Juliet Buck, former editor of Vogue Paris, wrote in her memoir The Price of Illusion: “Vogue is a potent drug women get lost in. We are making more than magazines, we are making the most addictive substance there is — the dream.”
While the dream doesn’t necessarily come true for everyone, for others it reaches as far as remote islands off the coast of Wales, promising young, fiery redheads the chance to be creative, have enormous cultural impact, and maybe--just maybe--swing from the trees with purpose as any motivated orangutan should (but more on that later).
There are few figures in fashion whose achievements are celebrated as much as those of Grace Coddington. The former model and longtime American Vogue creative director is heralded as one of the most visionary and prolific stylists of the 21st century. Her work with renowned photographers such as Bruce Weber, Helmut Newton and Annie Leibowitz introduced a narrative style that weaved fashion into storytelling. Coddington is the genius behind many of Vogue’s dreamy editorials, and her aesthetic sensibility transcends the glossy pages of the magazine, where she has worked in front of and behind the camera for the last five decades.
Born Pamela Rosalind Grace Coddington in 1941 on the island of Anglesey near Wales, the legendary stylist has come a long way from flipping through the monthly magazines she ordered at the local store. With her fair skin, striking bone structure and fiery red hair, Coddington attended school in a local girls’ convent before heading off to London at the age of 18. She began her career posing in nude portraits for the photographer Norman Parkinson. That same year, she won a Vogue modeling competition, launching herself onto the pages of the “Young Ideas” section. She had a terrible car accident at the age of 26, which put her modeling career on hold. Five operations and two years of reconstructive surgery later, she made a comeback alongside Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. From there, “The Cod,” as she was known, had become Vidal Sassoon’s muse — the iconic hairdresser who created her signature five-point haircut ("He didn't create it for me," Grace would later tell the New York Times, "he created it on me.")
As Coddington approached her 30th birthday, she worried that her modeling career was winding down. She soon met Beatrix Miller, British Vogue’s editor, who offered her a job as a junior fashion editor in 1968. By 1976, she was the senior fashion editor. A brief stint at Calvin Klein took her to New York 1987, before returning to American Vogue in 1988 with Anna Wintour at the helm and scaling the ranks to creative director. She remained in this position until the beginning of 2016, when she stepped down to assume the newly created role of creative director at large, where she began to collaborate with Tiffany & Co. as well as Comme des Garcons, to create a fragrance called Grace by Grace Coddington.
In many ways, Coddington’s work has helped shape the careers of other creatives in the industry. She has successfully mentored editors such as Lucinda Chambers and Edward Enninful — British Vogue’s current editor-in-chief —, nurtured designers and supermodels like Natalia Vodianova and Kate Moss and worked with all the great photographers like Arthur Elgort, Ellen Von Unwerth, Guy Bourdin, David Bailey, Guy Bourdin, Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, and Steven Klein. In 2009, R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue exposed her work and influence to a larger audience. Her initial reluctance to participate in the film is the reason why Cutler pursued her in the first place.
FROM ANGLESEY TO BORNEO
Coddington’s life story also inspired Michael Roberts, former fashion director for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, to author and illustrate GingerNutz: The Jungle Memoir of a Model Orangutan, a short novel about an orangutan born in the wilds of Borneo who achieves her dream of becoming a high-fashion model.
Ahead of the book’s official release on September 8, Roberts explained how the project came to be: “It started a year ago while I was working on the Manolo Blahnik film and felt my creativity being drained. I had to do something else to relax.”
Roberts, who first met Coddington in 1972 when she was still Junior Editor for British Vogue and he was Assistant Editor working for The Sunday Times, remembers publishing a story she had told him during one of their first encounters. The piece was about her smuggling film to London from a photo shoot in Russia with former fashion model and actress Jerry Hall and photographer Norman Parkinson. After it ran, Roberts joked, “I saw her outside Mr. Chow one day and she wanted to kill me.”
In GingerNutz' epilogue, Roberts recalls some of Coddington’s most defining characteristics and accomplishments: “Celebrated for her versatility, 'Big Red,' as she became known, was equally at home in a photographer’s studio, on the catwalk, or swinging through the trees. Her trademarks were her ever-changing hairstyles— The Gibbon, The Baboon, The Capuchin, and The Rhesus—all of which had a touch of monkey magic.”
A long-time friend and collaborator, Roberts said her resilience has always impressed him. “Her quietness could be mistaken for weakness, but internally she is a very strong person, which is very admirable.”
THE GRACE IMPACT
As far as describing Coddington’s influence to someone unfamiliar with her accomplishments, Vanity Fair’s fashion and style director said, “First, that the whole idea of fashion as a vehicle for narrative stories really came from her — from the early ones with Bruce Weber and later with Annie Liebowitz — she integrated fashion into the story, and second, she has an extreme sensitivity to watching and collating fashion collections and having the uncanny ability to choosing the exact outfit that a designer is channeling to represent the entire collection.”
A typical “Grace” photo shoot, as she once explained, includes a full panoply of “English gardens, flowers, trees, topiary, groups, Paris couture, chateaux, even bigger groups, wagon trains, teepees, summer camp frolicks, innocence, crazy hair, long skirts, historical tableaux, happy families, buckets of nostalgia and lovely horizons.”
Some of Coddington’s most celebrated work include a young Natalia Vodianova cast as a modern day Alice in Wonderland, and Kate Moss photographed by Tim Walker in the bathroom of the Coco Chanel Suite at The Ritz Paris before it underwent renovations in 2012. This particular shoot saw Balenciaga’s former creative director Nicolas Ghesquière create an exclusive pink-and-silver lamé cocktail dress and cape for Vogue, inspired by the Cristobal Balenciaga 1960 archives. Coddington irreverently paired the dress with that season’s Miu Miu silver glitter boots.
She was also the one behind Vogue’s controversial "Kimye" cover in 2014, a move which may have been considered unexpected since the former creative director is an ardent critic of social media. Coddington joined Instagram in 2014 but had her account suspended after posting a drawing of her sunbathing in the nude. “I hate Instagram, actually. I think it really interferes with people's lives and things and it's pathetic how everyone's photographing everything they're eating all the time. Everybody uses it instead of reading the newspapers these days,” she once said in an interview in Vogue.
Beyond Vogue, Coddington adores cats and is an accomplished illustrator with three books to her name. Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue which was published in 2012, celebrating her 30 years at the publication, was reissued in 2013 after being sold for four figures online as a collectable tome.
As we prepare to honor Grace with the Lifetime Achievement award at the 58th annual Clios, it's important to remember the one key takeaway from her hard work, dedication and unwavering imagination, and that is to: “Always keep your eyes open…keep watching, because whatever you see out the window, or wherever, can inspire you."