Grace Coddington’s new memoir recounts a life obsessed with fashion

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Grace: A Memoir
By Grace Coddington. Random House Canada, 416 pp, hardcover

A lot of people “discovered” Grace Coddington after watching The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s documentary about Vogue’s big fall-fashion issue in 2007. As creative director of the magazine, Coddington charmed audiences with her imaginative, idealistic fashion stories, her spirited resistance to editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s whims, and her magnificently poofy mane of orange hair.

Coddington’s resulting fame spurred the publication of Grace, her new memoir. But as the book shows, Coddington was truly discovered more than 50 years ago, and hasn’t taken a break since.

Born in 1941, Coddington had a mostly tranquil childhood boating on placid Welsh lakes and reading picture books. “Seeing a story visually rather than in words was what I was responding to,” she says, hinting at her future in magazines. When she moved to London in 1959, she almost immediately won a modelling contest sponsored by Vogue. From that point, her life is almost too glamorous to contemplate: she worked with Norman Parkinson, crushed on David Bailey, narrowly avoided sleeping with both Roman Polanski and Mick Jagger. Her nickname was “The Cod”, a counterpoint to Jean Shrimpton’s “The Shrimp”.

Coddington’s dramatic working life, which led her from modelling in London and Paris to working at British Vogue, to a short-lived gig as the design director at Calvin Klein, to American Vogue (where she’s been since 1988), is matched only by her tumultuous love life. She constantly falls in and out of love with a series of high-profile men, including restaurateur Michael Chow and hairstylist Didier Malige; her first fiancé was then-photographer’s agent Albert Koski, who left her after having an affair with Catherine Deneuve’s sister.

Coddington tosses out all these names in a matter-of-fact, sometimes droll tone. Though you could say her biography isn’t just a personal history, but a history of 20th-century British and American fashion culture, her obsession is not with celebrity, but with work: “My feeling has always been that people should be focused on their jobs and not all this fashionable ‘I want to be a celebrity’ shit,” she says, and means it.

Overall, Grace is charming and candid, and its dizzying view into Coddington’s world gives readers plenty of insight into what inspires her fashion stories. Her comment in regard to a particularly controversial Vogue shoot says it all, really: “Without a little drama, how can it look like real life?”

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