless innovation, even as it lacks much in the way of real progress. Ms. Coddington is uninterested in any wide-reaching critique of the industry, but who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours in her company anyway?