Be grateful for Grace

Image of Vanessa Friedman

There is a certain “denialism” inherent in fashion. This is, after all, an industry that routinely resurrects the drop-crotch trouser, the baby doll dress and the Yeti coat, and expects grown women to jump up and down with glee.

So faced with the Pinterest and Polyvore-driven democratisation of the image – which allows any old person to create their own “mood boards” and become expert “trend-spotters” – not to mention the rise of the “street style” photographer, both of which caused tech and media pundits to declare “the end of the editor!”, the industry, predicated on elitism, just ground its teeth and smiled.

But how long can you sit by and do nothing as rumours of your death are greatly exaggerated? How long can you fiddle while Rome (or Milan and Paris) burns?

Apparently, not that long. Some might look at two new books – Vogue: The Editor’s Eye (Abrams) and Grace (Chatto & Windus), a memoir by Vogue creative director Grace Coddington – as holiday reading or coffee table decoration, but I look at them as weapons. They are arguments for the validity of the expert, and the skills required to do what they do. I mean, the first book, at 416 pages and around £45, would certainly hurt if it fell on your toe.

Seriously, as a riposte to the idea that “anyone can do it”, these two books offer style-world proof of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” theory: it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become superior at what you do. Even if what you do is the kind of thing that is considered easy to do.

A brief segue here: note that by “fashion editor” I do not mean people such as myself, who are critics or observers.

Rather, I mean the people so-titled on glossy magazines. These are the people who make the pictures that go on the pages: the people who choose the clothes, the models to wear them, the hair and make-up people, and the photographer to shoot them, and who conceptualise a visual argument around the clothes. They are the vision people. They are a mystery to most, in the way that “vision” is an airy-fairy word to most, which is probably why it seems so easy to displace them, or declare them “over”: if no one knows what you do, then it’s easier to dismiss it.

Or should I say, such people used to be a mystery.

The unveiling of fashion editors actually began a few years ago with The September Issue (2009), RJ Cutler’s documentary on American Vogue that transformed Grace Coddington’s public profile. Her clear passion for her job, and willingness to fight for what she believed even if it meant facing down her boss, Anna Wintour; her belief that fashion was art’s avatar in the real world; and her love of creation over commerce all combined to elevate Coddington from behind-the-scenes player to fashion folk hero.

Coddington’s post-film success – there was an immediate bidding war for her memoir, won by Random House – and broad appeal was clearly not lost on Wintour. With The Editor’s Eye she is attempting to do for the rest of her team, as well as Vogue fashion editors who came before, what the movie did for Coddington: imbue them with credibility and value in the view not just of the industry but of the masses.

It’s arguable, of course, how much mass appeal a £45 book has but everything is relative. Still, she’s not just being opportunistic. As Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor at large, points out in the book’s introduction, when Wintour took up the reins of Vogue in 1988, she decreed that the fashion editor on each story as well as the photographer would be named. At the time, it was revolutionary.

However, in some ways it wasn’t entirely necessary. As the book’s lengthy essays about the eight women featured – most of whom, like Polly Mellen, Babs Simpson and Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, are relatively unknown outside of the industry – and the lavish groupings of their pictures illustrate, what defined these editors above all was the consistency of their vision and their discipline in execution. The results – the magazine layouts – actually determined much of how we thought about clothes at any given time: whether we see a brocade dress as romantic or futuristic or minimal or functional.

None of it reflects an “I-wear-the-skirts-therefore-I-know-the-skirts” approach, which is the online take on fashion. And though the editor is ever-present, she is making the point – not being the point.

Which, perhaps, is the point.

As it happens, Grace Coddington’s memoir is being released this week, on Thanksgiving day. If I was a conspiracy theorist, I’d think this was a message: give thanks for your editors, ye women weeding through the wilds of fashion. You will miss them if one day they are gone.

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