Grace Coddington will keep a perch at American Vogue, but—even if she will oversee “several” fashion shoots a year and four editorial spreads—her “stepping away” from the role of creative director still marks the end of an era at the venerable fashion magazine.
A star now in her own right, Coddington says she wants to embrace the freedom to work on projects of her own choosing.
Coddington, as R.J. Cutler’s brilliant 2009 documentary The September Issue demonstrated, was a vital creative pivot for the magazine and an equally vital foil for editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Both women have long emphasized the respect they have for one another.
The New York Times described today’s news of Coddington’s day-to-day stepping down as one of the “tectonic” plates of fashion shifting—the senior positions of editors at Vogue are long-held, and Coddington has been in place since 1988, the year Wintour herself took over.
One of the recurring tensions of Cutler’s film was for us to wait to see, as Coddington herself would have to wait to see, how intact her passionately shot and much-cherished fashion shoots would remain after Wintour had edited them.
Coddington would nervously eye the completed, edited spreads laid out to see what had been cut and what had been retained.
It was Coddington who was the breakout star of the documentary. If we followed Wintour meeting designers and perceived the glamorous whirl of the public figure, far more intriguing was Coddington—wry and stoic amid the rails of clothes in Vogue’s corridors, her dedication to the artistic pursuit of what her day job was, and the frustration and very visible pain when her creative wishes were stymied.
Coddington, 74, told Business of Fashion today, “I really love Vogue, it’s been in my life always, they discovered me as a model at 19. 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.”
As The September Issue crystallized, Coddington—with her ethereal cloud of red hair and fine features—has become a brand herself. Perhaps, her departure from Vogue is the best kind of karmic result of the fame she has accrued.
Coddington’s longevity is both instructive and inspirational. Fashion in general, and high fashion in particular, may seem shallow and overpriced, and the industry and hype that swirls around it absurd and detached from most people’s lives. Coddington, however, seemed a very rooted, human presence in this high-pressured world.
Coddington started reading Vogue as a teenager, which, she recalled in The September Issue, as a “chic thing” totally “out of context” for the non-metropolitan life she lived in North Wales.
“Everything I did I fell into,” she said, remembering winning a Vogue modeling competition and heading to London. We saw her, gamine-beautiful, photographed by Lord Snowdon in 1959.
She stopped modeling after a car crash. Her eye was smashed into the driving mirror, and she had to have a lot of plastic surgery.
Two years later, she went back to work as a junior editor at British Vogue.
Coddington’s aura of power may be different from Wintour’s, but the fascination with her, and the respect for her work, is as resonant as it is for the Vogue editor-in-chief.
It is significant in itself that Coddington is now represented by Great Bowery, a “super-agency” for high-powered creative forces like Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber.
Coddington—for so long the backstage Cinderella—has become as famous and overtly influential as those photographers and designers whose work she laid out in the pages of Vogue.
“I suddenly realized that I needed some help from outside,” Coddington told BoF. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into just styling a shoot, I wanted to do something beyond. I approached them, and they were willing to help me on all sorts of aspects. They’re thinking up ideas for me, which is fun.”
Matthew Moneypenny, Great Bowery’s chief executive, told BoF: "We are extremely honored to have Grace Coddington join Great Bowery and look forward to supporting and working with one of the most original, iconic, and deeply creative figures in the fashion world. I'm sure it comes as no surprise that we are already receiving very significant and interesting inquiries, which we look forward to exploring.”
To add to her autobiography, published in 2012 and already optioned for a movie, Coddington is also working on a perfume with Comme des Garçons, and possibly an animated film from her ‘Catwalk Cats’ illustration series. In the fall, Phaidon will publish a book of her work for American Vogue spanning the last 15 years.
Coddington told The September Issue that she had “never dreamt” she could be a model or fashion editor, but she had “just loved” pages and pictures.
In her early years as a fashion editor, the photographer Norman Parkinson had taught Coddington “to always keep your eyes open, never go to sleep in the car, keep watching whatever you see out of the window.”
She recalled this surveying the majestic gardens of Versailles, remarking how beautiful they were and how strange to think how old they were, too. “I think I got left behind somewhere because I’m still a romantic,” Coddington said, smiling, before remembering the business she was immersed in. “You have to go charging ahead. You can’t stay behind.”
There may be a grainier part of her Vogue partial-departure story yet to emerge. During The September Issue, Coddington’s frustration and upset at the spiking of spreads were as evident as her passion and love for fashion.
Consoling a colleague after Wintour had rejected his choices for a piece on color blocking, Coddington cautioned: “You’ve got to be tougher. You have to demand because otherwise you’ll be blamed. Don't be too nice, even to me. Honestly, you’ll lose. You have to learn a way to beat the path through to make yourself felt and make yourself necessary, and find way that works for you, for Vogue.”
Of the people who had gone from the magazine, a lot “just couldn’t take the heartbreak. You have to be fairly tough to withstand that.”
We saw her as one of her spreads was being “whittled down,” as she put it in The September Issue. “I’m furious. I care very much about what I do, or I wouldn't be still doing it. But it gets harder and harder to see it just thrown out. And it’s very hard to go on to the next thing.”
But the next scene saw Coddington in her beloved Paris at the couture collections, as fabulous creation followed fabulous creation down the runway.
Surely, the sweetest thing is that the extra fame and standing The September Issue bought Coddington has meant she is now mistress of her own ship. She is able not just to vanquish the accrued grief over the creative heartbreaks she endured at the magazine, but also to exercise a new freedom—to craft a fresh creative chapter that is all her own.