Even now, months after the release of The September Issue, last year’s cult hit about the making of the September 2007 issue of US Vogue, Grace Coddington, the magazine’s brilliant, but hitherto largely invisible creative director, says that at least five people come up to her on the subway every morning.
You can see why she’s a master of the visual semaphore. See how economical yet revealing that is? Straight away it tells you that she is modest but knows her value; that she still takes the subway despite Vogue’s liberal attitude to limos and a salary that’s rumoured to be more than US$600,000 a year; that the film, though a rather high-minded documentary with none of the feeble idiocy of the populist fashion vehicle, really did have broad appeal (not so astonishing when you consider that fashion now occupies a cultural crossroads between art, celebrity and huge international business).
It also tells you that Coddington, who in the film presents a somewhat austere, occasionally, tragic figure – abetted by that magnificent French Lieutenant’s Woman red hair and milk-white skin – is not hating her belated moment of fame. “It’s driving me nuts, actually,” she says. “And I’m loving it.”
Audiences love her too. In the film, her principled David-like fight against the Goliath of crass commercialism, her quiet but deadly pursuit of the unforgettable image, are so staunch that even as she’s spending tens of thousands on a shoot during the film, her cause seems a noble one because it’s a quest for the essence of beauty, in all its forms, not just an attempt to flog the reader another handbag.
Still, R. J. Cutler, the film’s auteur director readily admits to being terrified when he first met Coddington. Her habit of shutting her office door in his face probably didn’t help. He persisted. Eventually they worked out a modus vivendi and Coddington stole the show.
You wouldn’t set out to commit any kind of larceny around Anna Wintour, US Vogue’s legendary editor. But it would have been a much lesser film without the Coddington-Wintour dynamic, with Wintour obliged to deliver a more humanised version of the monstrous figure created by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
Instead, it’s an engrossing portrayal of a universally recognisable relationship – that between two colleagues who alternately respect and resent one another’s brilliance, but ultimately recognise that in each other they’ve met their ideal match.
Not that Coddington was playing hard to get when she initially rebuffed Cutler. She told Wintour she was crazy for granting a film crew access to all areas. It’s hard to imagine many of Wintour’s staff telling her that she’s mad. “Well, they could. But … they don’t,” Coddington agrees.
She has high, finely arched eyebrows and a slightly sleepy-looking eye – a result of the reconstructive surgery she had on her eyelid after a car crash in her early 20s. She laughs much more than you’d expect from the film. And when she pulls herself back from saying something incriminating, she purses her lips and inches an eyebrow up even further.
It’s the constant references to Wintour that endear.
The journalist Maureen Dowd described the crackle between them as a Keith Richards-Mick Jagger friction. It’s as though they’re a married couple. “I wouldn’t go quite that far,” says Coddington (shooting eyebrow up again, pursed lips). “My marriages [there have been two; one to the photographer Willie Christie, the other to restaurateur Michael Chow, neither of which lasted much more than six months] haven’t been that successful. But yes, she inspires me. We fight, we struggle and it makes you very strong. She’s actually very straightforward.” Sufficiently straightforward to veto Coddington’s latest idea, which was to get Susan Boyle to play the wicked witch in the December 2009 issue’s Hansel and Gretel spectacular.
“Annie Leibovitz wanted her too,” says Coddington wistfully, “but I think Anna thought it was just all too British and not right.” Wintour raised Lady Gaga against Coddington’s SuBo. “I have to say I didn’t really know who Lady Gaga was. She turned up in a white rubber coat, stark naked underneath. No buttons, nothing – and completely you know, shaved, and this huge wig because she’s so insecure without it. But she was wonderful.” Hold on, Grace, you famously don’t like celebrities. “I don’t rule them out altogether if they’re the right person for the job. It’s because of characters like that that I still love my job.”
If I hadn’t seen The September Issue, I might assume she was back-pedalling on the Wintour front, having been quoted in the French press as saying that she could sometimes kill the editor, a comment cruelly ripped out of its context, she sighs. What about the fact that Wintour kills so many of her pictures in the film as well as in real life? “Usually she’s right.” Then there was the awful day, 23 years ago, when Wintour arrived from New York to edit British Vogue, allegedly saw a shoot featuring a model in bandages, said “Oh God, I’m back in England” and promptly fired its fashion director – Coddington.
“Anna did not fire me,” retorts Coddington. “It was all stirred up by the British press. I was one of the people who recommended Anna for the job. It’s just that I’d met Didier [Malige, the hairdresser, Coddington’s long-time boyfriend] who was living in New York, and Calvin Klein, whose aesthetic I’d always admired, offered me a job and a lot of money to take it.”
Good grief, if that’s all there was to it, why didn’t she put the press right years ago? “Do you ever see me giving interviews? I’m never one of those people talking into a microphone at the end of a show.” More pursing of lips. “I’m not prepared to crush some poor designer who’s just spent six months slaving over a collection. I think it’s horrible and they all [the pundits] talk about themselves. Plus, the questions are so stupid.”
I can imagine the nuns at the convent where she went to school in Anglesey, Wales, telling her not to worry about the horrid uniform, because no one would be looking at her anyway – and as it turns out, it was a very British, post-war upbringing (Coddington was born in 1941). Her mother was Welsh, but Coddington doesn’t think that she ever had a Welsh accent (these days it rises and falls on the faintest of transatlantic cadences).
Her father was “very English”, which I think we can read as quite posh, but he died when she was 11. They ran a hotel “which no one ever went to except in August because it was always so bitterly cold and cut off”, and Coddington was so shy that she begged her mother to let her take the bus home and walk the half mile at the end every lunch time so that she wouldn’t have to make conversation with her classmates. Even now she says, she finds the fashion meetings at Vogue purgatorial.
She liked clothes, though (“doesn’t everyone?”) – enough to pore over Vogue, although it was always about three months late because hers was the only subscription for miles. In 1959, aged 18, she sent off £10 to do a modelling course in London. “I wasn’t your average pretty blonde. I wasn’t your average anything.”
Eileen Ford, the as-terrifying-as-Anna-Wintour head of Ford Models, told her she was hopeless. “She said I was too fat – and I had an 18-inch waist. Eileen said ‘wear a cinch or something’. Well, Eileen came from America, where things were a bit different, and all very professional,” says Coddington equably. “I just sort of got on with it and then I won the Vogue Young Model Competition.”
This isn’t the first time in our interview that Coddington alludes to America’s professionalism and Calvinist work ethic vis-à-vis what she implies is a more lackadaisical approach in Britain. Admittedly, the dramas at the previous evening’s British Fashion Awards, at which Coddington received the Fashion Creator Award and the saffron-haired, luminously complexioned Mancunian model, Karen Elson, toppled off a stage that was much narrower than it looked, wasn’t the example of British slickness one might have hoped for.
Still, it seems odd to hear someone who seems so quintessentially British in her lyrical but often witty aesthetic and gentle steeliness, talk about being quite so at home in America. “I love America’s positivity and the fact that you feel anything is possible. It’s probably much better here [in London] now. I don’t come very often.”
Coddington knows what it takes to be a successful model, Eileen Ford and that horrendous car crash notwithstanding. Perhaps that’s why she empathises so strongly with models, establishing a rapport that ensures the models in her photographs always transcend the clothes, however elaborate, and that as well as looking their most beautiful they exude depth and a certain intelligence.
She thinks British models invariably have the strongest characters, “unlike the new ones who have no personality. Mind you, they’re so young. I was working with a very successful one the other day and she told me her parents were coming to take her on a trip to the place she loved best. I thought, where’s she going – Africa? It was Disney World. And I thought, ‘Good for you. You’re still a child’.”
Coddington grew up quite fast, earning her own keep from the moment she arrived in London. The car crash must have been traumatic, but Coddington says she was in shock. “I remember bleeding all over a policeman and apologising for the mess. I had this driving mirror sticking in my head. I got to the hospital and they started sewing me up. Then someone said, what do you do and I said I’m a model and they said, hang on a minute. They took out all the stitches and made them more fine. Isn’t that terrible? Because as a young girl, wouldn’t I want the best anyway?” It still looked a mess when it healed. “I had no eyelid and I had to go back to hospital four times to have surgery.” All that cosmetic reconstruction, she says, puts her off having any work done now.
This being the ’60s, the accident didn’t damage her career a jot. “Terry Donovan rang me up and booked me for a job almost straight after. He said don’t worry, Grace, we’ll just put you in sunglasses in every picture.” She worked with all the top names of the day. Vidal Sassoon created his legendary asymmetric five-point cut on her and – hard to imagine now – she would bound on to the stage and do the twist for Sassoon while other hairdressers’ models glided about in stately-but-soon-to-be-obsolete beehives.
In those days, models were expected to do their own hair and make-up as well as turn up on shoots with a full armoury of accessories – black and beige heels, gloves, jewellery – and this is where Coddington trumped the competition, which was just as well because, at 27, she felt washed up. “Twiggy had come along and there was a new look.”
British Vogue offered her a job as stylist and although her first shoot was an unqualified disaster (“I was too inexperienced and immature to ask Peter Blake to remove what he was wearing so I just kept layering more jumpers over the top. And then I put an identical sweater on his wife, which was possibly my worst idea yet”), she rose through the ranks. It was the urbane Norman Parkinson, she says, who taught her how to create the epic narratives that became her trademark. “He was extraordinary – charming, clever, the father that one would always want to have.”
By now, Coddington was also helping Michael Chow to set up his restaurant (“we got all these artists to donate pictures, which meant they all had to come and eat there to earn back the value – it was brilliant, actually”) and bringing up her nephew after her sister died. Like a number of shy people in the fashion business, she created an exotic alter ego for herself through flamboyant, elaborate costumes, although never what was obviously fashionable.
“I hate trends. And you know the question they always ask me at shows; ‘What’s the latest trend?’” She’s minimalist these days (“too fat to dress up”, she says, although by any normal standards, she isn’t), preferring to order tens of white shirts from Prada. Today, like most days, she also has on a black cardigan (made for her by Prada too) and vintage black Helmut Lang trousers. She has a reputation for favouring redheads (Maggie Rizer and Karen Elson among them) and turning them into doppelgangers of herself in her youth. “In fairness Tonne [Goodman, US Vogue’s fashion director] does the same. The models in her shoots have all got ironed blonde hair.”
If this were a traditional morality tale, going to America, having access to US Vogue’s (until recently) lavish budgets, would have stymied her creativity. It didn’t. Erin O’Connor remembers having to dress as a bird for one of Coddington’s shoots. “Annie Leibovitz and a tonne of Comme des Garçons feathers. But somehow Grace always makes it look elegant – and gets it past the censors.”
“It is very different now,” Coddington says. “You used to go off for weeks at a time and come back with one story. Now you’re away for two days with these huge teams. But working with young people gives you a young outlook.” She wishes that fewer designers copied each other and I don’t get the impression that the vapid silliness that is part of fashion thrills her. “But I don’t want to sit around saying, ‘It used to be much better.’ You just have to look at everything with fresh eyes.”
At 69, she’s at the top of her game, her shoots as ambitious as ever. That she still has the energy to deal with Tom Ford upside-down in a rabbit hole and fretting that his tie isn’t hanging straight is a lesson in stoicism. “And he wanted his pants and socks sewn together so they didn’t flip out of position. I said, ‘Tom, you’re hanging upside-down’. And it was his idea to play the White Rabbit. But he’s a perfectionist,” she laughs. “He didn’t know what he was in for but I kept telling him he looked amazing and handsome, and you know, he did it.” I wonder how many people she’s had to say that to. “Oh I only say it if it’s true,” she says, sounding mildly affronted.
She never had children and you don’t need to engage in sophisticated psychology to conclude one of the reasons she fights so hard for the integrity of her pictures is that they are her creative legacy. She does have cats, though – she’s down to two at the moment – which she shamelessly indulges, whisking them to cat shrinks at the drop of a hat, and penning an illustrated book about them. R. J. Cutler is now working it into a film treatment. “It’s a bit of a battle, actually,” she says. “I’m fighting for it not to turn into some Disney thing.” You won’t be surprised to learn that she thinks she’s winning.