In life, there is a rare breed of human that only shows up maybe once every decade, and its appearance is far less frequent in the fashion industry. This type of person has an acute sense of self— they have always known exactly who they are and what they stand for, and they couldn’t deviate from their unique individuality even if they tried.
Well, if there ever was a woman who defied all odds, Grace Coddington is definitely the one. Not only is she one of those rare individuals whose confidence and self-assurance eternally radiates from her whole being (and from her fierce, red mane, no less), she has also managed to reign supreme in the fashion world for over four decades. Fashion U hosted Coddington as their 2012 Keynote Speaker — she opened up the weekend with an hour-long question and answer session that detailed her extensive career in the fashion business. This British-born visionary started off as model and then became fashion editor at British Vogue in the late 1960s. In 1988, she called up her good friend Anna Wintour, whose name had yet to garner the impact that it carries today. Anna spoke of her new position at American Vogue — “I’m starting on Monday,” she said. “Why don’t you join me?” And just like that, history was made. Grace and Anna have since been the dynamic duo behind the culture powerhouse that is American Vogue, and in her current role as Creative Director, Grace has been the one providing all of the magic and romance to the iconic shoots that we have come to know and love.Now, to take a step back, this flame-haired beauty came from very humble beginnings. She told the crowd of 500 girls attending Teen Vogue Fashion University that her first foray in fashion began with her “rush[ing] off every month to get [her] three-month-old copy” of Vogue, outdated because of the small, not exactly cosmopolitan British countryside town where Grace grew up. Because she was so far removed from the images she saw while flipping through her latest copy of the magazine, Grace was able to fully appreciate the brilliant developed narratives behind every photo shoot. “It made me dream, and I think that’s the most important thing,” she told the crowd of fashion hopefuls.
Fate was on her side—one day while she was in a local coffee bar, a stranger suggested that she meet her idol Norman Parkinson, who ended up hooking her up with a successful nine year modeling career. After a tragic car accident caused her to “quit while [she] was ahead,” she received an offer for fashion editor of British Vogue. The boundaries of her official position title continued to be blurred, however. Exhibit A: To the right you see Grace casually lounging around Helmut Newton’s pool in her bikini, providing the “something extra” that her own shoot needed.
After her nineteen years at British Vogue, icon Bruce Weber started introducing her to the U.S. Essentially, she “brought Europe to America.” In an interview, fashion journalist Michael Roberts said that what sets Grace’s shoots apart from the many others is “buckets of nostalgia and lovely horizons.” With the rise of so many repetitive and expected fashion shoots, Grace is consistently a breath of fresh air in the industry, even after all these years. She insists that there’s a story behind every picture: you should be able to look at it and tell that “something has already happened, and something is going to happen.” Before setting out to compose those famous scenes (does this 2003 Alice in Wonderland shoot with Annie Leibovitz spark any fond memories?), Coddington always starts out with a narrative in her head. It is precisely this magical, other-wordly story that she seeks to tell with each and every image, bringing the fantasy of high fashion to thousands of doorsteps every month.
How is she able to keep her spark after more than 30 years in the industry? Grace claims that fashion still excites her because it is always evolving. To this day, she “gets emotional looking at clothes” and has been known to tear up at a number of particularly breath-taking couture shows. It comes as no surprise that Coddington is not really into the computer age. “I have to be there, I have to feel it,” she says. Though she finds inspiration in the younger, more Internet-saavy generation, there is something comforting about the complete lack of any sort of mediation between Grace and the story she seeks to tell through her images.
So what exactly can our generation bring to the table? “I could do it myself if I could tell you what you’re going to bring,” Grace told the captive Fashion U audience that was hanging onto her every word. Grace is the prime example of destiny— follow your dreams and let the cards fall where they may, and you may just create something extraordinary. Oh, and a little insider tip: If you want to be “in” with Grace, you must like cats. “Because if [you] don’t, [you’re] not in my life,” she firmly stated. I think that is an acceptable demand from such an iconic and groundbreaking creative leader.
Want to know more? Grace’s memoir will be available on November 20th.
– Madeline McCallum