Lunch with the FT: Grace Coddington
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Lunch can be an illuminating experience – at least when it comes to establishing one’s place in the pecking order. On arriving at Café Un Deux Trois, for example, the regular Manhattan dining establishment of American Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington, I give my name and am shown to a table for two in the middle of the noisy restaurant, next to a giant pillar.
It’s not what anyone would think of as a good table, and just as I am debating whether I should make a fuss, the maître d’ rushes over and says, somewhat breathlessly, “Are you meeting Ms Coddington?”
“Yes,” I respond.
“Oh, come with me,” he says with great concern, and leads me to a round corner booth. “This is her table,” he says confidingly. It is probably the nicest, most sheltered spot in the restaurant.
Coddington, 73, became an accidental celebrity in 2009 thanks to RJ Cutler’s film The September Issue, which was nominally about the making of the September 2007 edition of American Vogue but turned out to be a portrait of the complicated alliance between the analytic and creative sides of the business, as embodied respectively by editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and Coddington.
Now Coddington gets recognised at least once a day when she is on the way to the subway from her home in Chelsea, where she lives with her partner, hairstylist Didier Malige and their two cats, to her office on Times Square. After sliding into the booth, she says with a laugh: “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I love you!’ It’s kind of wonderful; it really cheers you up if you are having a bad day. Or even a good day.”
Coddington is in her usual uniform of navy Céline crewneck sweater, black trousers, and bright orange Céline Vans shoes; for as long as I have been going to the shows and seeing her across the runway, this, with a few variations and different brands – a white shirt here, a black dress there – is what she has worn. Her cloud of bright red hair is pulled up on one side in a barrette, two diamond studs are in her ears, and some dark red lipstick has partly migrated to her teeth; otherwise, her face seems bare. In the world of street style and cosmetic surgery, she is notable for opting out, which has had the effect of making her even more noticeable.
Along with the more recent fame it means that, since she hit the age that used to be known as “retirement”, “I have had lots of opportunities that would not otherwise have come to me.” These include (along with her still-full-time job) her autobiography Grace (2012). A feature film project linked to the book is in the planning stages with Luca Guadagnino, who made I Am Love (2009), signed on to direct a screenplay by Abi Morgan, writer of The Iron Lady.
She’s also been asked to curate an auction of photographs and art for the online site Paddle8 next month, which is the nominal reason for our conversation. Despite the fact she has been an editor for almost five decades, in person Coddington is relatively unedited. It’s part of her appeal.
I ask, for example, about the fact that the auction will take as its theme “nudes” and point out the irony in someone who has made a career out of putting clothes on – both on her own body, as a model from the ages of 18 to 26 (having won a Vogue model competition), and on other people’s bodies as a stylist at British Vogue from 1968-86, then at Calvin Klein as design director for a year in 1987, and then at American Vogue from 1988 to today – choosing to curate a selling show focused on taking clothes off. To which Coddington says: “I wanted to do fashion photographs but apparently they don’t sell.
“Then the Paddle8 people wanted portraits but I am renowned for being annoying and always wanting the feet to show in my pictures. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe instead of clothes it should be about no clothes, because that is how every fashion picture starts really, that’s the base.’ That’s how I rationalised it. But I didn’t realise how much work it would be. I am sure when actors have to do a film, the first thing they ask is about what they will have to do for publicity. It’s almost become more important than the thing itself but I didn’t ask about it, because I am stupid.”
Along with speaking her mind, Coddington also spends a lot of time disparaging herself. She says, for example: “Just because I am recognised does not mean I am important.” When the subject of her memoir (just nominated for an audio book award for best narration by the author) comes up, she says: “I’m sure it won’t win; I was so bad. When I read, I stutter and stammer. I listened to a bit and was embarrassed for myself.” She adds: “I like to think I am a very minimal person but I am so not; my apartment is terribly cluttered.”
And that’s just the beginning; there is more: “I am very stubborn”; and “I am very long-winded. I am so long-winded I have to edit myself a lot before I go in to talk to Anna [Wintour], because she likes things that are very direct. But then I edit myself so much we practically don’t have any conversation at all.”
This might seem disingenuous from someone whom Wintour herself called a “legend” with “the best eye in the business” – and whose narrative imagination arguably changed how we think of fashion pictures, pushing them towards the realm of storytelling. Yet it’s not. Coddington was born on the Welsh island of Anglesey (her parents were hoteliers) and lived there until moving to London at 18, and I think her self-deprecation is, in part, the natural flag-planting of a British woman who has existed in American culture for 27 years. It culminates when I ask Coddington how she ended up with her signature look of dark trousers and white shirt, and she announces: “I got fat.”
She is not what most people would call fat but, as Coddington says, “my idea of skinny and the general public’s idea of skinny is probably slightly different”.
Without looking at the menu, she orders a hamburger, medium rare, and fries. I get a salad. We share a bottle of fizzy water. “I don’t usually go out to lunch very much,” she says after the waitress has cleared our menus (this may be her “regular” place but she attends irregularly). “You know, we are chained to our desks.” She sneaks a look at me to make sure I know this is a (sort of) joke. “And I don’t eat a lot of meat. Usually I just get food from our cafeteria, which is good because it keeps me from eating a lot.”
This is an opportune moment to ask her how she feels about the current discussion over whether the fashion world promotes unrealistic body images. “That’s a very big can of worms,” she says. “We [Vogue] simply don’t shoot very skinny girls. But, to a certain extent, youth and skinny go hand in hand – I was pretty skinny when I was 16. And the constant demand for more, with more shows and more models, means that the supply of girls necessarily goes past maybe what one would want.”
I offer her some bread but she declines. She looks concerned. “One of the things I have learnt since the movie is that I have to be very careful about what I say, because it all rebounds on Vogue,” she says. “Maybe I should not have said that.” Still, she did say it. Which makes it hard not to see it, and all the similar statements that come after, as potentially a little (just a little) declaration of independence from the platform that launched her. At a certain point, one is old enough, and well-known enough, to speak one’s mind with (relative) impunity. Fame and experience have a certain insulating effect.
In any case, when Coddington wants to do one of her “side projects” such as the auction, she clears them with her boss. “It’s very modern to multitask,” she says. “But I always complain about other people doing it and say, ‘Why can’t they do just one thing? Why does everyone have to do 10 things?’ And now I am doing it.” No one is more multitasking than Wintour, I point out, who was promoted to artistic director of Condé Nast last year, and now oversees all its magazines. Has this had any impact on Coddington?
“Maybe you can’t linger too long in her office,” says Coddington. “But she never really liked people who lingered. She likes an answer.”
As part of Coddington’s own multitasking for the auction, she agreed to let the auction organisation approach the photographers and artists of her choice (or their estates), including many of her long-time collaborators such as Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, and Herb Ritts, for their contributions.
“It was a mistake”, she says, as the waitress puts a bottle of ketchup on the table for her burger, “because they left the photo choice up to the photographer or their estate, and I had very specific pictures in mind. There are a lot of male nudes, which I did not want. But then if I call the photographers back to ask them to change the picture, they get offended, and I don’t want to lose all my photographer friends. I’m very worried about it.” Putting the auction together, she says, has been much more complicated than she expected. “I thought everyone would want to sell any picture I picked and make some money but that has not been the case at all.”
I ask why that is.
“Well, everyone always thinks their newer work is better, and they don’t want to show their old work,” she says. “But sometimes the old work is better or at least it is in my eyes.”
She had a similar experience when she was researching pictures for a 10lb coffee table book of her fashion work called Grace: 30 years of Fashion at Vogue released in 2002 (copies sell for up to $4,000), which contained 400 pages of shoots and involved four years of negotiations.
“For the book, I wanted a picture I had done with Helmut Newton that was called Nadja and the swan,” she says as our food arrives, referring to a photograph from the early 1990s of model Nadja Auermann splayed on a bed under a swan, “and Helmut said I couldn’t have it, that he didn’t have it any more. But then one day I was talking to Karl [Lagerfeld] and he said he had a print of that exact photo, which Helmut had given him, in his house! So Karl sent it to me and I got it in the book. In retrospect, a lot of photographers don’t like to think there was anyone else involved in making those pictures. But, you know, I was there.”
Coddington removes her hamburger from the bun, putting the bread, sliced tomato and lettuce aside, and begins to cut the meat. “I thought the whole scenario was your idea?” I say, thinking of such classic Coddington shoots as the Russian model Natalia Vodianova cast as Alice in Wonderland (2003) in tiny sets built for the purpose, or Kate Moss and P Diddy playing a celebrity couple in furs and sequins (1999).
“It didn’t used to be,” says Coddington, forking up some fries. “It used to be you would knock on a photographer’s door, and go in and have a conversation and improvise together. Now you just book them.” Coddington does two to three fashion stories a month. “It used to be one every two to three months,” she laughs.
What she won’t shoot, she says, are “clothes that are badly made. I refuse. What I really admire is when something is beautifully made.”
She generally does not shoot celebrities and rarely works on Vogue covers, which are celebrity-focused. “I’d rather use models,” she says. “The clothes look better, because they are made for them. And you can ask them to do things you might not ask a celebrity to do.” A recent exception, however, was Kim Kardashian and Kanye West – a celebrity cover for this month’s issue that Coddington not only styled but helped to instigate.
“There was a wedding story to be done,” she explains. “And Anna probably had them in mind, because she had been seeing a lot of Kanye, so she said, ‘Maybe we should shoot it on lookalikes.’ And I thought, ‘Why not just do it on the real thing? This is Vogue.’ And I do think Kim Kardashian represents this moment in our culture. I’m fascinated by her, in the same way I’m fascinated by the people I see on the street or the subway.”
Coddington asked five designers to make bespoke outfits for an unnamed couple, and “they did. I thought they would guess immediately when I sent the measurements but they didn’t. It wasn’t until the fitting they knew, and it still somehow stayed a secret.”
As for the experience itself, “it was fun. [Kim] is very professional. And the baby [the couple’s daughter, North] is very well-behaved. We did millions of pictures and she did not cry once. I got quite upset we did not have the baby on the cover. I knew going in it would be controversial – I got an envelope from Texas, with the cover ripped up into little pieces inside – but the designers all sent me flowers, so I guess they were happy.”
The waitress comes to clear the plates. Coddington asks for a decaf coffee; I order a cappuccino, and ask if her extracurricular activities ever make her think about abandoning her day job. “I never thought I would still be doing this at this age,” she says. “I’ve been saying, ‘I’m going to leave tomorrow’ for the last 10 years. I could say I was going to leave when Condé Nast moves into our new place [near Ground Zero] but now we are moving in November, so that probably won’t happen. It’s what I do, what I know best.
“It does get more difficult. My energy level is not the same, and I find the clothes harder to work with. They don’t inspire me as much. There’s about five designers whose work I still find super-exciting but if they go, I’ll certainly go. I’ll be gone, anyway, by the time fashion goes digital.”
Speaking of digital, what does Coddington, who has a mobile phone but doesn’t use email or computers, think about the print-digital divide?
“That’s one of those questions I’ll get in trouble about no matter what I say,” she says. “I’ll probably be fired. I should just shut up now.”
‘No Clothes: An Auction of Nudes’ curated by Grace Coddington, in preview now, bidding from May 1-16 at paddle8.com/noclothes
Café Un Deux Trois
123 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036
Salade maraîchère $9.25
Cappuccino x2 $8.00
Decaf cappuccino $4.00
Decaf coffee $2.75
Total (incl tax and service) $59.54