Saturday, 17 November 2012

Grace Coddington

Grace Coddington was born on April 20, 1941 to hotelier parents on the island of Anglesey, Wales. Her interest in fashion began in her teens, when she would anxiously await the arrival of a current issue of Vogue magazine, which was at least three months outdated due to the fact that she needed to order it on "Rush-Copy". She lived miles away from any designer shops, so Vogue was her only connection to the fashion world. She says that she loves "the whole sort of chic thing "Italinate culture"  that was so entirely out of context compared to the lifestyle that [she] led". As a teen, she was pale-skinned and convent-educated and never went anywhere on her holidays, so she just looked at Vogue. Around the age of 17, there was a Vogue model competition, and someone submitted her pictures. She ended up winning the Young Model section. She then began her modeling career for Vogue. Coddington is easily the world's most influential fashion editor, famous for transforming photographic spreads into narratives, a signature she pioneered in the 1970s at British Vogue. Although other magazines have since adopted this style, she pulls it off with a witty, modern romanticism that makes readers feel they are flipping through a picture book instead of just looking at shots of models in pretty clothing. "I like fairy tales, and I like dreaming. I try to weave the reality into the dream," she says. "When readers pick up Vogue, I want them to smile. Everything should be a little tongue in cheek, a little dare-to-go-there."

Grace's new memoirs is out on 22nd November and published by Chatto and Windus £25

Grace Coddington is the creative director of AmericanVogue magazine. British-born, she won a Vogue model competition in 1959, and pursued a modelling career in London and Paris. Landing a job as junior fashion editor at British Vogue in 1968, working under the legendary Bea Miller, she was latterly fashion director under the young Anna Wintour. Lured to New York by Calvin Klein in 1986 to be his design director, she was invited back to Vogue when Wintour took over the American operation in 1988. More recently, Grace was the surprise star of The September Issue, R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Voguemagazine, and celebrated her seventieth birthday in 2011. She lives in New York City and Long Island with Didier Malige, her boyfriend of nearly thirty years, and their two cats, Bart and Pumpkin.

Extract of her memoirs courtesy of Chatto and Windus 

There were sand dunes in the distance and rugged monochrome cliffs strung out along the coast. And Druid circles. And hardly any trees. And bleakness. Although it was bleak, I saw beauty in its bleakness. There was a nice beach, and I had a little sailboat called Argo that I used to drift about in for hours in grand seclusion when it was not tethered to a small rock in a horseshoe-shaped cove called Trearddur Bay. I was 15 then, my head filled with romantic fantasies, some fuelled by the mystic spirit of Anglesey, the thinly populated island off the fogbound northern coast of Wales where I was born and raised; some by the dilapidated cinema I visited each Saturday afternoon in the underwhelming coastal town of Holyhead, a threepenny bus ride away, where the boats took off across the Irish Sea for Dublin and the Irish passengers seemed never short of a drink. Or two. Or three or four. 

For my first 18 years, the Trearddur Bay Hotel, run by my family, was my only home, a plain building with whitewashed walls and a sturdy grey slate roof, long and low, with the understated air of an elongated bungalow. This 42-room getaway spot of quiet charm was appreciated mostly by holidaymakers who liked to sail, go fishing or take long, bracing clifftop walks rather than roast themselves on a sunny beach. It was not over-endowed with entertainment facilities, either. No television. No room service. And in most cases, not even the luxury of an en suite bathroom with toilet, although generously sized white china chamber pots were provided beneath each guest bed, and some rooms - the deluxe versions - contained a washbasin. Three to four standard bathrooms provided everyone else's washing facilities. For the entire hotel there was a single chambermaid, Mrs Griffiths, a sweet little old lady in a black dress and white apron equipped with a duster and a carpet sweeper. I remember my mother being taken aback by a guest who took a bath and rang the bell for the maid to set about cleaning the tub. Why wouldn't the visitors scrub it out themselves after use, she wondered. 

Grace Coddington's father, William, sister, Rosemary, and mother, Janie, holding Coddington in their garden at Trearddur Bay Hotel in Anglesey, 1941

Trearddur Bay Hotel, 1965 

We were open from May to October, but the hotel was guaranteed to be 100 per cent full only during the relatively sunny month of August. Throughout the endless weeks of winter, the hotel was so deserted it wasn't worth the bother of switching on the lights. My sister and I would play ghosts. Wrapped in white sheets, we hid along the dark, empty corridors, each containing many shadowy doorways from which you could jump out and say, 'Boo!' We would wait and wait, the silence broken only by the tick-tock, tick-tock, of our big grandfather clock. But in the end, I couldn't stand the gloom, the suspense of waiting, the sinister ticking. It was too scary, so I usually fled to the warmth and comfort of the fireside.

I was a solitary and sickly child, suffering from frequent bouts of bronchitis and croup. I was stricken so often that my doctor thought I might have tuberculosis. Because of this, I missed at least half of each term in every school year. My parents even tried building me up in those pre-vitamin days by feeding me glasses of Guinness and a dark, treacly substance called malt extract that was totally delicious. I was pale, freckly, and allergic to any significant amount of sunshine. Luckily, whatever sun we had during my youth in Wales was filtered through heavy grey clouds. Later, when I was in my 20s, if I had too much exposure, my face would swell up. But I did love the outdoors. And right through to my teens I was always more outside than in, sailing, climbing and clambering over the rugged slopes of the nearby mountains of Snowdonia, or wandering along our island's country lanes, their hedgerows dotted with wildflowers.
Our family lived in what was known as 'the annexe'- the self-contained part of the building just beyond the hotel kitchen. We had our own private front door, a pretty clematis-covered porch, and a garden filled with roses and hydrangeas that was my mother's pride and joy. In the back we grew vegetables and kept geese, ducks and chickens.
The annexe was our own enclosed world within a world. It was furnished in a similar style and in the same taste as the rest of the hotel, but everything was on a much smaller, more personal scale. The paintings and tapestries on the walls, for instance, were all my mother's work. It was also extremely cluttered, because she could rarely bring herself to throw out so much as an empty jam jar. And so the clutter grew, to the point that, despite its being piled into cupboards or hidden out of sight behind curtains, I was too embarrassed to invite any schoolfriends back home.
From the time I began to read, children's comics transported me to cheerier places. My mother kept books, but I rarely looked at them, much preferring the traditional British weeklies such as The Beano and The Dandy, and a glossy new one called Girl, which remained a firm favourite of mine until I graduated to fashion magazines such as Vogue. We didn't have a television, but once a year, when we went to stay with my aunt, uncle and cousins in Cheshire, we rode their pony and were given permission to watch their television. But it was films that fascinated me the most. Once a week from my early teens, I was allowed to visit the local cinema for the matinee performance. So every Saturday, after making the beds, washing the dishes and finishing the remainder of my chores, I was off, walking the mile along the seafront to the bus stop by myself, darting to avoid the stinging sea spray. Then I would take the country bus to Holyhead, passing through a no-man's-land of derelict parking lots to get there. 

The cinema was a crumbling old fleapit, a small-town cliche of a picture palace, complete with worn velvet seats and a young girl selling ice cream in the interval. Think of The Last Picture Show, only even more shabby. I would settle into one of the larger, more comfortable double seats in the back row - a place where the boys usually sat and smooched with their girlfriends during the evening show - and there in the darkness I would completely give myself up to the dream world of celluloid.

I remember being crazy about Montgomery Clift and James Dean. I loved all the boys with soft, sad eyes and lost souls. I loved horses, too: National Velvet, with Elizabeth Taylor, and Black Beauty, which was dreadfully sad, although not as sad as Bambi. When I saw that, I cried all the way through to the end. Duel in the Sun was another favourite - such a tragic love story. I adored Gregory Peck; his voice was so warm and reassuring. I was enchanted by The Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. Audrey Hepburn, too, was so chic and adorable in her skinny pants and little pumps. I loved Audrey, not only through her films but because of some reportage photos I saw in the magazine Picture Post that struck a chord. She was shown happily riding around on her bike and cooking in her tiny apartment. Everything was so clean and shiny. I aspired to live in exactly that same perfect way.
Back home I often attempted to make outfits similar to the sophisticated looks worn by the actresses on the big screen. Throughout my teens I made most of my own wardrobe - even suits and coats - on our Singer sewing machine, which you worked with foot pedals. All it took was patience, and lots of it. I would use Vogue patterns and fabrics from Polykoff's, a big old department store in Holyhead. I never made anything outrageous. My mother allowed me to dress only in relatively conservative clothes. Everything else she knitted for me. As many old photographs will attest, my mother seldom stopped knitting. She took her knitting everywhere, night and day, making things that were the bane of my life because they would become saggy, especially the knitted bathing suits: saggy and soggy.
Even when I was a child, Vogue was already on its way to being my magazine of choice. I used to see my sister's copy lying around the house after she had finished looking through it - so in a way, it was Rosemary who introduced me to fashion. When I was older, I would make a special trip to Holyhead to buy it for myself. It always arrived rather late in the month, and there were usually only one or two in stock. Presumably Harper's Bazaar was around then, too, but for me it was always Vogue. I bought it for the fantasy of looking at beautiful clothes, and I liked getting lost in its pages.

Leafing through the magazine, I was fascinated by the new styles, those ladylike 1950s outfits implying a softer, more approachable type of glamour than that which dazzled me at my local cinema. But what I particularly loved were the photographs themselves, especially those taken outdoors. They transported me to all sorts of exotic places - places where you could wear that kind of thing. Après-ski wear under snow-topped fir trees! Beachy cover-ups on sun-kissed coral islands!
Leafing through the magazine, I was fascinated by the new styles, those ladylike 1950s outfits implying a softer,
The images that stood out for me the most were by Norman Parkinson. He was one of the few fashion photographers back then who was a celebrity in the modern sense. Tall and skinny in an elegant suit with a small, bristling, old-fashioned military moustache, he was always putting himself in his pictures. I began to recognise his work for its light-hearted humour and irrepressible personality. Parkinson would come to play an important role in my life.
During the years after I turned 13, I spent even more time studying Vogue, since my sister left home to get married, and I inherited the sophisticated privacy of her room. It was very much hers when she lived with us; I wasn't even allowed through the door without an invitation. So the first thing I did was redecorate.
The funny thing was, after Rosie moved out, we became much closer. I even saw her more often. Our relationship changed dramatically: when I was younger, she had been able to push me around, and I bore the brunt of her terrible temper tantrums. But by the time she left home, I had grown a lot bigger and taller, and found I had a new way of dealing with things. The more someone gets angry with me, the calmer I become, a policy I have stuck to all my life.
By the time I turned 18, I knew I must leave my tiny Welsh island. Although I had nothing like a good alternative plan, there was no choice if you stayed in Anglesey. You could end up working in either a clock factory or a snack bar. Through my teens, people had remarked upon my height, saying I was tall enough to be a model (probably because most Welsh girls are pretty short). My old school friend Angela always encouraged me, saying, 'Let's go to London. You can go to modelling school, and I can get a job as a secretary, and we will see where it leads.' Before I left home, I cut out and posted a coupon from the pages of Vogue. It was a tiny paragraph in the back of the magazine promising, for 25 guineas, a life-transforming two-week course at the Cherry Marshall Modelling School in Mayfair.
Modelling seemed like an escape into a world of wealth and excitement, a chance to travel to new places and meet interesting people. At the very least, I reasoned, it could lead to a greater social life, a respectable home, and marriage, all of which would make my mother deliriously happy. Besides, I loved seeing beautiful clothes in beautiful photographs and dreamt of being part of it. 

I am often heard grumbling about Anna Wintour. For instance, at the end of a fashion meeting at American Vogue in which one of my cherished ideas is arbitrarily dropped. Or if I'm required to shoot a difficult celebrity I'm not especially fond of. Or if I'm disallowed from shooting a model I mannered in that arty Italian Vogue way.

Funnily enough, I had no idea how cantankerous and argumentative I can seem until I saw myself in the film The September Issue . Small surprise that, in the past, Anna has said I am the only person in fashion who can actually grind her down. As the nuns who wrote my school report when I was 14 put it, 'Grace has a very nice way of getting her own will.'
I worked with Anna in London when she was editor ofVogue in the mid 1980s, and was hired to start with her when she took over American Vogue in 1988, but I remember her from way, way back in the early 1970s, when we were both working in London: I was at Vogue and she was a junior fashion editor at Harpers & Queen . We didn't communicate much, if ever. She wore layer upon layer of oversized baggy knitwear by the Scottish designer Bill Gibb and many other layered knitwear pieces by the fashionable Italian label Missoni. I don't remember her face so well because she seemed to be constantly hiding it behind layers of hair, too.
I remained at Vogue until 1986; meanwhile Anna moved to America in the mid-1970s, working first at Harper's Bazaar and later New York magazine . I would run into her over the years, and she was always very nice to me, although still with that shy little habit of ducking down behind her fringe.
Then one day when I was over in New York, I received a call from the child psychiatrist Dr David Shaffer, an old London friend who had relocated to Greenwich Village. He said to me, 'I'd really like you to meet my new girlfriend.' I joined him at the Algonquin to find him with Anna, who by then was working at New York and seemed far less shy.
'[Alex] Liberman [the right-hand man to Condé Nast's owner, Si Newhouse] likes her very much and wants to give her this job with a new title - creative director of Vogue,' David said. 'What do you think?' 'I think it's great,' I said, because it seemed to me at this point in the early 1980s that American Vogue had become, in contrast to BritishVogue , very bland.
David once said to me, 'The great thing about Anna is she doesn't care whether people like her or not.' I'm not so sure if this is true, but she never seems to falter when criticised. I care whether anyone - from the mailman to the dry cleaner - likes me. Maybe that is my weakness. But not Anna's. She does, however, care very, very much about her children. If one of them comes on the phone, I've watched her melt, which is not something you very often see with Anna.
More and more over the years, especially in public after Anna became American Vogue's editor in chief, I've come to see her as the possessor of an almost Margaret Thatcher-like, straight-faced control. One summer on her way into a Paris fashion show, for example, after being pelted with some gooey substance by the animal-rights people who are always lying in wait, she disappeared backstage, rearranged herself, had her make-up redone, and was still one of the earlier arrivals to take her seat.
And when the outrageous Alexander McQueen unveiled his new collection in New York one year, she kept her composure despite his show's deliberately provocative finale. At the time the fashion world was titillated by McQueen's design for 'bumsters' - trousers that barely reached the crotch in the front and hardly covered half the a-. One particularly mischievous model, Dan Macmillan (the great-grandson of a former British prime minister), was wearing them in the show's finale, which found him directly facing Anna in her front-row seat. McQueen stepped on to the catwalk to take his bow, and the entire cast turned to bow back at him. At which point the boy was literally mooning Anna right in the face. And she, unruffled behind her dark glasses, simply stared back.
Fashion magazines have totally changed in my lifetime. If someone like Madonna is a huge success as the cover story of the November issue, next time around there must be someone or something bigger. In the end I think Anna gave up on my styling covers since I'm not good with famous people. We used to use the occasional model, but the sales difference was so marked between them and celebrities that it's now 100 per cent pop and movie stars.
Fashion is just a part of what the magazine stands for today, which may be hard on old-timers like myself but is definitely the modern way. I'm grateful to have lived through the 10 years or so I did at American Vogue when fashion was the most important element. Since then Anna has broadened our scope momentously. Vogue now incorporates the worlds of art, business, technology, travel, food, celebrity and politics. And this is all largely due to her vision.
It was Anna's decision, for instance, the moment Hollywood talk turned to Zoolander , the comedy film in which Ben Stiller plays a knuckleheaded male model, that he should be taken to Paris and shot by Annie Leibovitz for a couture story. I have to say, I hated the idea, not merely because I respect Paris couture for its purity and exquisite workmanship but because an advance screening of the film revealed it to be a crass and truly mind-numbing experience. I think it was decided upon, really, because Anna had a crush on Ben. (She gets these occasional crushes - Ben, Puff Daddy, Roger Federer.)
Annie wanted Ben wearing clothes resembling his costumes from the film, which were so incredibly vulgar and nasty that I had to put my foot down and say how much better he would look in a dark suit. Even then I had reservations about the whole project. So when it came to choosing the models, I secretly went for the tallest ones around, girls like Stella Tennant, Oluchi and Jacquetta Wheeler, beanpoles who would effectively show up his short stature.
Annie then became obsessed with getting the tiny actor into a tiny pair of swimming-trunks in order to spoof a Helmut Newton photograph. He refused. She tried again. He ever so reluctantly agreed to wear them.
Overall, the end results, thanks to Anna's justified insistence on Ben, were, I have to admit, quite hilarious. Annie's wittiest decision was to reference key couture shoots of the past, even paying homage to the famous 1963 series by the American photographer Melvin Sokolsky, who suspended his models in strange futuristic plastic bubbles over the Seine and above the cobbled streets of Paris. Ben Stiller's frozen, panic-ridden expression, trapped inside his duplicate bubble, was priceless. He was a really good sport throughout for allowing us mercilessly to poke fun at him.
In 2005 I found myself working with Madonna. She was then married to Guy Ritchie and enjoying a very English life between homes in London and the countryside.
The British tabloids had embraced her to the point of fondly calling her 'Madge', as her current husband did, and expending miles of newsprint commenting favourably on how she wore tweeds, had taken up riding, and had been seen several times at the local pub. All the dismissive sneering concerning her involvement with Jewish Kabbalah had been replaced by approving articles on how its influence had turned her into a much more agreeable person with a plausible English accent. Our photographs were to take place at her country house, Ashcombe, once upon a time the estate of the multifaceted English artist/photographer/writer Cecil Beaton, whom I had worked with towards the end of his life. Our photographer was to be Tim Walker, a nostalgia-loving character whose body of work looked like he had conjured all his images from children's fairytales.
Tim had travelled down early to Wiltshire to discuss all the ideas. He and Madonna met in the pub, and when I and the rest of the crew arrived a day later he ecstatically reported that she had embraced every detail he had suggested. All of which surprised me, as some of his ideas were pretty extreme.
Our first shot of her was in the drawing-room wearing a pair of jodhpurs, and that went well enough. Then came a picture in which she was supposed to wear a dress with a very full skirt. She balked at it, saying, 'This makes me look like a 1950s débutante,' which, of course, was pretty much the effect we were after.
Things went comparatively smoothly with our next two set-ups. We took a picture of her in bed reading the newspapers with her children. Next we took a shot of Madonna out riding with Guy. Galloping back, she couldn't have failed to notice that we had started to turn all her sheep pretty shades of pastel in readiness for a picture later on. Then she started to grow testy. 'I'm going to do the picture of her in the martini glass next,' Tim told me enthusiastically while Madonna was upstairs changing. I do remember asking if he was absolutely certain she had agreed to this. 'Oh yes,' he said as she came down, looked out the window, and saw, on her lawn, an enormous martini glass with a giant cherry in it and a ladder propped at its side waiting to carry her up.
'I'm not doing that. No way,' said Madonna grimly. She firmly vetoed the image, and when he suggested another that involved her wearing a hat that looked like a cream cake, she angrily refused that, too.
Finally, she calmed down a little when we set up a photograph reminiscent of a Bruce Weber portrait of Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, feeding the chickens on her country estate at Chatsworth. But after that, even though there was another day to go, the mood was far too negative and the session was, for all intents and purposes, over. Sadly, the extraordinary dress - a huge crinoline that John Galliano had made specially for the shoot - was caught in the crossfire. She looked so gloomy in it that the photograph was never used. Despite all the problems, however, we ended up with a really charming evocation of Madonna's English interlude.
Every so often I have lunch with Anna at her request. These days, though, I get worked up beforehand, usually thinking, 'This is finally the time she'll say, "You're getting on a bit. You're looking tired. I think you should take it easy,"' as a prelude to gently asking me to step down. In fact, the last time we went out, I dared to say, 'I thought you were going to tell me to leave.' At which point Anna laughed and said, 'No, as long as I'm here, you will be, too.'
I never had an actual birthday party when I was a child. As with any other social happening, it was the sort of thing that made me far too nervous. Whatever anxieties I felt at seven, however, were magnified tenfold when I reached 70 and people started to mention the possibility of a large-scale birthday celebration.
As the day approached in spring 2011, Anna said, 'Your big birthday is coming up, and I'm going to give you a party. Have it where you like and however many people you like.' (Funny how she likes celebrating other people's birthdays but ignores her own.)
The party was, in fact, a roaring success. Anna made a speech. 'Grace,' she jokingly began, 'this is going to be your favourite part of the evening, when we all get to talk about you.' Then she continued, 'To me you will always be the heart and soul of the magazine, its guardian at the gate, its beacon of excellence. For about as long as I have edited Vogue, one person, Grace Coddington, has made me excited to come into the office every day…'
I was speechless. This from a woman who normally never pays you a compliment to your face! How could I possibly respond? I could click my heels in the air or turn cartwheels, but my regular sessions of Pilates were not quite that effective. I could laugh and cry at the thought that so many painstaking years of toil were held in such esteem. I could shimmy across the dance floor knowing I still had some life in me yet.
While these thoughts were running through my head, I looked at the many photographers, hairstylists, make-up artists, art directors, fellow editors and ex-assistants around me, and realised I don't really have a single friend who isn't in the business. Which is perfectly fine by me. So am I still that completely fascinated by fashion? In many ways, yes. Having worked in it for over 50 years, I gratefully accept that my world has expanded with time, not contracted.
For me, one of the most important aspects of my work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs. I still weave dreams, finding inspiration wherever I can and looking for romance in the real world.
Extracts courtesy of "Grace a Memoir" Chatto and Windus £25 released 23rd November 2012

Grace Coddington will greet fans at Browns' South Molton Street store, London, between 12.30pm and 2.30pm on Thursday November 22 

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