The Reading List: Grace, A Memoir

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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).

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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.

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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.

The Reading List – Vogue: The Editor’s Eye

I went for breakfast with a good friend of mine last Sunday.  She’s a writer at a (really great) magazine and together we talked about the merits of freebies – non-editorial speak for ‘products for review’.

I was talking about getting a PDF of a book for review.  This is new.  I’ve never been given a PDF to review before, so one has to refine what it is about a book that makes it special.  You’re more focused on the contents, not on the weight and heft or how tactile the experience can be.  She said, Oh yeah, sometimes I’ll go into the beauty desk, see the YSL and think, ‘Tch, where’s the Tom Ford?’

There was a slight pause, then she said to me, “We really are snobby a**holes, aren’t we?”.

And we really are.  It was a humbling moment.

While the feel factor of a coffee table book is the thing that keeps the publishing industry alive, it’s the contents that are really important.  It’s what’s inside the file (or the lipstick tube) that counts.  I can’t believe how lucky I have been this year in regard to getting books for review.  I’ve loved reading everything and am incredibly grateful to the PRs who deem my sphere of work important enough to read their books.

So, with that earnest anecdote aside, this is a review of Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, which, onscreen, looks like this:

editors eye cover

…but in bookshops, looks a little like this.

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Before reading the book, I took a trip to my local Eason’s to get a look at the book proper.  I found it (rather disingenuously in the ‘Health’ section), wrapped in cellophane, a tome not to be desecrated with my grubby hands.  It is huge.  Monumentally so.  It is the kind of huge that could easily cover an entire coffee table.  It has the kind of weight that potentially says ‘I Am a Very Important Book’.

The Editor’s Eye charts not only the careers of Vogue’s best fashion editors, but also plots an overarching route through the magazine’s general images, from the mid twentieth century to present day.  How did the world’s most popular fashion magazine go from this…

January 1, 1950.  Whiling away an afternoon, in dresses from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   © Irving Penn/Condé Nast Archive

January 1, 1950. Whiling away an afternoon, in dresses from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Irving Penn/Condé Nast Archive

..to this?

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November 1988. The novel combination of a Christian Lacroix couture jacket with jeans, worn by Michaela Bercu on the cover of Anna Wintour’s first issue of Vogue. © Peter Lindbergh

How did it go through these changes so seamlessly? The truth is that these changes weren’t so seamless, but the fact that Vogue went through seismic shifts, multiple firings and the odd acrimonious dispute is one that the book cheerfully ignores. It’s not a tell-all; rather it is a show-all.  The focus is rightfully on the specific editors’ careers and not focused on what the editor-in-chief was (or wasn’t) doing at the time.

As an introduction to the various fashion editors who captured the zeitgeist and made American Vogue the magazine panopticon of style that it is today, it is seamless.  Each editor is introduced with an essay and a selection of photographs from Vogue’s archives.  I especially enjoyed the essay on Babs Simpson who, at 99 years old and still telling anecdotes about how she accidentally told Carmel Snow to ‘F**k off’, is the woman who transformed models from static pedestal-dwellers to real (albeit ridiculously good-looking) women engaging with the real world.

The selections of images for each editor is entirely appropriate, bringing together a vital thread or theme that runs through each editor’s work (Grace Coddington – romantic, Tonne Goodman – the healthy body, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele – the beginnings of high-low and street style).  Layouts are sparse – one collage per editor, then pages of one-photo spreads.  It is high-impact and very effectively done. We also get to see pictures of the editor’s themselves, their homes, their childhoods and can learn about their personal lives and motivations through each essay.

The essays are not of the same exacting quality.  While most are excellent, Michael Roberts’ essay on Coddington is rather fawning (‘best stylist in the world’ gets bandied around more than once) and reveals little about the enigmatic Grace that we don’t already know. Hilton Als’ profile of Camilla Nickerson starts as charming but evolves into a slightly heavy-handed dissection of photography and the female gaze.  On the other hand, de Dudzeele leaps out of the page with sheer personality and brio, while Phyllis Posnick’s story gives hope to aspiring stylists without suitably colourful origin myths.

The story of Vogue is reaching its zenith.  Through this book, casual fans of the magazine’s editorial team can now look at others who may have been overlooked due to time, trends or circumstance.  An excellent buy for Voguettes, wannabe stylists or those who just love beautiful fashion photography.

Vogue: The Editor’s Eye is published by Abrams and is out now.

Edith Wharton in Vogue

These pictures are a few months old (and therefore ancient in fashion/internet terms) but I still want to share this Annie Leibovitz spread for American Vogue.  Styled by Grace Coddington, Natalia Vodianova is novelist Edith Wharton on her Massachusetts estate, The Mount.  Flanking her is novelist Jeffrey Eugenides as Henry James, Boardwalk Empire actor Jack Huston as her mercurial lover William Morton Fullerton and an interesting cast of supporting characters including Elijah Wood as her chauffeur (!) and James Corden as Teddy Roosevelt (!?!).

The editorial is rather static and dreamy and Old World-ish, and there are cameos from American men of letters like Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz (no women, unfortunately).  It’s also accompanied by a rather lovely piece by Colm Toibin, which you can read here.  I suppose the only bone to pick is that Wharton was supposed to be about 45 at this time, while Vodianova is… not.  Kristen McMenamy might have made a better Wharton or, as one of the original commenters suggested, perhaps a female novelist would have been best.

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Diet Coke Fashion Friday: Fashion Books Aren’t Just For Christmas (Part I)

I KNOW, I KNOW.  It’s far too early to be thinking about Christmas lists.

Actually no, it’s not really.  August is early. November is OK (but maybe a little bit questionable).  Now is the time where the start of gift lists and wish lists are starting to form in your mind, where an idea or a spark hopes to develop itself into THE BEST GIFT EVER GIVEN.

If you can’t think of the best gift that has yet to be given, let me suggest a book.  Books are great.  Unlike electronics, they don’t crash or freeze, they are incredibly tactile and the feeling of looking at a picture on a page is far superior to looking at one on a screen (it’s the glossiness, I think).

I’ve got some fashion book choices for the various people in your life.  Well, the people in your life who like fashion.  For everyone else, I’d suggest a book token.

1.  For the fashion connoisseur, the friend who knows everything there is to know, who can out-Lagerfeld Lagerfeld and scare Colin McDowell with their knowledge of industry trivia, it’s perfectly acceptable to pull out the big guns.  The out of print, highly covetable (and quite expensive) Antonio’s Girls by Antonio Lopez will mean you get free styling advice for years to come.  A compendium of sketches and photographs of muses including Jerry Hall and Tina Chow, this beautiful book by the late Lopez is something of a collectors item.

Honourable mention - Karl Lagerfeld’s Illustrated Fashion Journal of Anna Piaggi

Photo via Captain Magnets

2.  For the down-in-the-dumps friends, there’s nothing better than a flick through The Cheap Date Guide to Style for to restore you to your normal fashion equilibrium.  2012 has not been a great year for a lot of people (myself included) – the economy, the weather and the ever-looming tiny chance of apocalypse have a tendency to make a person feel less sure of themselves.  Cheap Date is a great book to make a person feel good and refine their style in a totally non-judgemental, self-celebratory way.  It’s amazing what a tiny change can make in a person’s outlook and this book reflects that.

Honourable mention – Style Statement: Live by Your Own Design by Carrie McCarthy and Danielle LaPorte

3. For the non-fiction friend who just can’t stop reading biographies, the life of September Issue breakout star and creative director of American Vogue Grace Coddington is a prudent gift choice.  I haven’t read Grace: A Memoir yet (it’s not out until November 22nd) but Vogue have already published an excerpt with suitably scandalous tidbits online – if a woman can mistake a condom for a chocolate mint then you know her outlook on life is going to be interesting.  The book will be accompanied with sketches from Coddington’s own hand.  They are all incredibly cute.

Honourable mention - D.V by Diana Vreeland

4. For the modeliser friend – the friend who has a slightly unhealthy obsession with models, I present to you Kate: The Kate Moss Book.  Published by powerhouse Rizzoli Books, it has eight, count ‘em, eight different covers.  It is the definitive collection of images of the ever-chameleonic Moss. I don’t get the model-worship thing – even after just researching an article on Moss and her career I still don’t gt it – but I do get that model-worshippers will love this ridiculously heavy slab of a book.

Honourable Mention – Vogue Model: The Faces of Fashion (which, surprise surprise, also has Kate Moss on the over)

6. For the friend who wants to break into fashion media, this is the book to buy.  Granted, it might be a little bit dry to give a friend an academic textbook for Christmas, but they’ll thank you later.  This book goes through all aspects of fashion writing, from journalism to PR and everything in between.  No stone unturned – no angle unexamined, Writing For The Fashion Business will teach the reader exactly what it promises on the cover. It’s pricey, but well worth it.

Honourable mention - Mastering Fashion Styling

Licentiate Column 20/09/12: Fashion Weeks – A Hobby or an Industry?

On publication of this week’s column, we will be approximately halfway through Fashion Month. Editors, stylists, buyers and celebrities go from New York to London to Milan to Paris, watching fashion shows and attempting to distill the essence of the next season. This happens twice a year, in September and February.

Oh, you didn’t notice? That’s fine. All that means it that the world hasn’t stopped turning for those who didn’t go. Life carries on. Who’d have thunk it?

The four fashion weeks are industry events. They are essentially the most glamourous trade fairs in the world. Traditionally a closed shop, the proliferation of fashion bloggers and street style photographers has now changed the way that anyone who has use of the internet sees the fashion world.

Fashion editors have become fetishised and idolised, thanks in no small part to documentary The September Issue, which explored the inner working of Vogue at the Conde Nast offices in Manhattan. It can be seen as deserved praise, considering the dedication and vision of people who give decades of toil (it’s not coal mining by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hard work) in what used to be an editorially faceless industry.

It’s breakout star, creative director Grace Coddington, is set to publish her memoirs in November while the hardest-working street style photographer going, Bill Cunningham, was also made the subject of an empathetic and touching documentary. The recently released The Eye Has To Travel re-examines the work of sixties Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who had hopefully now had her place in the creative pantheon sealed.
It is good and right to admire people at the top of their professions – they work hard, they are talented, pragmatic, creative and routinely outrageous (in the fashion industry even staid ordinariness can be considered outrageous).

Street style is a completely different game. It is what it means; stylish people, found on the street. The very ethos of street style denoted its outsider status. That is, until blogging happened and street style came to Fashion Weeks around the globe.

Being a street style star used to mean that you had your own clothes and that you wore them in a way unique to you. Now, many popular bloggers are being paid by designers to wear their goods at shows. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. By becoming celebrities, bloggers become about as relevant as their more famous counterparts: They show up, they get their photo taken, they get paid, they go home. The joy has been sucked out of dressing up.

A lot of people don’t aspire to be famous personal style bloggers because they’re stylish – they want to have their picture taken. They want validation and a moderate level of fame. They want to be adored. This is unfortunate for them, because the majority of personal style bloggers didn’t start out with this aim. They’re at fashion week to see the clothes, not to be seen for the clothes they’re wearing.

If you want to see some real street and fashion week style (plebs as well as fashion figures) by talented photographers, feel free to check out the following – thesartorialist.com, stylebubble.co.uk, stitchesfabricandsoul.com, streetpeeper.com, jakandjil.com and stylesightings.com.

The Wizard of Oz is In Vogue

Following on from yesterday’s review of Everything Oz, I thought I’d post this photoshoot from the Christmas issue of American Vogue from 2005. The December issues of Vogue are always very special – there’s always a fairytale/pantomime/dreamscape shoot with a cast of unusual suspects. This time it’s Keira Knightley and a roster of American contemporary artists; the puckish Jeff Koons as a winged monkey, Tim Currin as the Tin Man, Chuck Close as Oz, the Great and Powerful, Jasper Johns as the Cowardly Lion and Kara Walker as Glinda, the Good Witch – amongst others.

Shot by Annie Liebovitz, styled by Grace Coddington.