Of all the surprising anecdotes in Grace Coddington's memoir, one of the most striking is the image of formidable American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, dancing wildly at Coddington's 50th birthday party, having already jammed her ubiquitous sunglasses into the cake. "Everyone is always knocking her and it really pisses me off," says Coddington.
After the parrying between the two that underscored much of the drama in R.J. Cutler's fashion documentary, The September Issue, Coddington (Vogue's creative director) realises readers may approach her book expecting a hatchet job on Wintour. "Here it comes, its going to be the real truth, really she hates her," she says. "Well, guess what - I don't."
The inscrutable editrix, she says, is actually very funny as well as smart and a marvellous hostess. "She's a remarkable person and if she leaves Vogue I don't know who could take her place," she adds.
Succession is, understandably, somewhat on Coddington's mind, given she is 71 years old, Wintour is 63 and both started at US Vogue on the same day, in 1988. Immersed in an industry that can obsess on youth and beauty, it's no wonder Coddington comes across as a little preoccupied by her own mortality. When her publishers offered her another year to complete the memoir, which totals an impressive 383 pages, she declined. "You know, I could be dead by then - let's just get on with it," she reports, matter-of-factly.
She also has less desire to travel (Vietnam, she speculates, might prove to be the "one that got away") and claims to be "too old to multitask like kids do today" yet - like many New Yorkers - has no real plans to retire. "I think if I do just stop I'll probably keel over and die, because I think work keeps you young," she says.
Anyone familiar with her painterly, romantic and expansive vision, played out monthly in the magazine, will know she has still much to offer, anyway.
It was a virtue of Coddington's sheltered childhood on the tiny Welsh island of Anglesey that her options were limited. Only the best of "the outside world" could penetrate the remoteness. The family didn't have television and she only ever saw one magazine: Vogue. "So I looked at magazines and thought that was kind of wonderful and glamorous and romantic," she says. "I aspired to be somebody in a magazine, followed my thoughts and went to London."
Away from her bucolic childhood of sailboats and convent school, Coddington became a model - captured by some of the top photographers of the 1960s, including Norman Parkinson and Terence Donovan. Eventually, a car accident that disfigured her eyelid, requiring multiple surgeries, plus the sense she was too old at 27 for modelling, united to steer Coddington towards a styling role with the British Vogue team.
There her natural gift for visual storytelling came to the fore and she began a series of celebrated collaborations with many of her favourite photographers: among them Helmut Newton, David Bailey, Norman Parkinson, Arthur Elgort, Steven Meisel, Ellen von Unworth, Annie Leibovitz and Mario Testino.
These days, digital "enhancement" would mean a minor physical imperfection would not derail a career in front of the camera, but Coddington will denounce the current fad for retouching to anyone who'll listen. "I like people looking like people," she says. "There's nothing wrong with someone being a little bit fatter or something, you know."
By the same principle, Coddington did not shy from exploring some more difficult episodes in her memoir, including relationship breakdowns, the early deaths of her father and sister (whose son, Tristan, she adopted), and a late-term miscarriage she suffered when a car she was driving was turned over by football hooligans. "That, I'm particularly discreet about because, yes, it was a very painful moment," she says. "But I had to put it in there because in my head it made other things make sense; it sort of proved how it was a big undertaking adopting my nephew. And I didn't have any children and I wanted to kind of explain why; it wasn't just because 'I don't like children'."
Lovers and husbands are all chronicled; from her first sexual encounter to her short-lived marriages to restaurateur Michael Chow and photographer Willie Christie and affairs endured and initiated. She balks a little at how this sounds when recounted in articles. "When you put it in a few sentences and you basically list all boyfriends, marriages, I don't know, its like 'Oh my god, did I really say all that?" she says.
Her back catalogue of significant others doesn't seem excessive, though. It's a long life to live, plus she has been happily in a relationship with her boyfriend, French hairstylist Didier Malige, for more than 25 years. The couple share a Chelsea apartment, a house on Long Island and the passionate guardianship of two cats, Bart and Pumpkin, to whom a chapter is devoted in her memoir.
During the recent blackouts that followed Hurricane Sandy, most of New York's fashion elite retreated to the uber-expensive Carlyle Hotel, while Coddington stayed home with her cats. "If they haven't seen you for a long time, they think you've been eaten by predators," she says, with a trademark mix of frankness and sly amusement.
Coddington herself doesn't much care to be home alone, either - another reason she keeps working, in spite of the long hours and publishing's newfangled ways, which curb her spontaneity and require a cast of thousands for every shoot.
"You're on your own on the weekend, but that's just two days," she says. "When the days stretch into years I don't know how fascinating it is."
She is, however, contemplating a new vocation; documentaries: "They fascinate me - that's my next job."
It is probably just as well she has never been enticed by money, then. "You've only got one life and you should live it in an exciting, happy, interesting way and money doesn't excite me, it just doesn't - I have no interest," she says. "I mean, if someone handed me a cheque for a million dollars of course that would be very nice, I wouldn't say no."
She pauses and checks herself, according to her indefatigable ethics. "Well, it depends why they gave it to me," she says, laughing.
Grace: A Memoir (Random House, $49.95) is out now.
- Daily Life
What's the most stylish age for women?Related story: (See story)