White walled, silent, with its quiet only broken by the crack of heels on floor, the US Vogue office feels like a building with PMT.
A building just about to cry. Through a pair of heavy glass doors, down a narrow corridor, in an office that looks out over the migrainous lights of Times Square sits the world's second most influential person in fashion, Grace Coddington. She is having a bad day.
"If [Anna] Wintour is the Pope," wrote Time Magazine, gushingly, "Coddington is Michelangelo, trying to paint a fresh version of the Sistine Chapel 12 times a year." They started on the same morning in 1988; Wintour as editor, Coddington as creative director. Karl Lagerfeld called her a genius. Wintour agrees. As the stylist responsible for Vogue's visual identity, instead of simply reflecting beauty, she creates it.
Her work with the world's greatest photographers (including Helmut Newton, Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz and Snowdon) long ago set the bar for the modern fashion story, but it was with RJ Cutler's 2009 documentary The September Issue that the wider world first saw her face. The film's framing of the power play between Wintour and Coddington transformed her into a fashion hero because, first, she appears to fight so hard against trends and commercialism in her pursuit of beauty. And secondly because she's the only person who answers back to Anna.
She beckons me in with one unadorned hand. With the other she grips her desk phone. Apologising, she tells me this is the worst day to see her. The very worst. The room is rose-scented and busy with photos – a huge black-and-white portrait of a freckled model stares down from the far wall and delicate cat ornaments litter the shelves. She's on hold to a hospital where Didier Malige, her boyfriend of 30 years, is threatening to walk out of A&E. While she waits for him to come on the line, she calls his doctor on the other phone, asking him to make sure Malige doesn't leave before being seen.
Coddington is project managing her partner's illness with the calm composure of someone used to wrestling alligators. When her attention does land on me, sitting below her on a small sofa, I feel it as something physical. At 71, Grace Coddington looks raw and striking, a cloud of nectarine hair against paper-white skin, and one sleepy eye, the result of an accident in her early 20s. In person she is reminiscent of her most famous work – ambitious and sprawling, with moments of odd beauty and the ability to scare.
I didn't quite know what to expect, going to interview Grace Coddington. Some people describe her as ferociously intimidating, others as gentle, maternal, "nice". All agree she is incredibly intelligent. All say she is a force. So I settle, stiff-backed, on her sofa, and wait for the doctor to give in.
"She's a storyteller," explains US Vogue's contributing editor Sarah Mower. "And I've concluded in looking through years of her work that the story is about Grace. She really cares what the clothes look like, but far more important to her is 'feeling the girl' in the picture, her character, her escapades, her sense of humour. Often Grace transcends fashion, quite literally – she has designers make special dresses to costume her fantasy shoots, rather than simply documenting the collections du jour."
"I'm not an artist," Coddington says, twice. She's handed the phone to her assistant. "I'm a creative person, but I'm one of a team of people that helps the photographer. There's that difference between art and fashion photography. Sometimes that line blurs, but I think you always have to have in your head that the most important thing is the dress."
Grazia's Susannah Frankel says: "Her aesthetic is recognisably British. It's very romantic for sure, indebted to [Cecil] Beaton and the idea of class, heritage and history."
After decades in America, does Coddington still think of herself as British? "I am British," she says firmly. "I'm told of my British sensibility sometimes. That whole romanticism thing. But I don't think you can compartmentalise things any more. I think everything is global now. Before affordable flights – before it became so easy to be anywhere you like tomorrow – things like that mattered more."
Coddington was born in Anglesey, Wales in 1941. "Although it was bleak," she recalls, "there was beauty in its bleakness." She grew up in her parents' long low hotel by the sea. They had a family crest, a dragon breathing flames, and a motto: "Never Despair".
In her new book, Grace: a Memoir (for which she was paid a reported $1.2m), she writes about her childhood as if she's setting up a ghost story – the mists on the shoreline, the monochrome trees, her mother's growing clutter, Grace's continuing fear of the dark and anxiety in crowds – but with a move to modelling school in London, her tone lightens. Her life speeds up.
In 1959 she won the Young Idea category of a Vogue modelling contest, despite the notorious agent Eileen Ford telling her she was too fat. For her, the 60s swung. "She was a huge celebrity in that world, an incredible beauty," said Wintour. "I was in awe of her."
She hung around with Vidal Sassoon and David Bailey, and one boyfriend called James Gilbert who would fly her to France for lunch, "shouting: 'This is rather fun,' while I sat there staring at my terrified face, distorted by gravity, reflected back at me from the speedometer". Driving through London one rainy evening he went through a red light and rammed their car into a van. Her left eyelid was sliced off. "Luckily," she writes, "they found my eyelashes."
She says firmly, and holding my gaze: "But I was never considered beautiful anyway. I was a character. Not a beautiful blonde with blue eyes. Beauty is not about perfection. I prefer imperfections – it's much more interesting." She pauses. "Perfect is boring."
After five operations she started modelling again, albeit in sunglasses, commuting between Paris and London in Lycra and PVC, nightclubbing with the Beatles and Stones. "After one wild night," she writes, "I remember accepting a lift from Roman Polanski. He stopped short at his house and tried dragging me inside. I escaped, but had to walk the rest of the way back to my place."
Her anecdotes are often tinged with a jolly kind of death, but occasionally she is frank. Driving home one afternoon, a crowd of Chelsea fans overturned her Mini. She was in her late 20s and seven months pregnant by her then-fiancé Albert Koski. She miscarried. "This turned out to be the only time in my life that I was able to conceive," she writes.
The next story she tells is about discovering her fiancé was having an affair with Catherine Deneuve's sister. "Her car burst into flames on the way to Nice airport… I was in bed with Albert the morning the call came through telling him she had died. So he didn't just lose her at that moment. He lost me, too."
There's a scene in The September Issue when Coddington offers advice to a colleague who has just come, cold and quivering, from Wintour's office. "Don't be too nice," she tells him, "because you'll lose. You have to beat your way through."
Coddington's most effective weapon seems to be silence. One of the most memorable scenes in the documentary comes when Coddington and Wintour share a long, uncomfortable lift ride together on the way to visit Jean Paul Gaultier. Angry, neither says a word. Her reaction to Wintour's announcement that they were to be filmed was famously one of horror. "My feeling has always been that people should concentrate on their jobs," she explains, "and not all this fashionable 'I want to be a celebrity' shit."
But the more time that passed, and the longer she refused to work with him, the more director RJ Cutler (whose previous work includes The War Room, which follows Bill Clinton's presidential campaign) realised how much he needed her. "Observing the dynamic between Anna and Grace, it was evident that their relationship, their interaction, was seminal," he tells me.
After six months avoiding her, he eventually gained Coddington's trust, "And it was the most extraordinary a collaboration I've ever had."
He describes watching her as she watches a catwalk, sketching furiously as the clothes stalk past. Her eye, she says, was trained by Norman Parkinson, who told her never to fall asleep in the car because she'd miss potentially inspiring views from the window. "She is totally in the moment," Cutler enthuses. "Something is happening. She sees things in a way others don't."
Since the film's release Coddington has, inadvertently, become one of the celebrities she so despises. At screenings, roomfuls of people fawn over her. "I grew to quite like that," she admits. The subject of "niceness", of being liked, is one that comes up often when discussing Coddington. She is seen as the sweet to Wintour's sour. An island of calm in a choppy sea. Is it important to her that people like her? "Yes," she says, leaning back in her seat, looking at her hands. She's embarrassed to say this out loud. "Yes. I get quite upset if I think someone doesn't, even if it's the milkman. Of course I want people to like me – I'm human."
Does that mean that Wintour, who famously doesn't have time to bother with niceties is… less than human? "I wouldn't go so far as to say Anna Wintour doesn't give a shit if people like her," she says sternly, looking me in the eye now. "But she doesn't let it influence her decisions."
Does the desire to be liked influence Coddington's decisions? "Would my work be stronger if I didn't care about being liked?" She thinks about it for a long second, and hmms. "Possibly. I still have ways of getting what I want, though. Ask Anna." There's a cartoon-baddie-ness to her laugh. So what's the secret to softening Anna? A song? A little cuddle? "I bore her to death. I don't cuddle her, no. She wouldn't respond to that. You have to present to her in a strong way – eventually if it's right you'll convince her."
The Anna and Grace story is a compelling one – the stone-hearted executive battling the romantic artist, a couture catfight over the colour black. While Wintour is painted as a terrifying ice queen, allegedly rising at 5am for a blow-dry and game of tennis before work, Coddington never wears make-up, is friends with her assistants and has been heard to laugh, loudly. Is it true? Is she the anti-Anna? Coddington scoffs. "That depiction is a bit stupid. I'm not the 'anti-Anna'. The smarter people can see it's not a question of fighting. It's how we work together. She can't just say yes to everything. I certainly don't. I just have a different way of saying no."
I understand that scoff. The anti-Anna story promotes competitive individualism rather than collaborative success, and reinforces the idea that professional women thrive on manipulation and bitchiness. But talking to her, it seems that rather than smack up against each other, the two are successful because their differences are complementary.
Coddington stresses the importance of collaboration in her work. "Hierarchy is absolutely unimportant to me. Everyone is equal, from Anna, to me, to my assistant Stella." Stella, who shares her office, grins at her sunnily. Coddington is loath to take credit for her work, even the most groundbreaking stories, like the 1987 trip to Russia – the first time a magazine was allowed to shoot there – where she re-imagined Jerry Hall as a Soviet monument.
"When I first started as a fashion editor at British Vogue I got into my own pictures sometimes for budget reasons, or just because... like one time with Helmut Newton, when I was walking around in a bikini during our shoot in the south of France, and I guess, graphically, it made sense." She looks out the window, uptown, as she remembers. "Me with my red hair in a bikini among all these really bad clothes, evening dresses, you know. That made the picture. You know you're helping to make a great picture when you're working with someone of his calibre, so it's very exciting."
She has nothing but respect for photographers, including Newton, who, she says, often made models cry. Newton hassled her for 20 years to pose nude for him, but she refused. Eventually, meanly, he hissed at her that she had missed her chance – she had got too old.
Coddington herself is famously gentle with the models she works with, having stood in their too-tight shoes herself. But how deep does that duty of care go? Does she think her contribution to fashion has been political? "Political? No. It's been long."
Has her experience of modelling affected who she casts – is she more aware of the health of the girls than the average editor? She bristles slightly. "I'm not here to teach people anything. I photograph what I think is right, and if a girl is anorexic I'm not going to feel right about it, so I wouldn't book her. But I wouldn't book one that is too fat either."
Wintour is frequently attacked by Peta for her love of fur. Where does Coddington stand on the issue? "I'm not happy photographing fur because I love my cats, and I cannot really separate animals and say: 'It's OK to kill those but not these.' I don't conscientiously object to fur, but if I can get around it I will. I don't seek it out." She is tiring of these questions, but I have one more.
I wonder how she feels about the industry's preference for white skin. She sighs a sigh that is 10 miles deep. "There are black girls I find very beautiful and there are black girls I don't find very beautiful; same with white girls, some of whom I find hideous. It's not about colour for me; it's about beauty. And fun, and character."
She's talking very fast, and then she slows down. "There are people who are very guilty of working with girls who are too thin, just because the camera always makes people look that little bit fatter than real life. Some 16-year-olds go too far – they can't see what's right in front of their eyes, and it's dangerous. But some young girls have no shape whatsoever – they're like little boys, and I hate to say it, but the clothes hang well on them."
I'm disappointed she doesn't want to engage – as the whistle in Wintour's ear, if she were to insist on a more diverse spectrum of beauty in the magazine, then perhaps, slowly, some women's body-image issues would begin to melt. But Coddington has a very specific idea of what is beautiful, and seeing her work with models such as the British redhead Karen Elson, and remembering her stepping into Newton's picture, it's a beauty that could be seen as somewhat narcissistic.
"I've always thought it's no accident that so many of Grace's favourite models have been redheads," says Sarah Mower. "Maggie Rizer, Lily Cole and Karen Elson – especially Karen – are girls she loves photographing. Maybe it is putting herself in the picture. Because I think Grace has the essential quality that will keep a woman caring about fashion all her life – inside she's never been any older than about 25."
Discussing the politics of fashion she is unapologetic, dismissive, and for the first time I see the formidable aggressor RJ Cutler first met. So, an eternal coward, I talk about cats.
Grace Coddington loves cats. She has illustrated a book about them, published by Karl Lagerfeld; she has designed an accessories collection for Balenciaga decorated with scratchy portraits of them, and she dedicates a chapter of her memoirs to them. Cutler is in talks with her about directing an animated film about them. Cats. She dreams about them.
"I love cats," she says. "I love their vulnerability and I love the way they look. They're very independent, which I like." A love of cats is traditionally seen as an arrow towards loneliness, inversion, and an inability to maintain relationships with people. But with Coddington, it's accepted as being a part of her thirst for untameable beauty. Until, um, she discusses her cat psychic. When I came to this chapter in her memoir, I thought: "Ah." The same sort of "Ah" that you release when a first date leads you into their Victorian doll room.
"I was told to take the cat psychic stuff out of the book because everybody would think I was a kook," she chuckles. "But it's just that sometimes when the thing you love is ill, you reach out for a little more knowledge of what's going on."
I ask whether she would like to be a cat psychic. The look she gives me is withering. "No," she says in a voice that suggests she is not angry with me, but instead disappointed.
After a pause she admits that she does dream of retirement. "I talk about it every day," she says, and I think she means it. What will fashion look like when she leaves? If she leaves. Suddenly she's talking about her dreams for future shoots, unexplored locations – "The moon, maybe? Could we do Virgin Galactic?"
I hear an assistant in the corridor whisper a litany of apologies as she stumbles against another editor's clothes rail. Coddington's office, a haven of pink roses lit by a red cat lamp, seems to exist at a slightly different altitude, where there's more oxygen than in the rest of the building.
"The fact that someone who seems so normal, for want of a better word, so dry, funny and nurturing has a head filled with such extraordinary imagery is pretty amazing," says Susannah Frankel. Despite the cats, she is a rare point of sanity in a sometimes-mad world.
"There are a lot of crazies in this industry," Coddington admits, "but there are sane people, too – you just have to weed them out." Perhaps it's more accurate then, to credit at least a part of her success to being simply likeable. A beacon of kindness in a world that makes people cry.
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