I love autobiographies, but I must say that I’m always a little suspicious of them. What exactly is it that the author has chosen *not* to tell? I mean, think about it; if you were writing the story of your life wouldn’t you chose to leave out a thing or two? Or maybe you would tweak the facts just a little to make you not look like such a jerk.
So that is how I approach the reading of an autobiography. I just assume the writer is not laying it all out there, and that way I don’t get mad when I suspect she is holding back. And, yes, Grace Mirabella does hold back.
But no matter, I loved this book anyway, if for no other reason than she gives the most marvelous inside view of working in fashion in the 1950s. Before she became editor of Vogue in 1971, Mirabella worked her way up through the ranks, but before that she held various jobs in fashion retailing and manufacturing. It’s a fascinating story and it makes searching out this book worth the time and money.
I imagine the most anticipated parts of the book were the chapters on Mirabella’s relationship with Diana Vreeland. Soon after Vreeland’s arrival at Vogue in 1962, Mirabella decided she just could not work with her, and began seeking other employment. Vreeland found out and countered by making Mirabella an offer she could not refuse – that of becoming Vreeland’s assistant.
It was a strange professional relationship that worked, with the flamboyant, over-the-top Vreeland’s ideas being brought to life by the practical no-nonsense Mirabella. Mirabella got to be very good at translating Vreeland-speak: “I’m looking for the suggestion of something I’ve never seen.”
Throughout the 1960s, Vreeland’s vision for Vogue was in step with the zeitgeist of the time, but as the 1970s turned away from flower children with body paint and flowers in their hair, she either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change. The bosses at Conde Nast (publisher of Vogue) grew exasperated when it became obvious that Vreeland would not listen to their demands for change. So, in 1971 Vreeland was fired and her job was given to Grace Mirabella. The two never spoke again, something that Mirabella said she regretted.
She talked a bit about the legend of Diana Vreeland, and about how people do not have a true picture of what she was really like. It is obvious that Mirabella had great affection for Vreeland the person, but not for Vreeland the legend.
In that way, Mirabella began her seventeen years as editor of Vogue. If Vreeland was totally out of step with the 1970s, then Mirabella was perfect for it. She was the champion of designers like Halston and Geoffrey Beene and Saint Laurent and Ralph Lauren who were making clothes for the lives women were living. Her problems began when in the 1980s fashion began to turn more flamboyant. She confessed that she did not understand what Christian Lacroix was about.
Of course, the story goes full circle when Anna Wintour applied for a job at Vogue, and during the interview when asked what position interested her, informed Mirabella that she wanted her job. And several years later, that is exactly what she got. Grace Mirabella found out about her firing and Wintour’s hiring from a TV report.
When this book was written in 1995, it had only been seven years since Mirabella’s firing. In the meantime, she started Mirabella magazine with backing from Rupert Murdock, a magazine that eventually folded. By then Mirabella had retired from the publishing world. She is still alive, and recently attended the launch of a new book and documentary about Vreeland, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel.
When Mirabella’s book was released in 1995, it was suspected that she was ready to get even with a few people by telling exactly what she knew and thought about them. And while it’s by no means a nasty retaliation for the events at Vogue, she sure has some entertaining things to say about people. I’ll end with a few favorites.
About Andy Warhol and his followers – “..the whole Factory crew smelling like unwashed underwear and pot, milling around the Vogue offices with a camera.”
About photographer Richard Avedon – “He achieved some of his best effects with girls who were utterly strung out on dope…”
About the guests at a party given by Yves Saint Laurent – “…it was a ridiculously flaky crowd, filled with fashion victims and hangers-on and would-be actors and writers, and some aristocrats – all swingers of the refinedly degenerate type that you found around Europe in those years.”
About John Fairchild, publisher of Women’s Wear Daily – “…Fairchild built his power and his fortune by living off people obsessed with seeing their faces in print. He lived off scandal, off competition, and off fear.”
About Anna Wintour – “I think, in retrospect, that she was so sure she’d soon end up in my job that she considered me more of a momentary inconvenience than a person she might have to answer to or contend with.”