A Conversation With Grace Coddington at The New York Public Library

Working for Melissa Hawks at The Well Appointed House has afforded me a great many opportunities to go to some amazing events I would not normally be privy to, like last night’s event with Creative Director of Vogue, Grace Coddington. Coddington joined the New York Public Library Conservators, among which Melissa is counted, for an intimate conversation on her life in fashion, facilitated by former Editor-in-Chief Jay Fielden. I joined the other hundred plus stylish attendees at the South Court Auditorium for cocktails followed by a personal interview with the once Vogue model who has been one of the pivotal forces behind art and fashion as we know it.Before the summer debut of the Vogue documentary, The September Issue, people knew who Coddington was, but not exactly what Coddington does and after last night it is quite clear that who Coddington is, is what she does. Grace did not initially want to be in RJ Cutler’s fashion documentary, just as she did not particularly want to participate in last night’s event and it is not for a lack of interest or elitism, its because unlike most in the fashion world, she does not seek the spotlight. I had the serendipitous fortune to meet Ms. Coddington privately, thanks to a not so glamorous moment on my part. I told her I was excited to hear her talk and she smiled timidly at me, patted me on the shoulder and said, “dear you might just have heard the best of it.” I hadn’t.

Outside the world Famous New York Public Library. The NYPL Conservators strive to keep its 50 million items free to the public.
The beautiful hall in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
The Crowd outside the auditorium.
The famous caricature of Coddington

Fielden began his questioning saying, “Like all things with Grace, let’s begin with a fairytale…” which instantly prepared the tweed clad Conservators and silk strewn Vogue staffers for our grown up bedtime story. Coddington grew up in the remote Welsh island of Anglesey in 1941 (the playful grimace from Grace did not go unnoticed as the announcer read the date) where she would wait months to devour her out of date issues of Vogue.
Jay Fielden and Grace Coddington
Below: Grace as a model, the Vidal Sassoon cut is on the right
Her modeling career began at eighteen when she won British Vogue’s young model competition and moved to London to become apart of the groundbreaking British fashion movement in the sixties. Self described as “not a classic beauty” she did face some difficulty booking jobs but found herself often at the right place at the right time, like when she met Vidal Sassoon who told her “you have fabulous hair, let me cut it all off.” It was amazing to see Coddington, who is synonymous with her thick bright red locks, underneath Sassoon’s architectural bob and marvel at the difference.

Coddington’s modeling was cut short by devastating car crash that took her five surgeries to recover from. “[You] gotta pick yourself up and make the most of it,” Grace said to the audience, and indeed she did. Drawing on her relationships with the top photographers of the time she was able to land a job at British Vogue until 1987 when she moved to New York to become Director at Calvin Klein and then a year later joined American Vogue the same day as its now Editor-in-Chef Anna Wintour. When asked last night to elaborate on her impact on Vogue, Coddington said in her characteristic wit and humor, “It’s not always me. Usually Anna has all the ideas. I just interpret them and change them.” The dynamic between Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour has been the source for much speculation in the media and was a major sub plot in The September Issue. Some say that Coddington “stole the movie” from Wintour, others that she came out as the protagonist and Wintour, unable to shed her “Ice Queen persona.” Having seen the film, it was quite obvious that the two don’t function without the other and their working relationship is not for the outside world to understand, but rather appreciate the beauty that comes from their efforts.

Fielden guided Grace through a pictorial of her favorite shoots and again touched upon the idea that when talking about Grace’s work you must also talk about the whimsical reversion to a childlike ideal of life she has. “I can’t take credit for this word,” Fielden said trying to sum up Coddington, “but, Romantic would be it.” She nodded gently, knowing that would be the word he chose, just as many before him have and many after will. Grace’s ideas come from the real world, which most may not always find to be romantic, but then again most are not Grace Coddington. She sees the beauty in the ugly and the right in the wrong and above all the humor in it all, which is why her shoots make us laugh, or smile, or dare I say, think.

When it was time for audience questions, one woman asked about the controversy with model’s weight, in specific reference to the Ralph Lauren model who was fired for being too “fat.” Coddington said, “…And you go to meetings to discuss it, and you think it’s kind of futile, because it’s such a big thing, and in the end, people are always asking for more and they’re always asking for thinner.”

Above: A clip from The September Issue, Grace appears in 4:38 but it is a good example of the documentary as a whole

I unknowingly asked the one question that Fielden was not allowed to, which was whether or not she felt that our Celebrity obsessed culture was good or not for fashion. Shoe designer Manolo Blahnik got a lot of press about his comment: “I hate celebrities. All those pointless girls — I won’t name names, but you know who I mean. They are ‘famous.’ Ridiculous. I like women with style: Actresses like Uma Thurman, icons like Audrey Hepburn. I like women with style to wear my shoes.” She ‘gracefully’ answered that she was simply “more comfortable working with models, but actresses are “not all together bad…”

After my evening with Grace Coddington it became clear to me that she is the grit that produces the glamour and powers towards innovation while never forgetting the past. Grace gives valuable lessons to all of us: always keep your dreams close to your heart, always keep your eyes open and never lose yourself.

Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *