“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.
Grace Coddington has been a force in fashion for 50 years, as a model and a creative director. Julie Kavanagh, her assistant in the 1970s and a friend ever since, captures her style, then and now …
GRACE CODDINGTON: A LIFE IN BRIEF
1959: At 18, Grace leaves home in Anglesey, Wales, and enrols in Cherry Marshall’s modelling school in London. Norman Parkinson takes his first shots of her, at his farm in the country. “I was running naked through a wood, but it didn’t bother me. Wenda, his wife, was there, and Parks was so charming and dapper.” She wins Vogue’s Young Model competition the same year. “Ah-ha,” says Parkinson at the prize-giving tea, “you made it here! You’ll do well.”
1961: A car accident smashes her face into the driving mirror and slices off an eyelid. She endures two years of plastic surgery before returning to modelling.
1968: After six years of displaying a tendency to take over on shoots and tell stylists how to style, Grace joins British Vogue as a junior fashion editor, on a salary of £1,100 p.a. This is a quarter of what she earned as a model, but she feels it is time to move on. “All the young models come along and make you feel old standing beside them. And styling seemed like a fun, easy job—until I did it.”
1969: She marries Michael Chow at Chelsea Registry Office. Her new husband is the young, entrepreneurial owner of one of the restaurants of the moment, Mr Chow in Knightsbridge. “The restaurant was buzzing with amazing people. It was so much fun,” she says. ”But I was useless at being a restaurateur’s wife—much too shy to table-hop.” They split up after six months.
1973: Grace goes back to the young Vietnamese photographer, known as Duc, with whom she was in love before her marriage. Her sister Rosemary dies young, and Grace tries to adopt her nephew, seven-year-old Tristan, but the Welsh authorities refuse permission. “It was hardly surprising.” After breaking up with Duc she meets another apprentice photographer, Willie Christie, a rangy, rock’n’roll figure, and mentors him at Vogue.
1976: Willie and Grace marry, but “it’s difficult to be employed by your wife,” she says, and they divorce in 1980. Grace transforms herself into a business-suited, short-haired blonde—what she calls a “Calvin person”.
1980-86: At British Vogue, Grace creates a startling series of “sprawling, National Geographic-style photo essays—more than 20 pages long—in which the clothes were so smoothly integrated they barely registered as fashion photographs at all”, as the fashion writer Michael Roberts put it. In March 1986, Anna Wintour becomes editor-in-chief. Grace resigns in December: “Anna was much more into ‘sexy’ than I was.”
1987: A few months later, Grace takes a new job as design director for Calvin Klein in New York—mostly, she says, so she can spend more time with the French hairstylist Didier Malige, a long-time collaborator of hers, who was based in America. She still lives with him today.
1988: She rejoins Anna Wintour, who has now taken up the reins at American Vogue, because she misses the creative buzz of magazines. “Excitement on 7th Avenue ends with the show. The next day it’s all marketing.” Her influence grows: she becomes creative director, and by the end of the 1990s, her theatrical, narrative style is endemic in fashion photography.
2009: With her appearance in “The September Issue”, Coddington goes from a big name in a small world to a public figure. “It’s not like movie stardom,” she says. “It’s just that people feel I’m approachable. And I like talking to strangers on the subway: I’m a good listener, and sometimes miss my stop.”
Coddington, creative director of U.S. Vogue, said the writing took her on an emotional journey.
“It was funny. You laugh at things you cried at, and you cry at things you laughed at. You have mixed emotions,” she told WWD on the sidelines of the signing. “Funnily enough, the most emotional part was a reading I did for the audio [version], and I got emotional then. It was really weird that I’d been able to talk my way through it and be fine, but then when I read it, like when my sister died and things, suddenly I teared up. That was a long time ago.”