In every field, there are people whose behind-the-scenes work ripples out; whose vision helps define the way we live, work or play. In fashion, Grace Coddington is one of those people.
Many people first heard of Coddington through The September Issue, the 2009 documentary about American Vogue. She's been a top editor there for nearly 30 years, directing the photo spreads that appear in the magazine. She helps choose the clothes, setting and models, and she works with the photographer to figure out how to capture it all.
Now her work is captured in hardcover. Grace: The American Vogue Years is a massive coffee table book filled with photographs. The cover is a vivid red — not far from the copper hair color that has always been Coddington's visual signature.
When NPR visited Coddington, she was in her element, watching one of the most important fashion shows at New York Fashion Week. The fashion house is called Rodarte, and people fight to get tickets to a show like this. Coddington sits in the front row, at the center of the action.
As models drift down the floor, people snap photos and scribble notes. Coddington also has a notebook, but she isn't writing in it — she's sketching each dress that comes down the catwalk. "I'm no good with words," she says, "so I kind of draw almost everything. ... It just sort of takes me back to that moment when I saw the dress and what my reaction was."
Back in her personal office in Midtown Manhattan, Coddington pulls out some of her sketch books. They're filled with simple silhouettes that are purely meant to jog her memory. The walls are scattered with photographs — Coddington as a young British model, more recent shoots that she's overseen for Vogue — and a nearby bookshelf holds every issue of the magazine going back three decades.
Fashion people sometimes have a reputation for being severe, but not Coddington. She's 75 and sunny — happy to laugh at herself. For example, when she finally joined Instagram after years of nagging from her colleagues, her first image — a sketched, nude self-portrait — was censored by the app. "It got taken down," she says. "And you know what? It's the best thing that could've ever happened, because everybody was in an uproar. And eventually it mysteriously came back. ... And then my next Instagram was of — I did my cats."
One longtime Vogue editor suggested to NPR that people get their aesthetic sensibility around age 13, when adulthood is visible but still out of reach. What was Coddington like at 13? "That's kind of a hard time in my life," she says. "I lost my father when I was 11, and I think that was hard for me. I had an older sister and she was very dramatic about it, and you know I just hung in the shadows and didn't say anything. And I think I didn't say anything for several years."
The family owned a seaside hotel in remote Northern Wales. During the winter, seas were rough and nobody visited. "Every time you licked your lips you could taste the saltwater," Coddington remembers. "And during the mornings ... I would go off and walk on the rocks and just sit and dream. Dream of being grown up, I think. ... I remember seeing a story on Audrey Hepburn of how she had her own little flat. It seemed to be very small considering what a big star she was, but I thought: God, if I could just have that flat with like one room and one bedroom that would be a dream."
You can find traces of Coddington's childhood in her photo spreads, which sometimes feature a redhead in the English countryside. She says those echoes aren't intentional. "It's something you recognize and you like it, but I don't think I set out to make it a replica of my youth."
Of course, she's also done photo spreads that capture suburban American angst, or fairy tale fantasy. One photo shows Kim Kardashian with her husband, Kanye West, and their baby. Kardashian is taking a selfie with a phone while Kanye takes an iPad picture of the mother and child. Coddington says the photo captures "that kind of obsessive thing ... of everybody photographing everybody photographing everybody."
But that theme of the dreamy, young redhead in the countryside keeps coming back. At a fashion week party on Madison Avenue, NPR asked some guests to describe Coddington's style. Their answers summon that teenage girl on a rocky shoreline:
"She takes you into a dream; she tells you a story," says creative director Fabien Baron.
"Things ... look as though they're paintings; they look as though they're movies. And that's what she's produced," says Vogue journalist Suzy Menkes.
The fashion world has changed a lot since Coddington started modeling in the 1960s. With blogs, Instagram and Pinterest boards, everyone can be a fashion editor. Thirty years from now, there is unlikely to be someone with the concentrated influence that Coddington has had. Does seeing so much of her work in one hardcover give her any insight into her career?
"I look at it and I feel — I mean, it sounds terrible — I feel kind of satisfied," Coddington says. "I feel that if I die tomorrow, it's OK. I've done something in the field of fashion editing."