get an exclusive look inside the forthcoming grace coddington biography
'Grace: The American Vogue Years' is a new collection of the work of legendary fashion editor Grace Coddington. Here, we exclusively present an excerpt from an essay by Michael Roberts, Coddington's close friend and the former fashion director of...
Photograph: Fabien Baron. Courtesy The Condé Nast Publications.
The American Years, Grace's second great book of images, concerns those many pages Grace has added to the editorial mix of Vogue since the outset of this brave new century — plus a few more that had originally fallen by the wayside.
It is impressive in a number of ways, not least because it actually exists. Modern times are not kindly disposed towards deep-dyed romantics. Fashion spreads are no longer the prerogative of wayward dreamers. Grace's first tome, sunny and sweet, was an ode to the fashion narrative, to picturemaking spun or woven around beautiful clothes, all cushioned by acres of airiness with nature to spare.
This second volume, though equally inspiring, is driven much more by the astounding advances in technological artifice. Wondrous, yes. But also gritty, urban, and coolly disaffected. "Putting fashion into the narrative of life," as Grace now describes it. Leaving almost nothing to chance, she still controls each session with agonizing fastidiousness because, she says, "I can't do anything quickly. I can be spontaneous, but I have to think about it." And she is as obsessive as ever, shepherding her epic pictorials through Vogue's art department and literally standing guard over them until they have been safely shipped to the printer.
All in-demand stylists of fashion images have their own look, from hard and sexy to minimalist and waifish. Connoisseurs of fashion pages can tell a Grace Coddington shoot by its poetic underlay, often with a motif of arrested innocence, and a prevalence of fellow redheads. The models frequently find themselves traversing otherworldly surroundings dressed in unlikely but not entirely inappropriate outfits. Others are marooned without makeup or hairbrush in the kind of broody landscape that recalls Anglesey, the inhospitably damp and misty island of Grace's childhood. Families, too, play a surprisingly large role in her fashion pictorials, with gurgling infants chasing around the pages, perhaps to compensate for Grace's own domestic life, which fractured early in her career. Finally, there are those intricately embroidered European fairy tales and moments of pure English whimsy that she has managed to retain as part of her fashion lexicon despite relocating to practical American shores more than three decades ago.
Today, Grace's type of genteel Americana is an immutable part of the magazine she serves, whether it's a Douglas Sirk-style suburban couple with marital problems, dressed in swoonworthy 1950s fashions, or a roughneck cowboy and his girl posing in a barn. But whatever the scenario or narrative, the focal point is always the clothes. "If you do not show the clothes, it is not a fashion photograph," she says firmly. As a designer once told me, "Grace always picks the key outfit in any collection. It is never the obvious one, or the most popular. But it's the one that sums up what we have just seen and the one we remember. Which is what makes her such a great fashion editor."
Text Michael Roberts