It's a busy day on the 12th floor of the Conde Nast building in Times Square in New York City, where Vogue creative director Grace Coddington is preparing a four-day fashion shoot in Paris. But Coddington seems unruffled. After all, she's been at this for three decades: 15 years as the creative director of Vogue, and 19 before that at its British counterpart.
At 62, 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."
Spotting trends before they're trendy and molding them into a consistent vision account for only a small fraction of Coddington's success. The rest is due to persistence. Legendary fashion photographer Arthur Elgort, who has traveled across the globe with Coddington, says they get together before every shoot to scout out locations. "There are a lot of hit-and-run editors, but Grace follows an idea from its conception to it actually going to print. The job isn't over until she has seen all the pictures and has annoyed the art department," he says. When she presents an idea to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, she fights for it. "[Anna and I] trust each other," Coddington says. "We argue like crazy, but I think she respects me, and I certainly respect her."
Their biggest point of contention is putting celebrities on the pages of the magazine. "There are no models on covers anymore. They're all actors because they're what sells," says Coddington. "An actor often dictates what you're going to get. I find that annoying. And I'm incredibly shy, so they scare the pants off me. But I feel perfectly comfortable with the models. They're like my kids."
Coddington herself was a model in 1960s London. She was raised in Anglesey, a remote Welsh island, where her parents ran a hotel. At 18, she left home for London, where she won a Vogue model contest. After a few years of modeling, she began working for British Vogue, where she introduced her narrative spreads, more color and a broader sense of style.
Coddington's favorite projects are the 20-page layouts. The recent Paris shoot for this December's Vogue is themed Alice in Wonderland and features 10 designers, each cast as a character. Just picture it: Karl Lagerfeld as the March Hare. --By Nadia Mustafa