Interview: Grace Coddington, Author Of 'Grace: A Memoir' In a new memoir, Grace Coddington explains how she grew up on a remote island off the coast of Wales, started modeling as a young woman and ended up as creative director at Vogue magazine. Coddington speaks with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about her life in the fashion industry.
NPR logo

A Model Career: 'Grace' Goes From Runway To 'Vogue'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Model Career: 'Grace' Goes From Runway To 'Vogue'

A Model Career: 'Grace' Goes From Runway To 'Vogue'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As the creative director of Vogue magazine, my guest Grace Coddington is one of the most influential editors in the fashion world. Many people outside of the fashion industry know her from the 2009 documentary, "The September Issue," a behind-the-scenes look at publishing the largest, most influential Vogue edition of the year.

Although Coddington says she didn't even want to be in the film, she emerged as its star. Now she has a new memoir called "Grace." Coddington is Welsh and began her career in fashion as a model. In the early '60s, when London was becoming the center of the emerging youth fashion world, Coddington was a house model for hair stylist Vidal Sassoon and modeled clothes designed by trendsetter Mary Quant.

In 1961, a car accident smashed Coddington's face, interrupting her career for two years. She returned to modeling after several reconstructive surgeries. In 1968, she moved to British Vogue as a junior fashion editor. In 1988, when Anna Wintour became editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Coddington became her fashion editor. They've worked together at Vogue ever since.

Grace Coddington, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by talking about your earlier life, and then we'll get up to Vogue magazine. Your family ran a hotel, and that's where you grew up. You describe it as a 42-room getaway spot of quiet charm for holiday makers who like to sail, go fishing or take long, bracing cliff-top walks rather than roast themselves on a sunny beach. I have to say that hotel doesn't sound like fashion central.


GRACE CODDINGTON: Oh, it absolutely wasn't, and - but it was utterly, utterly charming, and, you know, I feel very privileged to have had that childhood. I don't know how I would have fared if I'd grown up in a big city, but, you know, up until the time of - when I was, I think, 18, I never - I barely saw anyone except in the summer. It was very deserted for the rest of the year, and I loved it that way.

I really, I mean I liked - I didn't mind being alone at all.

GROSS: And I neglected to mention this little hotel was on an island off the coast of Wales. So you were pretty isolated.

CODDINGTON: It's on an island off an island, even, so it's very, very remote, yeah.

GROSS: So when you were young, growing up on this island off the island and living, you know, adjoining the hotel, you read Vogue magazine. British Vogue, American Vogue?

CODDINGTON: Oh, only British. American Vogue definitely didn't get that far, and even British Vogue barely got that far, and it was always out of date by the time I got it. But it didn't really matter because, you know, not being that fashion conscious at that moment, I guess I didn't notice it was out of date. I just - I just enjoyed, you know, looking at the pictures and dreaming.

GROSS: So what kind of picture did you especially enjoy, and how does what you do now connect to what you loved then about British Vogue?

CODDINGTON: I think...

GROSS: Or I should say about looking at pictures wearing fantastic clothes.


CODDINGTON: I wasn't just looking at the fantastic clothes, and I still don't just look at fantastic clothes, and when I approach my work, it's not just to do with the clothes. It's - you know, the pictures that were really grabbing me in those days were the ones shot on location because they kind of made you dream a lot.

And there was a photographer that I guess his work really grabbed me, and that was Norman Parkinson, who much later on I got to meet and work with, both as a model and as an editor. And he was quite old, and his were the pictures that to me really stood out in that magazine, and he did a lot of trips.

And later on, when I was in that position, I was the one that went on all the trips. So it was the beginning of my life and career, although I didn't know it at the time, of course.

GROSS: Are the kind of fashion shoots that you do and the kind of location fashion shoots that inspired you almost like little movies to you?

CODDINGTON: In my head yes, yes they are. I mean, even in the studio I kind of weave a little idea about what I'm trying to put across to the reader. And, you know, I cast the girl as a character, even if it's a, you know, straight-on fashion picture in the studio on a gray background. So, yes.

GROSS: So when you were 18, you left your island off the island and went to London with the hopes of becoming a model. You went to modeling school. What did you learn in modeling school?

CODDINGTON: Well, I hate to say it, but not a whole lot. I mean, I did - I learned how to do my makeup, and I learned how to do my own hair, because in those days, in - models had to know how to do everything themselves. You know, there wasn't - there weren't these huge teams of people that look after one - or look after a model these days and basically do it for her. So you had to be prepared.

And I also learned how to walk the runway, but it was in that very old-fashioned, stylized way where you walk up and down, and you kind of slope backwards, slink along the runway, and you carefully take your coat off while you're doing a twirl, and you kind of smile at everybody in the audience. I mean, it's a very formal way of modeling runway that doesn't exist anymore now.

And everybody these days just walks in a dead straight line and keeps looking ahead, but in those days it was - it was the '50s, you know, it was the late '50s, so that's what I learned there. Oh, I learned to curtsy, as well, actually.

GROSS: So you started modeling in the late '50s, but you became an important model in the '60s, when fashion was really changing, and London became a center of the new fashion. What were the first fashions that you felt were really about you and your generation?

CODDINGTON: I think it was Mary Quant, you know, she - I really felt I identified with her and her whole approach to the youth quake, if you like. Her designs were so modern, and, I mean, they're kind of modern even now, and people are copying them now.

GROSS: Describe them.

CODDINGTON: We kind of - I don't know. I guess you - she's attributed with inventing the miniskirt. I don't know if she invented it, but somehow she did these clothes that were very, very short, and they were very simple and comfortable to wear, which clothes of the '50s had not been. You know, up until that time, everything was kind of with a very cinched-in waist, probably a big, huge kind of ballerina-length skirt or very, very slim skirt that you could barely walk in.

And, you know, you had a little high bust, and then she came along, and everybody ripped off their bras and took off their wait cinches and their girdles and things, and, you know, there was a freedom. And also, the look was just young. It was really young, and no one up until that point had designed clothes for younger women, you know, girls.

GROSS: So when you were a model, there were styles that you helped popularize and create. I mean, you were one of the first or the first to have the Sassoon five-point hairdo, the very geometric short hairdo. The first?

CODDINGTON: Yes, he actually created it on me. I don't know if I'm the most famous person to have it, Mary Quant had it also, and famously the model here in America, Peggy Moffitt, and I think still has it, and she's probably my age. But it was actually created on me because I worked a lot with Vidal.

And the one thing I do have that's good is my hair, I must say. If I didn't have my hair, I don't know what I'd do. So - and hairdressers like good hair. So he liked mine. It was perfect for that cut.

GROSS: And you also created that look under the eyes of lashes in thick clumps that are separated, and you say - go ahead.

CODDINGTON: Actually it's more about painting little lines under my eyes that look like lashes rather than actual false clumps of lashes stuck on. That's more a Marisa Berenson thing.

GROSS: Aha, OK, and was that related to your car accident messing up your eyelid or maybe not doing that was stopping you, the car accident?

CODDINGTON: No, I think what's related to my car accident is by necessity I had to apply more makeup around my eyes because, you know, I had this - I have this patch on my eye, and it's a slightly different color. So in order to hide it, camouflage it if you like, you had to put quite a lot of makeup on. So it kind of grew out of necessity, so I put on this thick, black, smudgy stuff, yes.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Grace Coddington. She's the creative director of Vogue magazine, and you may have seen her in the documentary "The September Issue" about putting out the September issue of Vogue. And now she has a new memoir, which is called "Grace." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Grace Coddington. She's the creative director of Vogue magazine. You may have seen her in the documentary "The September Issue" about putting out the September issue of Vogue. Now she has a new memoir that's called "Grace," and it's about her life as a model and as a fashion director and the creative director at Vogue.

In your memoir you describe a car accident that you were in when you were young. Your boyfriend - you were in the car with your boyfriend, he went through a red light, and you smashed your face. Your eyelid was sliced off. Did you go through the windshield?

CODDINGTON: I didn't actually go through the windshield, but I think the windshield went through me. I think I was unconscious. But when I woke up, I was lying on the sidewalk in the arms of a policeman, and I always wish I could find that guy again to thank him because he was uttering me, sort of, calming words of don't worry, it's not as bad as it looks and things like that.

And I was pouring with blood all over him, and the driving mirror was actually protruding out of my head. So - but I didn't fly - I mean, I flew, I think I flew out of the car but probably through the door.

GROSS: What was protruding out of your head?

CODDINGTON: The driving mirror.

GROSS: Oh my God.

CODDINGTON: The mirror on the - yeah.


CODDINGTON: It kind of broke off. My head broke it off. I've got a very hard head.

GROSS: So you had five plastic surgeries in the next two years. How did that affect your ability to model? You must have been...

CODDINGTON: Well totally, obviously I couldn't model for that time.

GROSS: And you never knew if your face would get better at that time. I mean, you must have been heartbroken.

CODDINGTON: Oh, you know, I just assumed it would. I'm, kind of, a positive person, so I just assumed it would, and I just went about my business and helped people around studios meanwhile, you know, biding my time until it was OK. But it was a bit of arduous process because every time I had an operation, they had to wait and see until it settled down and it was totally healed, to see whether it was healed correctly and that, you know, I could just go on from there.

And a couple of times, it didn't heal correctly, and I had to go back and start again, and they did skin grafting and things, which I must say is quite painful, not so much where they sew the skin, but where they take it from. So - and then they have to wait and make sure it's taken, you know. So it's a long process.

GROSS: How did that ordeal affect your idea of your face, of the importance of the face and of what facial beauty is?

CODDINGTON: I don't know. It didn't really affect me. I mean, I didn't want to look like a freak, and I realized that, you know, I had a little insight into how it must be for people who have disabilities and things like that because for the two years while it was healing, I walked around with huge, dark sunglasses on so that you couldn't see the patches and stitches and stuff like that.

And a couple of times if I was indoors, you know, at night or something, people would come up to me and say, you know, oh, you're so affected, why are you sitting there wearing dark glasses. This is - you know, take those glasses off for God sake.

And so just to upset them, I would take the glasses off, and then they'd see why I had them on, and then of course they were terribly embarrassed and retreated to the other end of the room.


CODDINGTON: But, you know, it made me realize that, you know, it must be really hard to live with a disability. And that wasn't a big one.

GROSS: You say in your memoir that one of the reasons why you haven't had cosmetic surgery as a woman in her 60s or now early 70s is - relates to the car accident.

CODDINGTON: Well a little bit. I mean, I've had enough surgery on my face. But also, you know, I don't mind to look older. I don't. I don't have this urge that so many people have that they've always got to look young all their lives. You know, I think you should be the age you are and enjoy it. So - and I think there's a lot of people that have plastic surgery who quite honestly looked better before.

So that's just my feeling, but, you know, if you want to have it, go ahead and have it, but take a good look before you do because just maybe you look absolutely beautiful the way you are.

GROSS: Can I just say thank you very much for not having cosmetic surgery because I really think that, like, the more people do it and the more it becomes the norm, the more people see their real faces as being unnatural and that they have to do something unnatural to get what it's supposed to look like by what social norms are becoming.

CODDINGTON: I think it's sad because, you know, people are having plastic surgery so early, so young in life now. It's crazy. It's crazy. And they're blowing up their lips and doing what have you, and, you know, I don't know, maybe I should have - maybe everyone says oh my God, she could do with a nip and a tuck. I don't know, but I don't really care. I'd rather be the way I am.

And it's not entirely because I'm too chicken to go and get it done, although I am, but I'm perfectly comfortable looking 70, like I do, you know, 70-nearly-two.

GROSS: Now how does that relate to who you shoot, like the models that you work with? You don't work with older models, do you?

CODDINGTON: Well, it depends what you call older. I mean, I - we don't work with very young girls at Vogue. We just don't. We don't encourage girls of 14, 13, 14, whatever, to get into the whole modeling field at such an early age because, you know, it can mess with your mind, it really can.

And also it takes time for your character to develop. So it's unlikely - I mean, there's a few exceptions, you know, people like Twiggy and those - they started modeling very, very young, but they were exceptions. So generally, people's characters don't start forming until they're 18, 19, 20 or even later.

And I think, you know, they are just much more interesting when they're older. I mean, actually we've been going back and using, over and over again, the same girls that we've been working with for 10, 12 or more years. I worked with a beautiful girl the other day, Carolyn Murphy, and I know she just had her 40th birthday. So - she's never looked better. She's never looked better.

And I was really happy to work with her, and she's just started working fulltime again. I think she had a little downtime in between, but she's back living in New York, and she's looking totally gorgeous, and her mind is in a very good place, and she's very calm, and she's a great model. You know, she's just one of them.

So I don't mind the older ones. I mean, I'm not talking about 60-, 70-year-olds obviously, but...

GROSS: What would be wrong with 60-, 70-year-olds, since they get dressed, too, and like nice clothes and like to look good?

CODDINGTON: Well no, I know, and we certainly photograph women of that age, and when we have an age issue at Vogue, I mean, an issue of Vogue, I mean, we don't have an issue with age.


GROSS: Right, no, I get it.

CODDINGTON: And when we do those issues, we do address women of all ages, and it's kind of interesting. It's a little more difficult to photograph slightly older people because, you know, everybody wants to look perfect, and then they want their face retouched if they haven't actually had it cosmetically retouched. Or, you know, maybe they're a little bit larger. I mean, I'm certainly a lot larger.

And also, you know, you need - sometimes you need your fresh new face to inspire you, that's for sure.

GROSS: Grace Coddington will be back in the second half of the show. She's the creative director of Vogue and author of the new memoir "Grace." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Grace Coddington, Vogue's magazine's creative director. She has a new memoir called "Grace." Coddington started her fashion career in the late '50s as a model in London. At Vogue, she's become known for the movie-like scene she creates for fashion shoots. She chooses the clothes, and sometimes has them made expressly for the shoot.

One of the things that I'm really not sure of is who pays who, or does anybody pay anybody? Like, if you're showing the clothes of a designer in Vogue, are they going to pay you for the privilege of getting their clothing in Vogue? Are you paying them for the privilege of renting their clothes for Vogue, or does nobody pay anybody?

CODDINGTON: No. Absolutely not.

GROSS: Yeah.

CODDINGTON: No. That's the whole point of editorial is that, no, nobody pays anybody. That's what makes it editorial, and that's what gives you the freedom to photograph whatever you want. You know, if you were paid, you would be obliged to photograph something that perhaps you didn't think was that good. But the only way you can have freedom is if you are not paid. And in advertising, that's when everybody's paid. But for editorial, no, you, there's no money that passes between designers or manufacturers or whatever, and Vogue or any of the magazines. It just doesn't work like that. No.

GROSS: So all designers want to be in Vogue. So...

CODDINGTON: Hopefully.


GROSS: Yes. So how - what's the process of, not only of deciding, but what's the process that the designers use to try to convince you that their line or that, you know, this dress really belongs in Vogue?

CODDINGTON: It doesn't really work like that. I mean, you know, twice a year, there are big - there's the collections, and there's many small collections in between. But twice a year, there are the very big collections that decide the mood of the season. And you go through all the shows and sit for hours watching all the shows and having discussions afterwards with, in my case, Anna and the other editors, and you decide, you know, what direction you're going to take this season.

GROSS: And a lot of those fashions at the big fashion shows - and I can say this just from looking at them in newspapers, as opposed to actually being at the fashion shows where, which I haven't been to. But it always seems like, at those fashion shows, the clothing that's being showed is clothing that normal, you know, like, ordinary people would absolutely never wear, because the clothes are just so, like, artistically outlandish. Do you know what I mean? Like you wouldn't - like I can't - I can't imagine people actually wearing that, except on the runway.


CODDINGTON: No. I know. I know. But, you know, you have to have a bit of fun in life, and that's why they do it, and they do it, you know, to get your attention. They do the extreme ones. You always, you know, when you go back to their showrooms, you'll find the more commercial versions of that, but it's to get across a point.

I mean, you have to say it in a strong way to get across a point. So if you want to go short, they go very, very, very short on the runway. And - but you'll find in the showroom, it'll be a reasonable short, you know, that you can wear. So there's always the commercial version.

And equally, we photograph both. We photograph the more commercial things, and we photograph the extreme things because - for the same reason. In order to make the point, you have to say it strongly, so people can see the difference between this season and the last season, and, you know, you have to feed them the information. If you're too subtle about it, you're not going to get it, you know.

GROSS: Sometimes the clothes that are featured in Vogue are clothes that are made especially for that edition of Vogue. And I think this is particularly true of some of the shoots that you do that are kind of like fantasy scenes. I mean, it might be like scenes inspired by "Alice in Wonderland," or scenes inspired by Edith Wharton's fiction or scenes of, like, women in diaphanous silk gowns in a beautiful garden holding hands and circling a tree. I mean, just - they're like fantasy scenes. So when you are asking a designer to do something that's just for a scene in Vogue, what's that process like? Who - how do you approach them...

CODDINGTON: Oh, that's the most fun.

GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.

CODDINGTON: I mean, those huge shoots that I do are the most fun, because you can really go to town. You can forget about being commercial. You can use all your creative juices, you know. And it's like - yes, it is like making a movie or a little play. And it also - it connects you with each designer, because when I do that, I call them up and have these long chats about what I'm trying to do, like "Alice in Wonderland," which is one of my favorite things - shoots. And I just decided that they could do whatever they wanted, but the dress had to be blue so that there was a connection, and you always knew that the girl was Alice.

And so I had endless discussions. And they go away, they think about it a bit. They send me drawings. They send me swatches of fabric, and I say that's lovely, but make it shorter or longer or bigger or smaller, or maybe more ruffles or not or what, you know. And it's a sort of work-in-progress, and it goes on right until the minute I'm going to photograph it.

GROSS: I recently interviewed a couple of models who were in that HBO documentary about models who had been supermodels and are now older. And they both complained that so many of the covers of magazines now are celebrities instead of models. And what they thought was that, you know, actors - celebrity actors are great at acting, but they don't really know how to model. They don't really know what to do in a still photograph, and that models are really best that that. And I'd loved to hear your take on that.


CODDINGTON: Well, you shouldn't really get me started on that one. But, I mean, referring to covers, you don't really have to model, I don't think. You just have to be some - have a strong personality that really comes through and basically says buy me. And you have to have a - you have to be interesting to such a wide variety of people. And I guess right now, actresses just do it better. You know, they certainly sell more magazines than models, sadly. I'm very sad about it. I wish it could go back to models, but I don't think it will, just because that's what the people demand. And the general public find that more interesting than a model. And also, there are not so many very strong models that could hold a cover right now - again, I say sadly, but there just aren't.

GROSS: Why would you rather work with models than celebrities?

CODDINGTON: Oh well, they're a whole lot easier, you know.


CODDINGTON: They probably have a better figure, and they don't make so many demands, you know. I mean, there are some actresses that are very, very nice, and there's a few that I work with and I adore. But - and they come with an entourage of people, which does make it difficult, you know. And everybody has an opinion. And, you know, so if you have an idea and you want to take the clothes somewhere and they don't agree with it, they're going to tell you, and that's a bit tough if you want to get across your point.

GROSS: You recently did Lady Gaga. And I'm thinking, like, what do you do with Lady Gaga that's going to attract attention, considering there's nothing more outrageous and attention-getting than what she's already done? So...

CODDINGTON: Well, I think you do less, you know.


CODDINGTON: You probably get more attention if you do less, because you certainly can't do more than she does. I mean, she's extraordinary. She's such a character. And she's a great woman.

GROSS: So describe what you ended up doing, which was - you know, I mean, there's one where she's kind of naked. You don't see anything, but in each of the photos, she has this, like, huge, bizarre hat on her head. Was that her idea? Your idea? I know that's - those headpieces are a part of her trademark. But...

CODDINGTON: Well, I took all these hats. They actually were from a Marc Jacobs show that had just happened, where he had many girls in the show - 45, something like that - and each one had one of these giant hats on. And I just thought they were so wonderful, and it gave her a character. And she doesn't have the easiest of hair, I can say, so I was kind of dreading dealing with her hair. So I thought the hat was the answer to that. So they sort of turned up in all the pictures, or - although, not on the cover.

GROSS: Yeah, there's one photograph where she's wearing this like really gorgeous red sweater, but there is this, like, huge thing on her head.


GROSS: And so...

CODDINGTON: Oh, did not look good? I'm sorry?

GROSS: No. No. Well, they're just so outlandish. But I was thinking like...

CODDINGTON: But she is. She's outlandish.

GROSS: She is. No, that's for sure.

CODDINGTON: She's larger-than-life. And...

GROSS: It's about - the cardigan - the sweater isn't going to be the first thing that you notice.


CODDINGTON: Well, good, you know. You're supposed to notice her, you know. So...

GROSS: Right. Right. OK.

CODDINGTON: ...I guess I did the job.


GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

CODDINGTON: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Grace Coddington is the creative director of Vogue. Her new memoir is called "Grace." You can read an excerpt on our website, Coddington is one of the people featured in the new documentary "In Vogue: The Editor's Eye," which debuts on HBO December 6th.

Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward tells us about the short-lived band from the late '60s, Insect Trust, that featured music critic Robert Palmer on clarinet and saxophone.

This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.