Grace Coddington looks beyond Vogue to her own future

Grace Coddington has long been a global influence on fashion but her star was revealed to mere mortals when she stole the show in ‘The September Issue’. At 74, she’s decided it’s time to leave Vogue, writes Suzanne Harrington

One of fashion’s longest partnerships is coming to an end – Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour, the good cop / bad cop double act at American Vogue, are breaking up. Coddington, creative director at the magazine since 1988 — she started the same day as editor Anna Wintour — is leaving. Not fully leaving — she will keep an office and assistant at the magazine — but her job title is changing to creative director at large, which means she can engage in projects beyond Vogue.

Coddington is 74, and has been styling Vogue shoots for almost three decades. While she will still oversee several shoots a year, she is now free to launch a perfume with her favourite Japanese designers, Comme des Garcons. Also, her 2012 memoir Grace is being made into a film. There is even talk of her series of illustrations, Catwalk Cats — she is a talented artist and devoted cat-freak — being made into an animated film.

Coddington, who the New York Times describes as the “yin to Anna Wintour’s yang”, has not left Vogue because of “creative differences” with Wintour. Their 28-year collaboration has been one of the most successful and creative in fashion history, precisely because of their opposing approaches. Coddington simply wishes, at an age where many of us are putting our feet up, to spread her wings further.

“I really love Vogue, it’s been in my life always, they discovered me as a model at 19,” she told the industry website Business of Fashion.

“I’m not running away from Vogue, because it has opened so many doors. But it will be nice to collaborate, and nice to go out [and] give talks to people. It’s just another approach. I’m certainly not going into retirement. I don’t want to sit around.”

 

While everyone knows who Anna Wintour is — she is said to be a direct inspiration for the terrifying Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada — Grace Coddington always chose to remain behind the scenes. She was not interested in what she calls “all that celebrity shit.”

She was there to do her job, which was visually realising — rather than reflecting — her own vision of beauty, her aesthetic richly romantic and baroque. She didn’t care much about following fashion. She was all about the art.

Her anonymity outside the fashion world may have continued, had she not become the accidental star of the 2009 documentary The September Issue, a fly on the wall film ‘backstage’ at Vogue. Coddington was compelling — with her cloud of red hair, paper white skin, and elongated elegance, she resembles an alien Elizabeth I, in contrast to Anna Wintour’s ladylike perfection.

 

The documentary pivoted on their working relationship; mutual respect coupled with differing approaches resulting in lush, visually arresting shoots. She appeared to be the only one at Vogue not intimidated by the editor’s legendary froideur.

Her creative vision and personal warmth, charm and humour endeared her to the film’s audiences — Coddington became a name outside the orchid glasshouse of the fashion industry.

Coddington, below, in her modelling days before a car crash led her to move behind the camera
Coddington, below, in her modelling days before a car crash led her to move behind the camera

Coddington was born in Wales in 1941. After a black and white childhood, her world went technicolour when she began modelling at 17 and moved to London. She won a Vogue modelling contest in 1959.

Her modelling career ended with a car crash in her twenties, when she needed reconstructive surgery on her eyelid, and so she moved behind the scenes, working for British Vogue at fashion editor for two decades, where she first met Anna Wintour.

After moving to New York to work for Calvin Klein, she was hired by Wintour who had just become editor at American Vogue.

During her tenure as creative director, she has worked with some of the best photographers – Snowdon, Norman Parkinson, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz, and Helmut Newton, who is said to have pestered her for 20 years to pose nude for him.

She always refused, until one day he told her she was too old. Which is typical of the fashion industry — ageist, sizeist, fur-wearing, white dominated, shallow, anorexia inducing, superficial, shallow, fleeting and disposable — yet Coddington, with her distinctive art-driven aesthetic, seemed to somehow remain aloof.

Grace Coddington with Anna Wintour and Kendall Jenner at a New York fashion show. Coddington, below, in her modelling days.
Grace Coddington with Anna Wintour and Kendall Jenner at a New York fashion show. Coddington, below, in her modelling days.

Despite her professional life existing in a world of impossible glamour, Coddington’s personal life has not been without drama, much of it car- related. As well as the car crash, another incident resulted in miscarriage when her Mini was overturned by a group of Chelsea football fans, causing her to miscarry at 7 months; she never became a parent.

In another relationship, she discovered her then-fiance was cheating on her with Catherine Deneuve’s sister, when the sister, Francoise, was killed in a car crash in 1967 — his grief at the news gave it away.

Coddington went on to marry twice, and for the best part 30 years has lived with Paris-born hair stylist Didier Malige in New York and the Hamptons, with their cats. Which sounds like the end of the story, were it not for the glut of creative projects ahead.

When it comes to the relentless ageism in fashion, it seems to apply only if you are in front of the camera.


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