Her presence is unassuming, save for her trademark red tresses, unmistakably auburn even in the blue light of the projector screen. Dressed minimally in an all-black ensemble and loafers, she moves comfortably across a room filled with keen admirers of her life and legacy.
“My voice is very quiet,” she says, sitting down and testing the microphone.
Grace Coddington is one of very few power players in the global fashion industry, and is entering her third decade working at Vogue magazine. Since being scouted as a young teenager and embarking on a modeling career, she has served in a variety of fashion-related roles for both British and American Vogue. Her daring pursuits of visual artistry have become a stronghold in an ever-changing industry; her ethos — as it relates to fashion and photography— is steeped in a genuine understanding of history and in personal experience.
Her assistant and former assistant, Yvonne Bannigan and Tina Chai, are perched in the front row, chattering loudly and pausing only to take alternating sips of green juice and Evian water. Slumped over their black Saint Laurent bags — a staple for the career-climbing fashion girl — they pore over their smartphones in search of a model for Coddington’s shoot in Los Angeles two days later. The two work closely with her, and they throw their heads back in laughter at everything Coddington says, clinging onto every sentence as it leaves her rouged lips.
On the table in front of her are two signed copies of her recent publications, a gift to Yale’s libraries: a 408-page monograph of her work, “Grace: 30 Years of Fashion @ Vogue,” which was republished by Phaidon Press in 2015, and “The American Vogue Years,” the second volume of her work over the last 15 years. She rests her lined hands and unmanicured fingertips atop the two coffee-table books, which lie in their cardboard cases.
“DON’T WORRY, WE’LL PROMPT YOU,” hisses Chai, loudly enough for the room to hear, as Bannigan passes Coddington a wad of pages printed with notes and talking points. Coddington fingers the pages for a moment, but doesn’t consult them for the duration of her talk.
Gregory Crewdson ART ’88, the director of graduate studies in photography at the Yale School of Art, stumbles over his words as he interviews Coddington. Her measured transatlantic accent makes any other voice seem fidgety by contrast. After 10 minutes of jarring questions — she’s not one for small talk — Coddington turns her gaze to the screen behind her. Crewdson flicks through a string of breathtaking images in black and white. In one picture, a young girl poses in a chunky knit sweater, a boater hat atop a pair of voluminous pigtails.
“That’s me,” she muses. “The picture on my first model card.”
Crewdson asks if she remembers the photographer who shot the picture. Coddington pauses.
“Stumped ya!” Crewdson retorts, before being interrupted by Coddington’s recollection of the photographer’s name.
More pictures of young Coddington follow: in one, she poses in a bikini and goggles amidst a dignified row of models in evening dresses. In another, shot by Helmut Newton in 1985, she poses languidly in luxurious excesses of fur, her outfit indistinguishable from the plush trimmings of the lounge chair on which she reclines.
The 75-year old looks up at the illuminated projections of her youthful self, gazing upon them with her audience. Eighteen-year old Grace worked her angles provocatively for the camera, her slick bone structure the perfect complement to a razor-sharp bob hairstyle by Vidal Sassoon himself. Coddington smiles at the sight of her suggestive poses. The decades since have dignified her presence with a silent authority; her effusive sensuality has now ripened into elegance. But she possesses the same nimble wit, and she is at one with these youthful depictions, never alienated by the trajectory of her lifelong love affair with fashion. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are all still her glory days.
“I pranced around Helmut Newton’s house in the South of France in my bikini, hoping he’d photograph me,” she laughs, recalling her youthful escapades that toe the line between professional career advancement and personal desire. While describing her time working with legendary photographer Guy Bourdin, she mentions dating his assistant for a time.
“Vietnamese,” she says. “Very good.”
She tells us of her transformative friendship with iconic photographer Bruce Weber, a Vogue mainstay known for his campaigns — shot exclusively in film — for crisp, all-American brands like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch. Weber brought Coddington to the United States and travelled with her around the country, convincing her to stay.
“I changed the way I lived because of him; he made it enticing.”
Next to her two recently published books is what Coddington describes as her single most prized possession: a scrapbook made for her by beloved friend and renowned photographer Bruce Weber. It is brittle with age and lies in crinkly plastic wrapping, but, Coddington insists, “it is here to be enjoyed and touched.” The thin cardboard pages are reinforced with black masking tape and filled with black and white film photographs of Weber and Coddington’s travels, relics of their explorations adorned with annotations in Weber’s loopy script. It looks like something out of a movie, but this is her life.
With each projected image, the versatile, sultry redhead plunges into a new visual narrative. Whether as a model then or a creative director today, Coddington describes her role at Vogue as the creation of narratives. “I like for a fashion story to reflect both the clothing as well as photography,” she says.
Inspiration strikes the former model frequently; she cites old movies and major fashion movements and icons when describing the elaborate tableaux she creates.
“I try to look back and look forward, but sometimes I think I look back too much,” she says, clasping her ringed fingers around her two large books. Times are different now, fashion is commercializing to an unrecognizable extreme, and the monograph, supposedly containing the best of her life’s work, has already been published. Grace Coddington sits with us, holding the highlights of her career in her hands. In these books, there are no blank pages for her to fill.
She describes the wholly different media landscape that dominates today’s fashion industry as if it were another country; she is not averse to making disparaging comments about the Kardashians. Kim and Kanye infamously dominated the cover and editorial spread of American Vogue’s April 2014 issue. For this project, Coddington tells us of her vision for the photo shoot: “everyone taking pictures of everyone taking pictures of everyone.” A meta-photo shoot replete with selfies and photographs of selfies that accurately reflects the image-obsessed nature of the Kardashian existence. Annie Leibovitz, whom Coddington describes as the toughest photographer to work with, rejected this concept. Leibovitz wanted the media’s favorite family to look gorgeous, and the final spread featured only one selfie-related image.
“I dislike it when it all lands on the cutting room floor,” Coddington says of the discarded material from photo shoots. Coming from someone with her level of experience, her nostalgia signals the serious underlying issue of the industry’s demise. Gone are the days when Coddington spent weeks on the road exploring Jamaica, France and the US in search of beautiful places to shoot. No longer is she able to call up her favorite designers to produce custom pieces for her. Coddington mourns the loss of the fashion industry’s most prized resource: time. “So many wonderful things can happen in the course of a conversation,” she said. “Now you just talk to assistants.”
Coddington describes her most treasured photographs as being results of serendipitous encounters: an afternoon nap on a hammock in the sun, shooting at Karl Lagerfeld’s apartment in Paris when they couldn’t afford a location, borrowing a maid costume from a hotel and dressing her assistant as a character in the photo shoot when the budget didn’t allow for an additional model. “I think it’s sad that you wing in and out on the day of a photo shoot,” she says. “There is no time anymore,”
Coddington left her role as creative director of American Vogue this January, and has since taken up the more peripheral role of creative director-at-large of Vogue. Judging from her new eponymous fragrance, her doodle-littered Instagram (“I only got Instagram to sell my perfume!”) and recently published books, this is a shift away from the Vogue family. She advised her audience not to start out working for Vogue, as it is a tough place. “They take your personal style and strip it,” she says. “You have to be strong enough to survive at Vogue.” She remains associated with the legacy publication responsible for catapulting her career to ubiquity, but possesses the independent air of an icon in her own right. After filling American Vogue’s pages with unmistakable flair for 28 years, she is now working on worlds of her own.
The creases of age have deepened around her features. In many ways, she is a veteran of an industry that is disoriented by the speed of uninformed change forcing legacy publications into financial turmoil. This leaves the leaders of fashion, Coddington included, groping for answers that continue to elude them. Few have had such a transformative impact on the fashion industry. Fewer have lived each moment of their career with a spontaneous sense of adventure. But no one else does it with such Grace.
Correction, Nov. 5: A previous version of this article stated that Tina Chai is Grace Coddington’s assistant. In fact, she is her former assistant. Coddington also did not show any topless photographs of herself in the slideshow, only an illustration of her posing nude.