Lovely and Superfluous: ‘Grace: A Memoir’

Grace Coddington’s book is lovely in many ways. The cover is a stunning orange that will stand out on any mode of public transportation. The illustrations are precious line drawings of cats, dogs and YSL suits. The pages are thick, the chapter subtitles (“In which our heroine finds fame on film but, like Greta Garbo, just wishes to be left alone”) are charming, and the photographs of Coddington from her childhood to her model heyday and onward are stunning.

But Grace: A Memoir is not a successful representation of the Vogue creative director. This failure doesn’t rest squarely on Coddington herself; she approaches her personal life and career with wit, pragmatism and flashes of humor. It doesn’t rest on her co-writer, Michael Roberts of Vanity Fair, either, though one wonders if there aren’t ways he could have spruced up the dry, clinical lists of famous and almost-famous friends and acquaintances Coddington has encountered and documented. The failure is in the medium itself. Grace Coddington did not need to write a memoir to reveal something about herself that was previously hidden. Her portrayal in 2009’s The September Issue takes care of that revelation, and any further reflections, self- or otherwise, are superfluous.

In the documentary, Coddington is romantic and cantankerous, the only one in the office who stands up to Nuclear Wintour, a stylist who decks her models out in ‘20s flapper dresses and layers of contrasting fabrics herself, adjusting knit scarves and latex rain jackets and declaring herself the last person in the business who still dresses the models herself. She bemoans the art director’s use of Photoshop to make her ethereal photos look garish. She sits on the steps of Versailles and tells the cameraman that she always refuses to close her eyes in a moving vehicle, lest she miss seeing something amazing. She dresses in drab black layers but her hair is a fiery red cloud.

In short, she is a vision, and the candid moments captured on camera supposedly brought on the many requests for her to write a definitive memoir, even though those moments are all the definition of her personality and temperament that anyone could ever need. The history, the lists of luminaries, are superfluous.

In Grace, we watch her change from convent schoolgirl to swinging ‘60s model to British Vogue fashion director to Vogue creative director and adopted New Yorker. We watch her be unlucky in love (though her descriptions of marital heartbreak are strangely emotionless) and successful in her career. She tells us which models she likes (Natalia Vodianova and Talisa Soto) and which celebrities are difficult (Madonna, duh). Anecdotes are poignant, funny and revelatory. After a serious car accident, Grace hides her plastic surgery scars with a pair of dark shades, and admits that now, “perhaps because they remind me so much of that painful period, I now have a total aversion to wearing sunglasses.”

Her defense of her chosen industry is fascinatingly stubborn: she considers both the book and movie version of The Devil Wears Prada to be “disgracefully disloyal” sabotages a photo shoot with Ben Stiller shortly after his model-mocking Zoolander success: “When it came to choosing the models, I secretly went for the tallest ones around… beanpoles who would effectively show up his short stature.”

Other moments are emotionally stilted, such as the paragraph where she recounts the miscarriage she suffered after rowdy football fans overturned her car when she was seven months pregnant. “The incident was one of the most traumatic of my life,” she writes, and leaves it at that. Perhaps her omission of further detail says more about the trauma’s effect than if she had written about it at length.

And she describes the gorgeous clothes that first she, then all the models she dresses, work with: futuristic Paco Rabannes and superluxe YSLs, a “sleeveless striped Quant dress” and a “Liberty print skirt”, “pretty, peasanty” Kenzo dresses, bias-cut Gallianos and minimalistic Calvin Kleins, corset dresses and cashmere cardigans and sharp suits that comprise the reason for her job to exist.

Did you get excited reading that last sentence? Could I have spruced it up to make you see the clothes instead of just hearing about them? This is the same problem endemic in Grace: each decade gets their emblematic clothing, with the descriptions sounding like they were ripped from a catalog or copy-pasted from a design house’s press release.

Fashion narratives demand a camera in the same way that a model in a beautiful dress demands a camera. This is why photography and film best fit the documentation of fashion, why Vogue is mostly pictures and the writing concerns other matters beside clothes; this is why the drawings and photographs are the best part of Coddington’s memoir. In The September Issue, you can see the clothes she’s manipulating into photographic stories. In fashion documentaries like The Tents and Unzipped and Valentino: The Last Emperor, you watch impossible silky dresses float down the runway, freaky combinations of jewelry and eye makeup, ridiculous costumes that would never work in real life, women that look like exotic birds or fruit arrangements, sullen facial expressions, gawky poses, visual absurdity.

The absurdity is lost in Coddington’s laundry lists. Stiff language reduces a fashion show to a trade show, an outfit to mere clothes.

It’s the rare writer who gets fashion right—Edith Wharton’s descriptions of Lily Bart’s getups in The House of Mirth and Steven Millhauser’s fanciful trend narrative “A Change in Fashion” come to mind. Grace is a one-woman oral history of boldface names and significant memories and Coddington-brand wit, but in the end, the narrator has no clothes. Rent The September Issue and watch the redhead work her magic — it’s the rare instance when the movie is better than the book.

RATING 4 / 10