The Reading List: Grace, A Memoir

grace a memoir cover

So, here it is, ‘it’ being the long-awaited memoir of secretive and enigmatic American Vogue Creative Director, Grace Coddington. As the Gretchen Wiener of the fashion world (“That’s why her hair is so big – it’s full of SECRETS”), anything Coddington has to say was always going to be consumed eagerly by several generations of fashion lovers.  The release was timely – my Instagram feed has been flooded with snaps of the now universally recognisable orange cover, all Christmas presents, all displayed with the proud excitement usually reserved for a first bike or Barbie (or in my case, drum, which I broke not ten minutes later).

grace a memoir cafe

Grace, A Memoir is a reassuringly large, thick tome of a book.  However, flicking through to the first page, one realises that the type is quite big – two to three times as large as a standard paperback biography (yes, I measured) and very generously spaced.  If the book was in standard type, it would have been much smaller.  Yet, the type is presented in such a way that it’s the perfect size in relation to the rest of the book.  It’s a very fashion way of arranging things.  This may be because Grace, a Memoir isn’t really a very good autobiography.  It is however, a very enjoyable memoir of the fashion industry.

A memoir is a subsection of a traditional autobiography.  Instead of tracing a person’s life, the memoir traces the development of a person’s personality.  From ancient times up until the start of the twentieth century, a memoir traced a person’s career.  One would come away from a Victorian memoir knowing very little about what the author thought or felt, what motivated them or what their hopes and fears were.  In this respect, Grace is a very old-fashioned memoir.

Coddington refuses to talk in great detail about her personal life.  We know she had love affairs, marriages, divorces, heartbreak.  We get the bare bones and none of the meat, as such.  Few pages are devoted to the tragic death of her sister and Coddington’s subsequent adoption of her nephew, Tristan.  However, there is a whole chapter devoted to her cats.  Fun fact: Grace Coddington has a cat psychic.  This is a jarring and slightly out-of-place interlude in a book that is mostly about the stellar career of arguably the world best living fashion stylist.

grace coddington sketchCoddington freely admits that she does not read – and it shows even with the help of a co-writer.  The prose clips along at a fair pace, but traumatic events just pop out of nowhere, masked as anecdotes, and disappear again with a segue into the new floor plan of the British Vogue offices.

However, she knows the power of the image.  The book is liberally peppered with pen and ink drawings, all charming and gently humorous.  Even for the average creative memoir, there are a lot of photos to pore over and examine – and they are truly beautiful as well as beautifully presented.

grace a memoir spreads

One comes away from reading Grace knowing only a little more about the writer, but imbued with a better sense of the fashion industry as well as Grace Coddington’s love of it.  If you don’t expect scandal, personal epiphanies or sparkling prose, it makes a lovely (and essential) addition to any fashion bookshelf.  If you do expect such things, this is not be the book for you.

Grace, a Memoir is published by Chatto & Windus.  It is out now and available in all good bookstores.

Licentiate Column 12/01/12: On Inspiration

Last week, I was asked one of those questions that people struggle to answer truthfully. The answer is not always a by-product of wishing to conceal the correct answer, but because the answer will almost always raise another set of perplexing question. That question is, ‘where do you get your ideas?’

Easy answer; my brain. More in-depth, less flippant (and rude) answer: from everywhere. From the people I talk to and the things I see. People’s ideas are often borne of the world around them.

More books are published now than ever before. More art is being produced. There are now more than seven billion people to potentially talk to on this planet and no two of them will hold identical values and opinions about the world around them.

Information gets passed down an ever-growing chain of people and ideas grow and evolve a little more as it passes through the chain – like a cerebral version of Chinese Whispers.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “If you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange those ideas, then each of us shall have two ideas”. I got that quote from Kanye West’s twitter feed (see what I mean about a chain?).

It makes sense that the most popular question to ask creative or stylish people revolves what inspires their personal style. Fashion feeds on ideas. It takes from all aspects of life and interprets it into clothing. Sometimes parasitic, sometimes reactionary, sometime ridiculous; almost always entertaining.

How do people create their own distinct image? How does Alexa Chung look so damn pretty in clunky brogues? Where did Lady Gaga’s meat dress come from? Why did Katharine Hepburn insist on wearing masculine suits in an era of Hollywood glamour? And how do you get dressed in the morning?

Where do you get your inspiration from? Take a second and think it over.

When you enter a shop and pick something up, thinking ‘that’s nice’, why do you do so? It it the colour? The pattern? The shape? And if so, why that colour, that pattern, that shape?

Some people have a particular image and use that as a template for their wardrobe. Rihanna’s is clown/dominatrix. Grace Kelly’s was an aura of refinement. Diana Vreeland had red to accent everything. My mother looks like a 60’s beatnik who discovered the joys of baking. My friend Dawn is eternally girly and groomed.

Most of us don’t have the safety net of a clearly defined sense of style. We bounce around collecting weird and wonderful things without ever thinking too much about it.

My most recent acquisition? A pair of silver patent-robo boots. Where it’ll fit in with my neon green schoolboy satchel and the seventies Foxy-Brown style faux fur trench coat, I may never know. I just like different things. Sometimes it’s a disaster. Most of the time though, it isn’t (I hope).

A sense of style, for some people, will come from everywhere. Just like some of the best ideas.