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Fashion memoir not deep, but it has Grace

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A Memoir

By Grace Coddington

Knopf Canada, 333 pages, $45

Grace Coddington, the creative director of the American fashion magazine Vogue, flew under the radar until the release of the documentary The September Issue in 2009.

Coddington had to be persuaded to take part in the film, which chronicled the creation of the September 2007 edition of the fashionista bible best known as the stomping grounds of its attention-grabbing editor, Anna Wintour.

"My reaction to this intrusive idea," Coddington writes in this absorbing memoir, "was naturally of horror as my feeling has always been that people should concentrate on their jobs and not all this fashionable 'I want to be a celebrity.' "

Still, her role in the film made her think about the stories she had to tell. (She also appears in the new HBO documentary In Vogue.) In Grace, its strong-willed author manages to mention almost every influential fashion designer, photographer, model, makeup and hair stylist she has worked with over the last 45 years, but never makes it feel like she is name-dropping or bragging.

Instead, she simply tells stories about the amazing people she's worked with and the opportunities that made her career a success.

Now 71, Coddington grew up on the small island of Anglesey, between Wales and Ireland, in a small hotel run by her parents. As a teen, she was fascinated by both film and fashion, reading copies of Vogue and going to the movies every Saturday.

At 18, she moved to London, won a Vogue modelling contest and began to get more and more work. After she had her hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, her career started to take off. But then she was in a serious car accident.

After numerous surgeries and two years of recovery, she got back in front of the camera and resumed her swinging '60s lifestyle amid the beautiful people of London, Paris and the south of France. As she aged out of modelling in the late 1960s, she got her start as a fashion editor for British Vogue.

Coddington draws a clear and distinct boundary. She may tell the reader about her life, but she avoids every gory, emotional detail. She describes a miscarriage as "one of the most traumatic moments in my life" yet gives the incident only a quarter of a page.

"I hate having people observe me," she writes. "I want to swat them away like a swarm of flies."

Yet she manages to connect with her audience and draw the reader in, and the occasional wry, witty aside complements her plainspoken yet sophisticated writing style.

Liberally scattered throughout this handsome oversized volume -- a fashion statement perhaps itself -- are Coddington's ink sketches of her friends, co-workers or moments in her life that connect to the story.

Naively done but fun and fresh, they serve as a counterbalance to the many photos of her as a model and spreads she planned as a fashion editor.

After a brief period working at Calvin Klein, Coddington moved to American Vogue in 1987. She speaks freely about the pressures and the fun of the job, as well as her professional yet friendly relationship with Wintour.

She also describes how she has manages to change with the times and be able to spot the next best thing, while remaining true to her fashion preferences.

While not a deep, introspective or emotional autobiography, Grace provides a fascinating look at Coddington's decades-spanning career in the fast-paced and constantly-changing fashion industry.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 J9

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