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Grace Coddington and Karen Elson, two of the biggest names in fashion, tell all at The Frist

Amazing Grace

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It's often said that Anna Wintour's greatest achievement as editor of Vogue was her introduction of celebrities as cover models. A close second — whether she intended it or not — could be the way she's created celebrities out of her cohorts at Vogue.

Take The September Issue. The 2009 documentary by R.J. Cutler (who helmed the first few episodes of Nashville) pulled back the curtains on the creative tumult and conflict that produced the magazine's September 2007 issue. It was intended in part to counteract the negative portrayal of Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada — particularly the film version, where Meryl Streep etched her in the public consciousness as an icy tyrant whose career revolves around elitism.

By all rights, as the marquee name, Wintour should have been its star. And yet Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director, stole the show. With her flame-red hair, down-to-earth class and seemingly singular capacity to stand up to her imperious boss, Coddington emerged as the doc's accidental protagonist.

"The September Issue," Coddington says at the outset of her new memoir Grace, is "the only reason anybody's ever heard of me." Now, with the publication of Grace, she solidifies her place in the upper echelon of fashion, feminine power and the stories you can tell when you work really hard.

"I'm always surprised that people who've seen the movie respond to me in such a positive manner," Coddington writes. Fame was never anything she sought. That she's managed to work this long — she turned 71 this year — largely outside the public eye is a testament to her love of privacy. It certainly has nothing to do with any lack of glamour, prestige or success, especially in an industry notorious for chewing up pretty girls and spitting them out before they're 30.

But the public is fascinated with her, perhaps more so than with Wintour or even pioneering Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. That's because Coddington works largely behind the scenes, on her hands and knees, lacing shoes and dictating angles like the Cyrano de Bergerac of the fashion industry. Her ideas are legendary, but for most of her life she was not.

These days, however, Coddington is a very public figure. In the midst of a nationwide book tour, she is making a stop in Nashville Sunday at The Frist for a one-on-one conversation with supermodel/musician Karen Elson, who also happens to be a Nashville resident and staunch supporter of the city's ever-growing creative community. The two fashion powerhouses will share a stage at The Frist to speak about the book, the memories they share, and the often misunderstood industry that propels them.

Elson, whom she refers to several times throughout the book's more than 300 pages, is one of her close friends and favorite models. It's easy to see why: With her bright red hair, Elizabethan coloring and whip-smart demeanor, Elson says she's frequently mistaken for Coddington's daughter on shoots. She even sang to Coddington at her 70th birthday party, performing (what else?) "Amazing Grace." So when Elson asked her to come to Nashville for a public conversation about her life and work, the notoriously publicity-phobic Coddington agreed.

Elson says one reason she's looking forward to the conversation is that, as with The September Issue, she believes it will give people corrective insight into the fashion industry. She sees a growing public interest in the world of fashion, and she wants to match that interest with the reality of her day-to-day life — something far removed from the mindless, vapid or false ways it is often portrayed in mass media.

"I work in fashion," Elson says. "I know how it works, and what you see on TV isn't accurate. It isn't even a glamorized version of it. It's a very interesting take, but it isn't the truth. Grace's experience of it is the truth."

Grace has the hard-headed earthiness its author conveyed on camera in The September Issue. With conversational wit, Coddington recounts her personal history while maintaining a coolly disarming objectivity. Vignettes from her early childhood — pretending to be ghosts with her sister in the empty corridors of the Welsh seaside hotel where they grew up; the "groovy" nuns in her convent school who had a propensity for roller-skating in their habits; her parents' forced abstinence, which drove Mr. Coddington to share a bedroom with Grace and not her mother; and the traumatizing death of her father from lung cancer ("My mother was standing at the bedside in tears. ... my sister tried to shake my father back into life. She was devastated and hysterical") — are like pages from a family photo album pieced together with detached affection.

But it's Coddington's love of a strong visual narrative that connects these early memories to the rest of her life. She read children's comics, Winnie-the-Pooh and books by Lewis Carroll and borrowed her older sister's Vogue. Years later, she would combine those early loves in some of her most memorable photos. In the memoir, her own drawings open each chapter like storybook illustrations, and she mimics A.A. Milne's playfully detailed chapter headings in her own. ("On Modeling," for example, is subtitled "In which our heroine leaves home, lands a job, learns how to walk, runs naked through the woods and discovers sex.")

Coddington's authorial voice is understated and direct, and she paints a vibrant picture of her increasingly glamorous life without getting overly dramatic or self-indulgent. On the car accident that resulted in five plastic surgeries and almost ended her career: "I smashed my face in the driving mirror, and my left eyelid was sliced off. Luckily, they found my eyelashes." On fooling around with Mick Jagger in the '60s: "One afternoon not long after I had moved in, Mick had come over and started making out with me."

Her opinions sharpen, however, when she dishes on the fashion industry. In a brief and dismissive mention, she calls Tyra Banks "a bit of a flash in the pan. ... With her big tits and incredibly thin ankles, she was never really cut out to be a high-fashion model." She writes of her famous distaste for working with celebrities, retelling an especially trying shoot with Madonna in 2005. She is forthcoming in her dislike of Dior's early collections, which predominantly featured the pelts of endangered species like snow leopards. And she relates a hilarious recollection of a session with photographer Helmut Newton — which starts with the master of high-gloss perversity instructing a model to pose as though she's being raped by a stuffed swan — with the same biting understatement she uses to describe a close friend's weight loss after a cancer diagnosis: "She looked incredibly chic."

Toward the end of Grace, Coddington happily remarks that she's friends almost exclusively with fashion types, the result of dedicating one's entire life to the industry. Elson's decision to bring Coddington to Nashville came from her own eagerness to share her life with her adopted community and pull the curtain back a little herself.

"There's a renaissance happening in this town," Elson says. "It feels like a lot of doors are opening up to the city beyond just music, and I feel like there's a bridge that needs to be built between what I experience in fashion and what people think my world is."

There is no better person to help Elson build that bridge than Coddington. In a speech at the 70th birthday party that both Coddington and Elson remember well, Wintour pronounced her affection for her creative director.

"To me," Wintour said, "you will always be the heart and soul of the magazine, its guardian at the gate, its beacon of excellence." The famously stoic Wintour had tears in her eyes.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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