One of the Best Minds in Fashion, Former Model and the Creative Director of American Vogue Magazine
“If Wintour is the Pope . . . , Coddington is Michelangelo, trying to paint a fresh version of the Sistine Chapel twelve times a year,” Time magazine said in 2009, after Vogue’s creative director rather unexpectedly was launched into the public consciousness by the hit documentary The September Issue. Filmmaker R. J. Cutler’s revealing look at the inner workings of a fashion magazine brought into focus the high art and down-to-earth dedication Grace Coddington has always brought to the lavish portfolios at the heart of each issue.
For more than four decades, Coddington—a onetime model turned master stylist—has collaborated with the best photographers and hair and makeup artists in the business to create what amount to moving pictures on the page. An Yves Saint Laurent–clad Alice (played by model Natalia Vodianova) tumbles down the rabbit hole with the White Rabbit (the designer Tom Ford); a Toto-toting Dorothy (actually the actress Keira Knightley) vogues on the Yellow Brick Road in head-to-toe Lanvin.
Each of Coddington’s fantasias has a practical purpose, as well: to showcase the season’s most important runway looks. “She has an incredible instinct for the next thing,” the fashion critic Suzy Menkes has said. Coddington’s halo of flame-red hair is a familiar sight in the front row at fashion shows, where she sketches all the numbers that catch her eye. A visual narrative of sorts is assembled on the racks that line the hallways of Vogue’s headquarters in Times Square; it might look like a jumble of sequins, fur, tulle, feathers, and leather, but, she has said, “I have a sequence, a kind of story, in mind.”
Before Coddington became “Fash Ed. Supreme”—as the Absolutely Fabulous television character Patsy Stone once referred to Grace, her idol—she was the Cod, one of the most-photographed faces of sixties Swinging London. She modeled minis for Mary Quant and cutting-edge hairstyles for Vidal Sassoon, who gave her a radical geometric bob that catapulted them both to fame. Coddington was a “huge celebrity in that world, an incredible beauty,” Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief, once recalled. “I was in awe of her.”
There was no such thing as a stylist when Coddington got her start: The girls all carried their own wigs, makeup, and jewelry, transforming themselves to suit the job. Grace seemed to have a particular knack for this, always pulling just the right piece out of her bag. As the decade came to a close, she turned that talent into a career as a fashion editor. At British Vogue, she began making the fantasy travelogues that would become her signature. She went to great lengths to get the shot. For her mentor, the photographer Norman Parkinson, she climbed a Grecian column to set off smoke bombs at the feet of her model, Apollonia van Ravenstein. For the exacting Guy Bourdin she tipped vats of cerulean-blue dye into the ocean to achieve the brilliant shade he demanded. Once, she hatched a scheme with the seventies übermodel Jerry Hall to smuggle exposed rolls of film from a Norman Parkinson shoot out of the USSR in Hall’s makeup bag. All “in pursuit of fashion glory,” Coddington wrote in the 2002 chronicle of her work, Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue.
Since 1988, she has been Vogue’s creative leader, encouraging the team to push beyond the frame. “I like to give the photographer a starting point and then let him or her go as far as possible,” she told the magazine in 1993. Wrote Wintour, in the preface to Grace: “[S]he inspires and challenges them like no one else.”
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