State of Grace

Photo: Arthur Elgort

Perhaps that old adage about never working with animals and children didn’tmake it to the fashion world. Or perhaps the fashion world, typically willful, just chose to ignore it. Whatever the case, the creative director of Vogue, Grace Coddington, and photographer Arthur Elgort seem blissfully unworried as they corral four children under the age of 12 and one palomino into their remake of Annie Get Your Gun. Re-creating theWild West at an East Hampton horse farm, Vogue’s version of the musical stars models Carmen Kass (as Annie Oakley) and Patrick Sullivan (as Frank Butler), a Buffalo Bill look-alike (whose method acting extends toturning up in an Annie Get Your Gun T-shirt, circa the Bernadette Peters years), and racks and racks of Ralph Lauren clothes.

It’s only eleven in the morning, but already the heat is fierce. Coddington– the British model who swung with the best of ‘em in sixties London before becoming the fashion world’s best-known stylist (Vogue editor Anna Wintour calls her “our jewel in the crown”) – is in her element. “This is the kind of story I love to do,” she says, taking shelter under a canopy.Coddington is dressed in white shirt and pants accessorized with flat Prada sandals and an Hermès fishing hat, which shields her alabaster skin andTitian hair from the sun. She sits furiously sketching out the story in her notebook while Elgort nibbles at slices of watermelon. “We’re aiming toshoot at Gary Cooper time,” he says, sinking his teeth into the fruit. “High noon.”

The door of the location van swings open, and Carmen Kass swaggers out in afringed skirt, cowboy boots, and a ten-gallon hat. Elgort gives her the once-over. “Who would have known that a girl from Estonia would be playing Annie Oakley?” he asks. Sullivan trails after her, wearing a shiny vintage Western suit whose provenance suggests San Antonio rather than Savile Row.”Man,” he says, mopping his brow, “you can tell this is made of polyester.”

By now, all of the assembled cast – Kass, Sullivan, the kids, and the horse– are being arranged for a group shot. To get everyone in the mood, Betty Hutton and Howard Keel are belting out the score’s finest moments from thesound system of an SUV parked nearby. Elgort calmly moves around trying tofind the best light while Coddington keeps one eye on those being photographed and the other on Elgort. “Have you changed the camera?” she asks as he clicks away. “No, no, no,” he says, straightening up. “We’ve got the shot. It looks beautiful.”

Getting the shot is everything in the fashion world, and it’s something thatGrace Coddington has always been pretty adept at. How adept is best judged by taking a look at her forthcoming book, an outsize tome titled Grace:Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue, which samples some of the visualtreats she has concocted in her 30-plus years as a fashion editor. In addition to Arthur Elgort, just about anyone who ever picked up a Hasselbladin the name of fashion is represented: Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz, Ellen von Unwerth, Steven Klein, Helmut Newton. The result is an amazing narrative of fashion over the past four decades, everything from Newton’s images of louche seventies poolside parties to Weber’s turquoise-and-petticoats visions of the American West in the eighties right through to Leibovitz’s quintessentially nineties cocktail of fame and fashion, starring Puff Daddy, Kate Moss, and a gazillion dollars’ worth ofhaute couture gowns. And all of it was styled by Grace Coddington, the woman who has done more to create the template for the contemporary-fashion story than anyone else in the industry.

The book will be released on September 15 by Editions 7L, the publishing company co-owned by Karl Lagerfeld. Coddington has already been fêted with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA in June, and with a party at Lagerfeld’s gallery on the rue de Lille in Paris during the July couture shows. This latter shindig preceded an in time dinner for 60 at the designer’s Left Bank apartment, where Lagerfeld tangoed with Oscar de la Renta, and Manolo Blahnik got on the dance floor despite an injured leg. Blahnik, a friend of Coddington’s since their days together as members of the London jet set, snapped up six copies at the party and calls it “the best fashion book ever.” (Despite his reservations about its size: “It weighs kilos. It’s not what I’d call light.”)

It’s also a book that may help answer that million-dollar question: What exactly does a fashion editor do? “They all ask me that,” Coddington says with a sigh. She has invited me over to her office, on the twelfth floor of the Condé Nast building in Times Square. She shares it with her assistant, Jessica Diehl, framed images from previous shoots stacked on the floor, and, on her desk, a fifties-retro cat lamp – an indication of herlove of all things feline (she has four Chartreux cats) – that she picked up in the Hamptons for $20. “Of course, choosing the clothes to shoot ispart of it, but it’s also much more than that,” she says. “It’s playing witheveryone’s personalities and making sure that everything is jelling. When I’m on top of a mountain with a photographer who doesn’t want to shootsomething because it doesn’t look sexy, and the magazine wants it in the issue – at that point, I’m the one who has to keep everyone motivated.”

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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.”

Winning the contest got her an introduction to photographer Norman Parkinson, who championed her at the magazine (and later acted as her mentorwhen she went to work there as a fashion editor). But her career nearly came to an untimely end when, in the early sixties, she was involved in a car crash in London. As a result of this, Coddington had plastic surgery to graft skin onto her left eyelid, an episode she is reticent about. “Luckily they found my eyelashes,” she comments, simply, in Grace. By the time she’d fully recovered, Mary Quant and her mini-skirts were shaking things up, and Coddington was not going to be left behind. “Vidal Sassoon started giving me these geometric haircuts. He was in that very tight circle ofpeople that were happening in London. There was Vidal, Mary Quant, photographers like David Bailey and Terrence Donovan, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – and I knew all of them,” she remembers. “And suddenly it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a pretty blonde.”

“It’s interesting with Coddington,” says Vidal Sassoon. (Incidentally, in a groovy throwback to the sixties, he always refers to her as Coddington.) “You take those perfect-looking girls – Jean Shrimpton, say – that haircutwouldn’t have worked on them. With Coddington’s bone structure, and thatsense of herself, she had something beyond beauty.” Photographer DavidMontgomery took a portrait of her that resulted in a starkly graphic, almostPop Art image; Sassoon remembers it adorning the wall of the sixties Londonhot spot the White Elephant. It was this photograph that Manolo Blahnikpinned to his wall when he was 16 and “mesmerized” by her. He wasn’t alone;most of sixties London was mesmerized, too. “She was a huge celebrity inthat world, an incredible beauty,” says Wintour. “I was in awe of her.”

Yet she began to feel that it was time to move on. In 1969, Coddingtonmarried restaurateur Michael Chow and went to work at Vogue. Shepartied with the fashionable faces that often ended up in her stories.Sometimes she turned up in the stories herself: “I think I worked withHelmut Newton more times than I did when I was a model.” The seventies wentby – Coddington and Chow divorced, and she married photographer WillieChristie and raised her nephew Tristan after her sister Rosemary died.Coddington experimented with new ideas and designers, becoming what Hicksdescribes as “an international fashion figure – but one who was still basedin the then very parochial world of British fashion.”

That was soon to change. In 1986, Calvin Klein asked her to come to New Yorkto work with him. And her boyfriend, hairstylist Didier Malige, whom she isstill with, was living in New York. “Tristan had grown up and wasindependent, and I was free to do whatever I wanted,” she recalls. “SuddenlyI had this offer from Calvin. And I thought, Well, I can stay at BritishVogue for another twenty years, or I can change and see where this takesme.” She came to New York in early 1987, and she and Bruce Weber set towork on Klein’s advertising. “She worked on some of the best campaigns we’veever done,” says Klein, including the original Eternity ads with ChristyTurlington. But Coddington was longing to return to magazines. “In the end,”says Klein, “her passion was for working with photographers and doing herstories.”

“I love Calvin,” Coddington says. “He taught me so much about living inAmerica. But I missed being all over the place and seeing a lot of differentpeople.” Arthur Elgort maintains that Coddington needed to return to being afashion editor because she “likes to sit in the front row and see what’sgoing on. She missed sketching the clothes and dreaming about thefashion.”

By this time, it was 1988 and Anna Wintour had been appointed editor of U.S.Vogue. She jumped at the chance to bring Coddington back into thefold. “I was over the moon when she came to the magazine,” says Wintour.”Her vision was and is very close to mine. We both admired the samephotographers, and we both liked to see a certain romance in fashion stories– that the model should look pretty and not dour and depressing.”Coddington says that her dogmatic nature about what she thinks is rightmeans that before every shoot, she and Wintour “have this game of pushingeach other as far as we can. I do say, ‘Why do we have to go through thisevery time?’ But it’s crucial to do it; it’s that process which makes astory work really well.”

Coddington’s time at Calvin Klein did, however, leave a lasting impressionon her. “I didn’t really enjoy the merchandising side of working at Calvin,”she says. “But I realized that if you don’t sell it, then there’s no pointin making it. Now I feel the same about fashion pictures. I used to say,’Let’s just go for the shot – if it’s not right, then at least we’ll havedone it.’ But if a photo’s not printed, it doesn’t have any validity. Peoplehave said to me, ‘Oh, you’re doing a book – you’ll run all the picturesthat never got published.’ But you know what? I’m not. I felt that there’ssomething funny about them; I don’t remember them at all. You go back tofind the picture that you cared so much about and think, Why did I makesuch a fuss about it?” Coddington starts to laugh. “Then you have toadmit that they were right. Goddamn it.”

State of Grace