Grace & favour
She's the genius creative director at large of American Vogue and, thanks to The September Issue, a celebrity in her own right. Sarah Mower meets Grace Coddington
A long queue of fashion pilgrims is inching adoringly towards a desk at which Grace Coddington is seated at a book signing at Smythson in New Bond Street, London. The photographers and stylists, socialites and students, and a string of her ex-assistants are clutching special Smythson orange leather-bound £195 editions of GingerNutz.
Actually, the book isn't by Coddington, but the man in the flat cap who is gleefully signing away next to her. Nobody knows the creative director of American Vogue better than the illustrator-writer-filmmaker and fashion mischief-maker Michael Roberts. The pair have been friends since the Seventies. GingerNutz is the cartoon re-telling of the life of Coddington - depicted as an orangutan.
Roberts flips over his favourite pages. GingerNutz shoots to modelling fame from obscure beginnings in the Borneo jungle. "Her trademarks were her ever-changing hairstyles: the Gibbon, the Baboon, the Capuchin and the Rhesus (Coddington was legendary for her overnight style makeovers, which would stun lesser British Vogue staff when she was fashion editor in the Sixties and Seventies)." Then he breathlessly recites the denouement: when GingerNutz goes to the Met, she explains to her parents: "That's the in-crowd's name for Monkey's Exclusive Tea Party!" Coddington is laughing, her red hair flaring.
It's all there, one way or the other, from her birth in Anglesey in 1941, through her Sixties modelling career in London, right up to her current position at, well, the tip-top of the international fashion canopy. "It literally is my life, which Michael knows very well."
Roberts says: "The more we got into it, the more connected it was - she had a Vidal five-point haircut, she got photographed by Helmut Newton sitting in a chair, all the make-up things I did. She started her life by the sea. She found a copy of Vogue in a bottle and dreamed she'd be a model. Which is roughly what happened. Sort of."
Today, Coddington far more closely resembles a latter-day Elizabeth I than an orangutan. With her nimbus of coppery hair, high forehead, refined bones and pale, untouched complexion, she's highly identifiable fashion royalty. When she rides the subway to the Vogue offices at One World Trade Center in New York, people scream when they see her and ask for selfies at every corner.
We decamp to a corner of Claridge's bar to talk. She and I have been colleagues covering shows for more than a decade, so I've been a witness to what it's like walking around New York, Milan and Paris in her wake, as Grace-spotters run towards her from every direction. "I have a huge gay and transvestite following," she chuckles. "But also, all these very young kids." Why? "I think they know I'm a very positive person who will not take no for an answer. Even from my boss."
Today, as every day, Coddington is wearing Celine - her poster-woman, all-black uniform for state-of-the art, personality-framing style. "The cut of their trousers is very, very good, and the shape of the cashmere sweaters - slightly classic, but slightly modern, too. I can fit into them," she laughs. "I have their Crombie coats and that's about it. I can't get away with anything cheap at my age. It has to be a certain quality or it just looks terrible."
Now I'm staring down at her white trainers: perfect yet unidentifiable. "Ha! They're Celine as well," she laughs. "If I put any other shoes on, I just look super boring. I just think they're cool. With fashion there's so much that's cute and baby-doll, and that's great if you're young. But if you're not - I just think sneakers cut the age. They take the bourgeois off. I wear them to the Met." Completing the total Coddington is her slash of red lipstick - Dolce & Gabbana, she can't remember the shade.
Her late incarnation as an inter-generational style and beauty icon accidentally came about in 2009, after Anna Wintour famously insisted - following a months-long running battle in the halls of Vogue during which Coddington slammed her door against the cameras - that she took part in The September Issue documentary. "Vogue gave me a voice, but The September Issue gave me a face," she once told me.
Nevertheless, the editor-in-chief handed her the gift of a second, highly valuable career opportunity, as Wintour had doubtless foreseen. The nature of the relationship between these two extremely reserved, perfectionist Englishwomen was the creative dynamic that made the movie, a tussle that masks their shared - also very English - romantic vision, which soars off the pages of Coddington's epic stories.
They're non-emoters, the pair of them. But, yes - in answer to what people always want to know about them - I would dare say that after more than 30 years of working together at both British and American Vogue (with a little break when Coddington went to head up design at Calvin Klein in 1987, and thought better of it) they're fond of one another: a fondness masquerading itself as professional respect.
Even the Michael Roberts book itself was a consequence of a covert Wintour kindness to her. "It was going to be my 75th birthday and a few people got together and decided to give me a surprise party." Coddington had thought she was just taking her "kids" - her assistants - out for dinner. "And when I got there, there were like a hundred people - it was fabulous. Anna does that really well."
Unbeknown to her, Roberts had sketched the monkey cartoon for a party invitation. "Because orangutans have red hair. Everybody decided I would be really offended, so they all said, 'Absolutely no!"
When Roberts eventually showed the scrapped drawing, Coddington had exactly the opposite reaction. "I thought she was adorable - she had to have a life."
The child of hoteliers, brought up on a remote Welsh island, Coddington loved Vogue from a young age. "I ordered Vogue every month from the local store," she has reminisced to US Vogue. "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."
At 18 she won a young model competition in the magazine. She then began a modelling career for Vogue, but at 26 she was in a car accident that left her with head and facial injuries - nearly slicing off an eyelid - forcing her to endure years of reconstructive surgery. It is testament to her character that she went on to become one of the most celebrated models of the Sixties.
At 27 she became a junior fashion editor at the magazine, and in 1988 she joined Anna Wintour as creative director of American Vogue. Since the release of The September Issue in 2009, everyone has wanted a piece of Coddington. It's the reason she's been able to traverse the world without a surname for the past eight years, because 'Grace', now, is a brand.
It's something she's able to pursue more since she's moved to being creative director at large, doing four or five stories a year for the magazine. "I think it got to the point where Anna saw - with the pressure to shoot, shoot, shoot every day - it was not my personality. Or I was not dealing with it very well. What I have found is that since I've had less to do, and therefore more time to think about it, she's very generous about what I do. She wants me to do the stories I want to do.
"Even if budgets are much less, you just have to rethink it, and you'll find a way. And I don't need a limousine everywhere."
We mustn't run away with the idea that she's gearing down. Grace Coddington has always been a pioneer of her generation, and at the age of 76, that's just as true now. With her prolific abilities, her love of cats, her drawing, her books of her fashion work, her perfume Grace (with its rose scent and cat-shaped bottle) and her astonishing photogenic power to look amazing on her 440k-followed @therealgracecoddington Instagram account, she is now a personality with the power of a globally marketable reach. For a digital sceptic, this is quite a funny turn up for the books. She's a stickler for insisting on using her phone just to call and text. Her assistant picks up her emails.
"I do Instagram, but none of the others like Snapchat or snap-crap," she laughs. "I don't even know what they are that I don't do! They're time-wasters. There's one thing: if you have more followers, you can ask for more money. But I'd have to post something every day. And I just can't be bothered."
This brings us to the other reason Coddington is making this rare touchdown in London today: she's signed up to be a Smythson ambassador.
"Grace is the quintessential global traveller," says head of brand Nicole Bahbout. "She not only understands the Smythson ethos of quality and detail - I think she embodies it. She understands the value of a product built to last a lifetime. The image of her sitting in the front row writing in a sea of screens just about sums it up."
She'll only ever take on arrangements which instinctively feel correct to her, and this English stationery company, founded in 1887, is a proper fit. First, because she's a long-time user of its diaries and notebooks and, second, because she feels it's a gesture that sticks up for something she still recognises about the England she left in the Eighties.
"I'm very picky about what I agree to do. I think Smythson has a really beautiful product and the workmanship is something I really admire. I would not put my name to something that was not of a certain calibre. The more classic they stay, the more I like it. I love notebooks. I take a pleasure in writing or drawing in something that is beautiful."
Watching Coddington drawing shows is a mesmerising sight. She has the ability to note the silhouette of every single outfit in a 50-look show, her pen moving across paper while her eyes barely seem to leave the catwalk. It has made her fashion's greatest poker player - when competitors and designers alike would kill to know what she thinks, there's never a flicker of an expression to give away her verdict.
"I just love writing on paper, which is why I'm one of the last people sitting there doing dumb drawings at shows. It's so weird with people using their phones all the time," she shrugs.
"You're barely even looking. If I just took pictures, I wouldn't have any memory of the show. There's something about forcing myself to make a line which is almost like engraving it in my brain. It really helps. I look at that page, I remember the moment and I remember the dress."
Coddington has a country house in upstate New York at Wainscott in Long Island, a cosy English-country looking home she shares with Didier Malige, her French hairdresser partner of 30 years (she was formerly married to the restaurateur Michael Chow and the photographer Willie Christie), and their two Persian cats, Pumpkin and Blanket.
In New York, her base also sounds a bit like the old country. "I have my own office in London Terrace in Chelsea, a block from my house."
And that's where she's heading now, off over the Atlantic for post-show planning meetings with Wintour in the Vogue office. The way America is going isn't exactly great, but she has eternal faith that fashion - which has been all talk about optimism for next spring - will play its traditional role and step in to distract readers from their worries.
"I have to keep my head in a bubble and find something romantic," she says. "I think I can work with the Fifties idea which is out there. I always like the Fifties. I can always find something romantic in that. I love girls, I love photographers. Nothing's changed."