Grace Coddington's 'Vogue' Photo Spreads Take You 'Into A Dream'

Sep 27, 2016

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."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In every field there are certain people whose work behind the scenes ripples out across miles and over years, whose vision helps define the way we live, work or play. In fashion, one of those people is Grace Coddington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE")

GRACE CODDINGTON: I never dreamt to be a model or never, never dreamt to be a fashion editor, but I just love the pages and the pictures.

SHAPIRO: Outside of the fashion world, many people first met Grace Coddington in this 2009 documentary "The September Issue." It's about American Vogue, the magazine where she's been a top editor for 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE")

CODDINGTON: I think I got left behind somewhere 'cause I'm, you know, still a romantic.

SHAPIRO: As an editor at American Vogue, Grace Coddington directs the photo spreads that appear in the magazine. She helps choose the clothes, the setting, the models and works with the photographer to figure out how that should all be captured in an image.

Now her work is captured in hardcover, a massive coffee table book filled with photographs called "Grace: The American Vogue Years." The cover is a vivid red not far from the copper hair color that's always been Coddington's visual signature.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: We wanted to know what makes Grace Coddington so influential. What makes her vision distinctive? So we went to New York to see her in her element, a fashion show during one of the most important weeks for the industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Every day of Fashion Week is full of shows like this one, but some are more important than others. And this is one of the most important ones. It's the fashion house called Rodarte founded by two sisters. People fight to get tickets to a show like this, and the woman sitting in the front row center of all the action is Grace Coddington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: While models drift across the floor, people snap photos and scribble notes. Coddington has a notebook, but she's not writing words. She's sketching each dress that comes down the catwalk.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CODDINGTON: I'm no good with words, so I kind of draw almost everything.

SHAPIRO: What does that do for you?

CODDINGTON: It just sort of takes me back to that moment when I saw the dress and what my reaction is.

SHAPIRO: We're now sitting in Grace Coddington's personal office in Midtown Manhattan. She pulls out some of the sketchbooks to show us her drawings - simple silhouettes purely meant to jog her memory.

CODDINGTON: It doesn't mean anything to you. My drawings are better than this.

SHAPIRO: On the walls around us are photographs - Coddington as a young British model, more recent shoots that she has overseen for Vogue and, on a bookshelf, every issue of the magazine going back 30 years. Fashion people sometimes have a reputation for being severe - not Grace Coddington.

She is 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 was a simple sketch - a nude self-portrait.

CODDINGTON: I didn't know there were rules.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Your first Instagram post got censored. Is that what you're trying to tell us?

CODDINGTON: It got taken down.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CODDINGTON: And it's - do you know what? It's the best thing that could have ever happened because everybody was in an uproar, you know? And eventually, you know, it mysteriously came back.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Things got much more tame from there.

CODDINGTON: And then my next Instagram was of - I did my cats.

SHAPIRO: One longtime Vogue editor suggested to us that people get their aesthetic sensibility around age 13 when adulthood is visible but still out of reach. So I asked Coddington who she was at 13, and as she answers, the sun seems to slip behind a cloud.

CODDINGTON: That's kind of hard time in my life. I lost my father when I was 11, and I think that was - it 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. I think I didn't say anything for several years.

SHAPIRO: The family owned a seaside hotel in remote northern Wales. During the winter, seas were rough. Nobody would visit.

CODDINGTON: You know, every time you licked your lips, you could taste the salt water. And during the mornings and things, I would go off and walk on the rocks and just sit and dream, dream of being grown up I think.

SHAPIRO: Would did being grown up mean to you at that point?

CODDINGTON: I remember seeing a story on Audrey Hepburn of how she had her own little flat - 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.

SHAPIRO: I wondered if we could find that childhood captured in this new book of photographs.

So I've just opened two a page at random, and I would say - describe what we're looking at here.

CODDINGTON: Well, maybe what you have to do is, you - ok, I've told you the story now. What does that say to you?

SHAPIRO: Well, so I now see a photograph of a young, perhaps...

CODDINGTON: Redhead.

SHAPIRO: ...Not coincidentally redhead...

CODDINGTON: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...Flanked by two handsome men...

CODDINGTON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...In a country that...

CODDINGTON: Yes, I think that (unintelligible)...

SHAPIRO: ...Could very easily be English.

CODDINGTON: Yes, yeah.

SHAPIRO: So all these years later when you're doing a photo shoot for Vogue and there are these echoes of your youth, is this conscious, or is this...

CODDINGTON: It's unconscious I think. I mean I guess you say stop there because it's something you recognize and you like it, you know? But I don't think I set out to make it a replica of my youth.

SHAPIRO: Of course she's also done photo shoots that capture suburban American angst or fairytale fantasy. One photo has Kim Kardashian with her husband Kanye West and their baby. Kim is taking a selfie with the phone while Kanye takes a picture on the iPad of the mother and child taking a selfie.

CODDINGTON: That kind of obsessive thing that is, you know, with everybody here, not just them I mean, you know, but everyone in today's world of everybody photographing everybody photographing everybody (laughter).

SHAPIRO: But that theme of the dreamy, young redhead in the countryside keeps coming back even in an ultra-urban place like this. Grace Coddington is signing books at the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue in the middle of Manhattan.

It's a fashion Week party. Tall, thin people in expensive, black dresses and designer sneakers drink champagne. When I ask these people about Grace Coddington's style, their answers keep summoning that teenage girl on a rocky shoreline.

FABIEN BARON: She takes you into a dream. She tells you a story.

TAVI GEVINSON: The message of a beautiful, dreamy woman.

STELLA GREENSPAN: There's a storytelling element.

SUZY MENKES: And things that look as though they're paintings. They look as though they're movies. And that's what she's produced.

SHAPIRO: That's journalist Suzy Menkes, stylist Stella Greenspan, actress Tavi Gevinson and creative director Fabien Baron.

The fashion world has changed a lot since Grace 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 Grace Coddington has had. Looking through the pages of this book, I asked her whether seeing it all in one place gives her any insight into her career.

CODDINGTON: I mean I feel - I look at it, and I feel - I mean it just sounds terrible. I feel kind of satisfied. I feel that if I die tomorrow, it's OK. I've done something, you know, in the field of fashion editing.

SHAPIRO: That's Vogue creative director at large Grace Coddington. The new book is "Grace: The American Vogue Years." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.