Grace: A Memoir - review by Nicky Pellegrino

Fashion stylist Grace Coddington was the surprise star of 2009’s The September Issue, the hit documentary film about the inner workings of American Vogue magazine. Feisty, passionate about her job, with a wild mane of orange hair and skin that’s never seen Botox, she even managed to upstage Vogue’s infamous editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Since Coddington’s past is as remarkable as her present; she was a sitting duck for a best-selling autobiography.
Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington (Knopf, $49.99) is beautiful, fascinating and quite frustrating. It’s a lovely-looking book with a cover decked out in Hermes orange and pages enlivened by wonderful archive pictures and Coddington’s own comedic sketches.
She has a fund of stories to share and no end of famous names to drop. But she is, as it turns out, almost heroically cagey about her emotions and so this is a memoir that offers the barest details of how its subject felt about the losses and tragedies in her life.
The death of her sister from a drug overdose, the end of a marriage, the loss of a baby – all are dealt with in a few workmanlike lines and then Coddington moves on quickly to the subject she’s more comfortable with: clothes and the people who work with them.
You might think her a cold fish but there are a few chinks where her feelings show through – when she’s talking about her beloved cats, for instance, or in the chapter that deals with the death of her close friend, magazine editor Liz Tilberis.
This is a pretty straightforward read. After an intro that recaps on The September Issue, Coddington takes us back to her upbringing in the 1940s and ‘50s in seaside a hotel run by her parents on the Welsh island of Anglesey.
Enchanted by the glamour of the movies and the fashions in her older sister’s copies of Vogue, at 18 she escapes to a London modelling school, dreaming of beautiful clothes and interesting people.
Coddington’s period as a 1960s It-girl, posing for legendary photographers and racing round with rich young men in sports cars, faltered when her left eyelid was sliced off in a crash. She was never going to be happy simply wearing the clothes anyway. Fascinated by style, she began to carve out a career on the other side of the camera, as a fashion editor.
Now 71, and Vogue’s creative director, Coddington has seen a lot of fashions come and go. Her insights into how the industry, and the magazines that record it, have changed are honest and interesting. If readers are hoping she’ll dish the dirt on Anna Wintour, however, they’ll be let down, as she doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know.
Neither has she gone into detail about how her own creative process works.
So there are no big surprises – aside from the revelation that Coddington relies on a pet psychic to help with her cats – and no great depth. And yet there’s enough to interest any reader with a passion for fashion or magazines. Grace: A Memoir is a pleasantly entertaining book, a hopscotch through 50 years of the fashion world and the inspirational woman who has lived at its centre for all that time.

Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 16 December, 2012.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950's Italy and was published in September 2012.