on film but, like
just wishes to be
The first I heard of The September Issue (the movie that is the only reason anyone has ever heard of me) was when Anna Wintour called me into her office at Vogue to tell me about it and said, "Oh, by the way, I've agreed to a film crew coming in to make a documentary about us." The film was originally supposed to be about organizing the ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, but it grew bigger and bigger. Now they would be turning up to film all the discussions, meetings, fights, and frustrations that go into creating the most important issue of the year. They would be in our office, and on our sittings, too. It was just about everything I didn't want to hear. As creative director of the magazine, I have a thousand things to deal with. And it's difficult enough putting a complicated photo session together without having onlookers hanging around! "Don't expect me to be in it," I said, sensing Anna's eyes glaze over as she looked past me out the window. She has a way of blanking people out when they are saying something she doesn't care to hear.
My reaction to this intrusive idea was naturally one of horror, because my feeling has always been that people should concentrate on their jobs and not all this fashionable "I want to be a celebrity" shit. Afterward I found out that it had taken the filmmakers almost a year to persuade Anna to say yes. I'm sure she agreed in the end only because she wanted to show that Vogue is not just a load of airheads spouting rubbish. By then we had all had enough of The Devil Wears Prada, with its portrayal of fashion as utterly ridiculous.
During filming, the crew approached me time and again, confident they could win my cooperation. They had heard that I could be difficult (and I did have a reputation for refusing interviews), yet still they knocked at my door requesting my participation. Perfectly nice they were, but I told them I wasn't interested and I didn't want them anywhere near me because it was too distracting. I hate having people observing me; I want to swat them away like a swarm of flies.
My office door remained firmly closed. I said the rudest things to the director, R. J. Cutler, and for about six months managed to keep him and his crew at bay whenever they pointed a camera in my direction. They would be filming among the racks of clothes in the hallway outside my office, and I could hear people saying things like "Ooh, I just love this red dress," and "Ooh yes, I think Anna would definitely like it," and all the kinds of superficial nonsense people come out with in front of the cameras. Then the film crew followed us all the way to the Paris collections. This was really exasperating. They were constantly getting in our way or elbowing past us to get a shot of Anna. At the Dior show, Bob the cameraman trod on my toe as he filmed her while walking backward. That was the final straw. I really let him have it. "By the way," I screamed, "I work at Vogue, too!" They were so intent on filming Anna's every move: sitting in the front row, watching the show, reacting to the show. It all seemed so over- the- top. I noticed that she was even wearing a mike, which of course created yet another obstacle, because now she would only talk to me in a guarded sort of manner.
Eventually I thought, "If you can't beat them, join them." Besides, Anna had hauled me into her office one last time and told me, "They really are coming to film your shoot. They are going to film your run-through, and this time you cannot get out of it. There will be no discussion." So I definitely had a gun to my head. "But if you put me in that movie, you will hear things you won't like," I warned. "I can't pretend. I'll be so focused on the shoot that I will probably blurt out anything that comes to mind." (What I secretly thought was that if I said anything too bad, they wouldn't use it — which is why I'm caught swearing like a trooper throughout the entire movie.) There had been other documentaries about the fashion business that I'd been filmed for, but my contributions had always ended up on the cutting room floor.
When I saw the final cut for the first time, I was in total shock. There was way too much of me in the film. Later, one of the crew members told me that the forceful dynamic between Anna and me strengthened the movie. We had two screenings at Vogue. I think Anna didn't want to see it with the rest of us. I was down to go to the first showing with the fashion people; she was off to the second with the writers and the more intellectual crowd, whose opinion she probably valued more. Our hearts sank as we tried to remember what was said during all those months of filming because the whole thing had been out of sight ever since, stuck in the editing room for almost a year.
Now I can look at the end result and laugh. After all, I was rather outspoken. Nevertheless, there really is way too much of me. Once Anna had seen the finished version, I never got an opinion out of her about it. Ever. All I know is that she didn't disapprove, but she didn't entirely approve of it, either. The only thing she said was "Just let Grace do all the press," and then moved on. She did, however, attend the first major showing at the Sundance Film Festival and stood onstage afterward at the Q and A, unmoving and enigmatic in dark glasses and clutching a bottle of water while R.J. did most of the talking.
At a screening I attended in Savannah — it was the first time I agreed to do some publicity — with Vogue's editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, there was an extensive Q and A session with a roomful of journalists who kept saying, "Oh, we think you are so wonderful." So I grew to like that. (I'm kidding, but it was quite pleasant.) Throughout the question time, the audience was mostly trying to find out about Anna. (They are always trying to find out about Anna.) André was brilliant. He's very good at deflecting awkward moments. Whenever she was mentioned, he changed the subject and began referring instead to Michelle Obama or Diana Vreeland.
I'm always surprised that people who've seen the movie respond to me in such a positive manner. Maybe it's because I come across on-screen as so emotional. It makes me appear idealistic, in contrast to Anna, who is by nature much more determinedly and quietly controlled. Or maybe it's because I appear to be put upon. Or perhaps they are always going to react to someone who seems to be spontaneous. Or someone who dares talk back to her boss like no one else does at the magazine, as I have done and probably will again.
During the opening weeks of the film I was also asked to give a talk at the New York Public Library by Jay Fielden, who at the time was editor in chief of Men's Vogue. This was a particularly nerve- wracking situation because, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Anna and S. I. Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, sitting in the audience. After a while, the Q and A's became much easier. I got into the rhythm of things, hiding in the dark until the last minute — at which point you make your sudden dramatic appearance — and looking directly at the questioner. And then one day I realized I had somehow become pretty recognizable. I found groups of people regularly gathered in front of my apartment building in Chelsea, New York: fashion freaks, gays, straights, young, old, a whole mixture. It was a cross section of the neighborhood, all shouting at me from across the street — but always in such a nice way. I felt like the Beatles. Actually, better than the Beatles, because the crowds chasing them in the early days of their fame could get rough. I did once get mobbed, though. Having agreed to do a Q and A at my local cinema, I arrived right as the audience from an earlier showing was leaving. When I rounded the corner, all I could hear was "Grace, Grace. Oh my God, it's her!"
And they still haven't forgotten. Perhaps it's because I'm frequently on the street or in the subway and not discreetly hidden away in a Town Car, like Anna. It got me thinking, now that my memories had been well and truly raked up by all the questions I'd been asked, that maybe I had a bigger story to share. Which led to the next surprise — here I am doing something I never imagined I'd be old or interesting enough to embark on: writing my memoirs.
Sometime after The September Issue came out, I was having a quiet dinner in a little restaurant in Lower Manhattan with Nicolas Ghesquiere, the designer for Balenciaga, who had flown over from Paris. "Grace, is it true that people recognize you wherever you go?" he asked me suddenly. So when we finished eating, I suggested he walk home with me. And as we strolled past the many crowded restaurants, bars, and gay nightclubs in my part of town, people kept popping out, saying, "It's Grace. It's Grace! Wow — and Nicolas Ghesquière, too." Cell phone cameras flashed and clicked. In the end we just cracked up, the both of us behaving like Paris Hilton!
From Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington. Copyright 2012 by Grace Coddington. Excerpted by permission of Random House.