The last time Vogue creative director Grace Coddington was impressed by fashion, she was at a Balenciaga runway show in Paris.
Since then, designer Nicolas Ghesquiere has left the house, and it could be some time before Coddington, the woman now largely famous as the woman with flowing red hair perched next to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour at scores of catwalks each season, gets to see his clothes again.
Tears or even sympathy seems unlikely from Coddington. While in the eyes of industry observers she might be the good cop trying to defend fashion’s integrity and creative licence, she also comes across – especially in her new autobiography, Grace: A Memoir – as very matter of fact: The no-use-crying-over-spilled-milk type.
“I’ve had a really fun life, and I hope it’s interesting and amusing to read the story,” she says. “You can’t really pick and choose what happens.”
Yes, she misses the days when, as both a model and then a magazine editor, she’d go off with a photographer to the world’s most exotic lands looking for the scenery to shoot the next greatest picture.
She also appreciates that things evolve. They’re not better or worse, they’re just different, she says during an interview at her Times Square office. She’s wearing a red cardigan, black trousers and flat black lace-up shoes.
“It’s all very professional now. It’s all very fast. Now time is money. There is so much money in this business now, but no one cared then because there wasn’t so much money. But somehow we did find money for a three-week photo shoot. Now we’re lucky to get people for three days,” she says.
Coddington grew up in Wales, where her parents owned a small hotel on the coast. That wasn’t going to be the life for her, she decided early on. She moved to London and got gigs as a model, she thinks because of her quirky style. After a serious car accident, her work was mostly done on the other side of the camera, which was fine with her.
As long as she could wear the latest, greatest Yves Saint Laurent outfit, everything was fine with her.
She hung out with cool people – even Mick Jagger and George Harrison – and had lots of fun at night at the hippest cafes, even marrying celebrity restaurateur Michael Chow.
She made it through the swinging ’60s, the disco era and a corporate job at Calvin Klein. However, as soon as Wintour, whom Coddington knew from the London fashion scene, took the helm at American Vogue, she settled in for the long haul, joining the magazine in 1988.
Coddington emerged as the unsung hero in the 2009 behind-the-scenes documentary The September Issue about the magazine and fashion industries; a champion of art over commerce, talent over celebrity.
Last year, Wintour threw Coddington a 70th-birthday bash. Guests included Marc Jacobs, Carey Mulligan, Seth Meyers and “tonnes of designers from New York and Europe; all my favourite models”.
“Anna loves to give a party,” says Coddington. “Do I like getting one? Yes and no. It’s a nightmare the five minutes before you go in, but it’s very flattering.”
It was suggested to her – on more than a few occasions – that she “was at that age to write her memoirs”. So, she did. She also drew scores of pencil-drawing illustrations that steal the show from photographs taken by Bruce Weber, Ellen von Unwerth, Steven Meisel and Annie Leibovitz.
Did you tell everyone who’s in the book that these stories would be in print?
I’m good at staying in touch. I still talk to all my ex-husbands and most of my ex-boyfriends.
Are all your friends in fashion?
I’ve always recognised the major influences in my life, and they are mostly in the business. It’s so interwoven. I don’t stop at five o’clock and put on a different hat.
Who are the best models to work with?
Everyone is so eager to move on to the next girl now, but the supermodels (of the ’80s and ’90s) – brats that they might have been – had personality and were really good models. Now they’re all too beautiful, too perfect, and they’re little girls.
How did you manage to dress in off-the-runway YSL back in the ’60s and ’70s?
I think they gave me a big discount and I probably spent all my money there, but I have never owned couture. I probably don’t need to now because they don’t have my size, and I don’t lead that life, anyway.
Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington, published by Vintage, is available now. RRP $49.99.
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