Coddington has even been immortalized in Absolutely Fabulous, when fashion director Patsy Stone, played by Joanna Lumley, referred to Coddington, her idol, as "Fash. Ed. Supreme." While the show might have mined Coddington's past for inspiration for Stone's character --British model turns fashion editor -- it's safe to say that this is where the similarity ends. Coddington is quiet and reserved, her cool demeanor shot through with a dry wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. ("In the top ten British models of the sixties . . . I was probably No. 10.") Yet she's also blessed with what her friend Michael Roberts, fashion editor ofThe New Yorker, calls "the personality of a Brontë heroine; she has this absolute will, a quiet determination." In his view, she often has to play the "benevolent despot" when she's working. "She could move in diplomatic circles," he says. "Most photographers are unbearable egotists who couldn't care less about the fashion. She never loses sight of the clothes. She always sees the whole picture."
Elgort, who has worked with Coddington for most of her career, says that onset, she's "tireless -- she doesn't stop until it's over. And you don't argue with her, because she's usually right." He remembers being in China with Coddington and the model Linda Evangelista in the early nineties. "We came across this lake with local fishermen on their boats, like little junks. Grace decided she wanted a shot with Linda on one of their boats onthe lake. The tour guide who was with us tried it first; he couldn't stand upright on the boat and said, 'It can't be done.' Well, that didn't please Grace. 'Sure is a great place for a shot,' she said, looking at me and theguide. Linda came out of the location van and saw that Grace wasn't happy. 'What's wrong?' Linda asked. So Grace told her. 'Is the shot a spread?' asked Linda. 'Yes,' said Grace. 'It's a spread.' Well," says Elgort,"Linda stayed upright on that boat for ten minutes, and we got the shot. Never say never to Grace Coddington."
Not that it's always appreciated. "I got told off today for being uncompromising," Coddington says. "Actually, they called me ungrateful andthen they changed it to uncompromising. I think that's the secret to mycareer: If you give in, you don't get perfection." She amends that: "I don't get close to perfection now, really, but if you give in, then you'll never get anywhere near it." Sophie Hicks, an architect who was Coddington's assistant at British Vogue in the eighties, recalls that after one of Coddington's stories came in to the art department, her boss would go there every day to monitor how it was being laid out in the magazine. "She'd come back to her desk," says Hicks, "and say, 'Well, he'snearly got it right. I'll check on it again tomorrow.' And if the truth be told, she could lay out her pictures better than anyone else."
By all accounts, she's just as demanding when it comes to fashion. Roberts says that unlike many of her contemporaries, Coddington doesn't "chain herself to the wagon of trends. They're an athema to her. Grace integrates the latest clothes into whatever vision she has of her story. And she can sit through a fashion show -- sketching everything -- and she'll pick the most important outfit." In the fashion world, this ability to divine the look is not to be dismissed. "She's often onto new ideas before the designers are," says Wintour. When she was at British Vogue, says Calvin Klein, "she was the first European fashion editor to appreciate American design."
Coddington lived in Klein's clothes in the early eighties: "Everything shewore was a shade of beige," Hicks says. After that, she went through anAzzedine Alaïa phase. "Most fashion editors don't wear the clothes they shoot for their magazines," says Hicks. "But Grace wore her pages; she'd live them, and then she'd move on to something new." These days, she wears Helmut Lang or Calvin Klein, in ascetic combinations of black or white. Anything that hasn't been worn for six months is discarded. "And then," she says wryly, "I go out and buy the same thing all over again." She doesn't share fashion's obsession for vintage in her wardrobe or her work; says photographer Craig McDean, who has just started shooting with Coddington forVogue, "She's always interested in fashion now."
Fashion, however, looms large in her personal history. Born in 1941, Coddington was raised on Anglesey, an island just off the coast of Wales. "I ordered Vogue every month from the local store," she says. "Sometimes it arrived, and sometimes it didn't. For me, the magazine represented an amazing fantasy world of sophistication and grown-ups. I dreamt of getting away from the tiny place I was raised." So as soon as she could, she set off to London. "I thought London would be full of these amazing-looking women .. . God, I remember thinking that if I ever got to be one of those women, itwould change everything," she says. "That was my dream -- it was always my desire to be an incredibly elegant woman."
She entered the British Vogue Model Contest in April 1959 and tookfirst prize in the quaintly titled "Young Idea" category. "She is a radiant girl with sparkling looks," enthused Vogue. "She lives in Putney; is a waitress and part-time model. We think she'll do more modeling than waiting." The prognosis was not unanimous. She had attended the Cherry Marshall modeling school, where, she recalls, they told her, "You don't have blonde hair, and you're not very pretty."