THE WAY OF GRACE
One of the biggest changes in legendary stylist Grace Coddington’s career signals a new and unchartered chapter in fashion.
One of the biggest changes in legendary stylist Grace Coddington’s career signals a new, uncharted chapter in fashion.
After nearly three decades of influential and legendary work at US Vogue, unsurpassed creative director Grace Coddington announced she was stepping down. The news broke in January and New York Times chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman rather sombrely wrote: “The tectonic plates of fashion are shifting.” So, with a game-changer like Coddington on the move, a constant for someone who has worked at Vogue for longer than this writer has been alive, should we panic? “It is a difficult period for everyone,” she says, seated in her office at Vogue. “The whole world is changing. I feel like the carpet is being rocked under me somewhat and it is particularly challenging for me because I have rejected all that.” By “all that” she means whip-fast technology, social media and instant Insta-fame. Take pause to believe all this, though, because Grace Coddington is many things, and one of them is a chameleon. To wit, she confesses she’s joined Instagram, which of course I already know being that @therealgracecoddington is there for all 254,000 followers to see.
“I have, I’m ashamed to say. You know mine is 90 per cent drawings, which take a bit of time and thought actually,” she seems to want to qualify, referring to her long-held love of sketching. “I have people saying: ‘Well, can you do it now?’ and I just say: ‘No, let me think about it.’” The future then is not necessarily bleak. What this changing world has afforded Coddington is a new type of luxury: freedom. For one of her first ever big projects outside of Vogue, she was hired by Tiffany & Co. as creative partner to create the jeweller’s new Legendary Style campaign.
“I want to be very selective who I give my name to,” she explains. “[Tiffany & Co.] is very beautiful and it is so much part of New York and I have completely embraced New York.” Along with her relatively constant uniform of sneakers, black pants and black top, little else embellishes her look other than her red hair, which is either a halo or a flounce depending on whether she’s sitting or moving fast. She does genuinely wear the jewellery house’s wares. “I wear Tiffany things; not the big fancy necklaces because I don’t have that kind of money,” she jokes with a British straightforwardness. Her favourites
“I CAN’T BE TOO NOSTALGIC. YOU HAVE TO FIND WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU”
instead are demure diamond rings and pieces by Elsa Peretti. “Peretti is extraordinary; it is like pieces of sculpture. It is very easy to use in shoots because it is very graphic,” she points out.
The good news for Vogue is she will stay as creative director-atlarge to work on a handful of shoots each year, but few would be surprised if she did more. “I still have an office,” she says. “They are very nice to me, but I’m freelance.” Note that few have loosened ties with the hallowed Vogue halls so seamlessly.
Our meeting location, in her office, is a last-minute change from her Chelsea home as she is flying out the next day for Nicolas Ghesquière’s resort presentation for Louis Vuitton in Rio de Janeiro and she has work to do. It’s something that, despite her admiration for Ghesquière, Coddington’s not thrilled about. “It’s a bit more tiring now. Everyone wants to show in Cuba, or Brazil, or wherever. It would be nice if they could just come to the office. But that’s not going to happen.”
In her workspace all is as anyone who has seen R.J. Cutler’s 2007 documentary The September Issue would expect. The area is a brightly lit pocket inside the vertiginous new One World Trade Center home of Condé Nast, tucked away off the main thoroughfare. Racks flank the walls outside and a heavy glass sliding door gives Coddington the impression of sanctuary. Impression only, because Coddington surrenders to a request for direction when a call comes in from Alexander McQueen and answers a query about a dress during the course of the meeting. The diktat is business as usual.
There’s no computer on her desk, a symptom of the technologically adverse, and instead the space is dotted with piles of fashion books and images from shoots – a decorating quirk she inherited from friend and collaborator Bruce Weber. There are also multiple bottles of her recently released perfume, Grace, and pictures of her treasured pet cats.
Welsh-born Coddington joined Vogue in 1988 after leaving Britain where she modelled in London in the 1960s, knocking around with the likes of Mary Quant, Michael Caine and The Rolling Stones. It was the same day Anna Wintour started as editor-in-chief, and it was Wintour who invited Coddington to take up a position – the pair had worked together previously at British Vogue. A brief, but no less important, stint at Calvin Klein proceeded and incidentally another of Coddington’s new projects has seen her modelling for the brand’s new campaign. During her time there, she orchestrated the bare bones and now iconic Eternity campaigns with Christy Turlington that flagged a change in Klein’s own career from sexed up to pared back.
It is not an overstatement to say Coddington has had a hand in several seismic shifts in the fashion industry. She underpins the direction Anna Wintour has taken at US Vogue from foregrounding celebrities increasingly to incorporating the worlds of art, politics and lifestyle in shoots.
It’s all captured in wistful, and at times heart-stoppingly romantic, images that have become her stamp. Photographer David Bailey says the reason he has enjoyed working with Coddington so much is “because she was not constrained by fashion. She had an open and free mind to new ideas.” A narrative theme is an often-observed thread in her images and emotion guides her sometimes moody, sometimes charming scenes. Through work with photographers like Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Klein and Annie Leibovitz, she has forged and cemented trends. As just one example, she insisted on placing grunge front and centre in a 1992 shoot with Steven Meisel featuring hole-ridden jumpers, kilts and Doc Martens. It was shot days before Marc Jacobs showed his famous grunge collection and, as Coddington points out in her 2012 memoir, “he doesn’t give previews”. “Grace loves to tell stories and always brings the most amazing clothes to make the shoot very exciting, epic and groundbreaking,” photographer Ellen von Unwerth says. There’s a feeling that a story is unravelling before your eyes, a sense that when the camera shutters off for good, the whole scene will continue without the viewer. There was the 1989 Bruce Weber Long Island shoot with model Bruce Hulse and a young Talisa Soto. In one image, Soto poses fists raised ready to fight, though beguiling in a liquid silk slip dress. In another Weber image, Naomi Campbell and a shirtless Mike Tyson stride purposefully toward the foreground. In an Arthur Elgort-shot desert scene, nomadic children join regal female warriors in a Mad Max- inspired epic. In one of Unwerth’s shoots, a platinumblonde Amish Christy Turlington lazes in a wheat field.
Working on instinct, Coddington understands what a good image is. “When you see it, you feel it,” she says. “It is very important you can see the clothes. I think too many people are trying to be too creative and forget the fashion picture. That is the difference between art and a fashion picture: for a fashion picture you’re actually there to sell the clothes.”
It’s a truth that has driven US Vogue and is made out to be a point of difference by some commentators between Wintour and Coddington. In reality the two who have worked together for decades understand each other. “I don’t believe for one minute that I have a sense of what’s going to happen or a sense of real change the way Grace does,” said Wintour in Cutler’s documentary. “She and I don’t always agree, but I think that over the years we’ve learnt how to deal with each other’s different points of view.” Coddington still feels pressure to work at her best under Wintour. “At some point you have to show [your edit] to Anna on a rack and that is kind of scary,” she says. “You just hope she likes it and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she makes you change it … what happens is you’re left with the best of the best. If you can survive this, then it is going to be something strong.”
Does she find this challenging? “She is very challenging. It’s what she does and it’s what is so good about her. You know, she is never lethargic and just lets it go through. It’s one of those things; you wonder if she is actually focused or concentrating
on something and you had better believe she is,” she says emphatically. “As soon as you step through her door, she is on it. She already knows where it should be and how it should be. It’s an opinion of course – that’s what an editor is.”
A stylist then, or at least an original like Coddington, is resourceful. “She will run up a mountain to pick a daisy if it is needed to make the pictures better, and that is a rare thing,” says Unwerth. It’s a style not all editors working today preference, but Coddington says it’s what she likes. “I am always trying to cut them down saying: ‘Listen, let’s just jump in a car, you and me, one assistant and a model and hair and make-up’ … They all say that sounds really exciting but then by the time you take off to do the job you’ve accumulated 20 people.”
It’s a preference for a down-to-earth approach to work that earned her legions of fans after The September Issue. She shares her office with two well-mannered assistants, a concept at odds with the supercilious editrix stereotype the media is fond of spruiking. They deal with the daily concerns of being Grace Coddington like answering countless emails and phone calls.
With humility she says she is grateful to Tiffany “for giving me a start in my whole new career at the age of 75”. With that humility comes a tendency toward self-criticism, a slight restlessness that propels creatives like her on. When asked if she remembers when she first felt confident in her work, she replies: “I never felt that. I mean there are times when you think it is really good or you think it went well and obviously you’re really excited but I don’t think you’re ever like: ‘Okay, I’ve got it.’ It’s better that you don’t completely relax and say ‘I’m fabulous’ because for sure someone is going to tell you you’re not.”
Whether she’d admit it or not, Coddington has embraced the changing times somewhat. For the Tiffany & Co. campaign, she elected to include celebrities when she’s fought to shoot models at Vogue. Elle Fanning and Lupita Nyong’o appear alongside models Natalie Westling and Christy Turlington. She’s also had to evolve her working relationships with runway faces, which was once always close. “I had relationships with the models; when you did a trip with someone, it could be up to two weeks. That doesn’t happen now because shoots are shorter and shorter,” she explains. “Although life is supposed to be so much simpler digitally, it’s not.” Her single complaint about the Instagram generation – the Kendalls and Gigis – is that she isn’t given the time to know them well enough. “They kind of come in and go … it’s difficult to have a relationship. I feel like I almost have to speak to them through Instagram or something and I don’t speak Instagram.”
As she continues a pragmatism creeps in. “I can’t be too nostalgic. I think you have to find what’s right for you,” she says. “That’s why I am very excited to go freelance because it gives me a whole other point of view that I didn’t have before. You’re seeing things from a different perspective.”
Some might still view the career shift as a departure of the old guard, giving way to the new generation of powerful millennials who want fast hits, snaps, memes. To have influence, though, the new modes will need to do what Coddington has always done: provide a means of escape, a natty sideways passage into another space. To be memorable. Change will come certainly, at US Vogue and elsewhere, but as long as Coddington is willing to work and then beyond that, her defining vision will keep shaping a world as we see it – knowing or not – through Grace’s eyes.
A Givenchy couture-clad Natalia Vodianova styled by Coddington for the October 2008 issue of US Vogue, shot by Patrick Demarchelier.