GRACE'S BRITISH RECEPTION

~ Posted by Julie Kavanagh, November 26th 2012

Grace Coddington, the 71-year-old creative director of American Vogue, arrived in London last Wednesday for a two-day whistle-stop promotion of “Grace: a Memoir” about her life and her 50 years in fashion. As I wrote in a profile of Grace (for the Spring 2011 issue of Intelligent Life) I was 19 years old and committed to a career in "serious" journalism when, by chance, I became her assistant in the early 1970s.

Working for Grace converted me to fashion overnight. With my hair permed and hennaed into a pre-Raphaelite haze I became her mini-clone, wearing shirts knotted at the midriff, and vintage dresses with character shoes and stockings, never tights. It wasn’t the copycat infectiousness of fashion, or any obligation to conform—it was simply the power of Grace’s personality and style.

On Wednesday night, I joined a Seventies reunion hosted by her ex-husband the photographer Willie Christie at his family house in Parson’s Green, south-west London. Forty years ago, at another celebration with Grace and Willie, I remember moving on from dinner at San Lorenzo to dance at Annabel's, and then drinking G&Ts at dawn in a Covent Garden market pub. This time, appropriately, the night was over by 11.30, and several of us agreed to meet up again at one or more of Thursday’s events.

"All of us in the industry know what a rock star she is,” Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour told the New York Times last week. Anyone who has seen “The September Issue”, the behind-the-scenes documentary about American Vogue, will know how Grace stole scene after scene. But still her British publisher had warned her that people might not know her in London.

Willie, his wife Amanda and Barney Wan, a former Art Director of British Vogue, went along to Grace’s signing at Browns in South Molton Street, where the queue snaked into Oxford Street and all 300 books sold out. There were even more people at Waterstones. “You’ll be coming up row by row,” the Waterstones representative told the audience who had packed out the second floor of the flagship store in Piccadilly. Like communicants leaving their pews, they obediently formed a line, clutching camera phones and the "one book each" that they were allowed to get signed. 

I was sitting next to Lauren Cuthbertson, the Royal Ballet’s young star, who was there because of all the tweets that Grace’s arrival had prompted. Ironically, Grace herself is an implacable technophobe: she can just about text but never emails (her assistant prints the pages out for her to read); she has never used an app or written a blog; and the satnav I bought her one summer confounded her more than any map. And yet Grace continues to surprise me—on November 20th she sent her first tweet. It would have made a good moment in a follow-up documentary. “The only reason I could do it," she told me, "was because I had four people sitting round a table helping me.”

Julie Kavanagh is a contributing editor of Intelligent Life and the biographer of Rudolf Nureyev