Leading a life as colourful as one of her own shoots, over five utterly eclectic decades, immersed in some of the most vibrant evolutions in fashion, who better to share a snapshot of her life more-than-well-lived, than fashion director Grace Coddington, in her own words…
Recalling the number of people she’s worked with over the years, “well, it can give you a headache,” she laughs. She’s right, obviously. With a dizzying array of extraordinary experiences and anecdotes, her credits list rolls with the best of the best. Fortuitously landing her first break sitting for Norman Parkinson, she went onto become the face of the ‘60s – ‘The Cod’ to Jean Shrimpton’s ‘The Shrimp’, her image captured by the who’s who of the time including David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Helmut Newton - that accidentally iconic Saint Tropez pool shot forever etched in the annuals of photography. But it was the move behind the camera, as fashion editor at British Vogue under the editorship of Beatrix Miller and then Anna Wintour, where she rapidly revealed an astonishing ability to weave wonderful stories through pictures, leading her on to work with Bruce Weber, dabble in Americanism and, eventually, after a stint at Calvin Klein in New York, land a role at American Vogue with her former editor, Anna Wintour - the renewal of a formidable partnership, reshaping the fashion landscape.
“I kind of live my life through the shoots, they take up so much of my day,” she explains, and, sitting, surrounded by copies of her mighty new tome - fittingly striking in its stature, beautifully bound in paintbox red - naturally, it’s clear to see this passion poured into each and every one of its 400 strong pages. Testament to the sheer breadth and vivacity of her work, spanning 15 years, Grace: The American Vogue Years captures perfectly a period that had her shooting alongside the giants of photography - think Bruce Weber, Arthur Elgort, Steven Klein, Patrick Demarchelier to name a few. And yet, with a career of over 50 years - spent both behind and in front of the camera, by her own admission, editing Grace is no mean feat.
And, while she has become almost larger than life in part thanks to the 2009 documentary The September Issue propelling her out of the pages and back in front of the camera, her work has a narrative of its own. Unmistakable in its unwavering ability to spin out imagination and fantasy yet ground it in an uncompromising naturalism, each image chronicles an exploration, a discussion between the stylist, the photographer, the model and, of course, the clothes.
Curating the book was painful. One is always wedded to every picture and it’s very hard to throw any out. They feel part of me. You have to do it in stages and I did it with Michael Roberts [Grace’s longtime friend and fashion and style director of Vanity Fair] so I have a sounding board. If it gets through both of us it stays, if one of us said “no” it goes. I need someone else to be brutal because I’m not brutal.
It took a few months to edit the photographs. We had it all laid out with bits of paper on the floor, then the wind would come along and blow them all around, my cats came in and bounced around on them, we kept losing track of things. After a while you see it building until you see the whole book laid out on the floor and you get a sense of not having too much studio or not enough location, or it’s too colorful or there’s too many busy pictures together. It’s a balancing act and that’s the fun part of it once you’ve edited it down.
I kind of live my life through the shoots they take up so much of my day. Particularly at American Vogue, it was like one a week whereas at British Vogue it was more like one a month.
I still remember my first shoot. It was a disaster; I don’t think it ran. I thought I knew everything and then when I actuality was confronted with it, I realised I knew nothing. They sent another editor along with me to make sure I was doing it OK but even that didn’t really help for some reason. But you learn from these things.
A really happy period of my life was in the early 80s, that period with Bruce Weber. The collaborations I did with him were really enjoyable and such a learning process, it introduced me to America. Even though a lot of the shoots were done in England, to work closely with someone who is very right-down-to-his-shoes American - whatever he looks at is through American eyes, so I started to see things that way too.
I worked with Bruce a lot before my move to New York. I was coming out there often to work with him. I felt I knew a lot about America before I got there. Of course when I got there, I thought I didn’t know anything about America. You realise how little you know when you’re living there. I slid into life there gently and I went to American Vogue at a good point - it was when Anna [Wintour] became editor and I already knew her well having worked with her at British Vogue in London. And of course, she was English, so it slotted in rather well.
The photographer Norman Parkinson taught me a lot. He was first person I modelled with and then I worked with him a lot at British Vogue, when I went on to work there. After time it is a lot about growing alongside the photographers, developing relationships. In a similar way, I’m always very close to my assistants. They become like friends, it’s much more of a partnership. Putting together photographs is kind of a collaboration and partnership with everyone. It’s much nicer if each person bounces off the other and creates in that way.
"Today the fashion landscape has completely changed. Everything, from all aspects..."
Before digital photography the photographers were the only ones who knew what the photograph was like. They saw it through the camera. You saw it a few weeks later when the film came in and until that time, you prayed it was what you thought it was. It felt more natural. I must say I prefer film to digital in that respect.
Today the fashion landscape has completely changed. Everything, from all aspects, social media has changed things a lot.
Why, cats, well they can’t answer back, they can’t tell me what to do. They’ve all got personalities. I worry about them when I’m not with them. They’re cute, cuddly and calming. When you’re with them and everything is fine it feels good. I guess, I just like them.
A shoot will come out of all different ideas really. Sometimes a movie, sometimes purely from what we all see as they go down the runway - the thing about that is of course, everybody has that information so comes up with the same idea, although you always try to look at it from your point of view or someone else’s even if the story is the same. Sometimes it comes from being asked to do something by Anna or a photographer has an idea which we want to explore.
Natalia Vodianova, she features a lot - she’s got like three quarters of the book. I just work really well with her and Karen Elson. It’s good if they can express what you’re trying to say. I like to work with one girl and work with her a lot - I think it’s interesting to develop with them and it becomes personal. I don’t tend to just go for the girl who is beautiful with pretty blonde hair; I like the ones with the quirky character like Karen.
These days I keep my own style simple in black and usually wear Céline. I think she’s [Phoebe Philo] an amazing designer. It’s incredible that I can wear her things and so can someone very young - whoever. They’re very real but so special at the same time.
There was a time when I used to wear a lot of vintage because that way for sure no one else would be wearing it. I used to go to Chelsea Antique Market for 20s, 30s and 50s dresses. I like all those printed dresses with the square shoulder pads – they were just comfortable. I’m sad it’s so hard to find good vintage now, they haven’t kept so well.
My advice to anyone starting out would be don’t be lazy. It’s tough. Being in America, it’s helped me adopt the American way of positivity. You just make it happen. There’s no saying “no”. If you imagine it and you want it, you’ve just got to make it happen.