Never-Ending Grace: At 75, Grace Coddington Can't Be Stopped

Yahoo Style brings you an excerpt of an interview with creative director Grace Coddington about fashion’s evolution, renewal, and her third act, courtesy of Document Journal.

Document Journal will be on sale Friday April 29th exclusively at Dover Street New York, BookMarc New York, Iconic Magazines New York, Dover Street London, Broken Arm Paris, Colette, 0FR Paris and 10 Corso Como Milan, and available worldwide the following week. Preorder copies at documentjournal.myshopify.com.

Grace Coddington on the cover of Document Journal, Photo: Jamie Hawkesworth

I met Grace in 1985. She was the fashion director of British Vogue, and I was starting my career as a stylist. Beatrix Miller, the great editor-in-chief of the magazine, took a chance on me and sent me to New York to do a front-of-book piece, “What’s Hot in New York.” Grace was there covering the collections. I was shy, and Grace was very shy, but we both loved fashion and great photography—we sort of hit it off.

I’ve known Grace through her last years at British Vogue, her brief stint as creative director at Calvin Klein, and her almost 30-year career as creative director at American Vogue. I’ve also lived through her passion for the work of Calvin Klein, Azzedine Alaïa, and Helmut Lang. Grace would wear their clothes almost exclusively. And as this was a time when editors could photograph only the clothes they loved, Grace gave a lot of love and pages to those designers. These days she likes to wear a mix of Céline, Prada, and Marni—mostly in shades of black.

Grace invited me over her Chelsea, New York apartment, which she shares with her long-time partner, the hairstylist Didier Malige, and where we sat down for this interview. Their apartment is very comfortable and “loved,” with cats everywhere: in paintings, on teapots, in photographs, and on cushions. And of course, there are two real cats—Blanket and Pumpkin—who are almost as famous as Grace.

Joe McKenna: Everybody knows a lot about you already. You’re so prolific and you’ve written a book, you’ve been in a film — what would you like to talk about?
Grace Coddington: Cats!

We’ll get to cats! The things you and I have in common are clothes and fashion pictures. We’ve both done it for quite a bit of time, so we both know a little bit about it. But what’s inspiring to you at the moment?
GC: 
That’s the hardest question of all. In a way, I’m starting a new life, venturing out into all the things I haven’t done before. Being freelance is very different from working for the same person every day. That is such a security, a loyalty. That’s not to say that now my loyalties change. I’m still very much a part of Vogue. If everything else changes around me—Vogue changes, fashion changes—I’m still part of Vogue. That’s never going to change. Just the fact that I don’t have to get up at 7:30 am is…

That’s new!
GC: 
That’s very new, right! I worked in an office, in a structured life. I’m a bit in limbo now because I’m looking for my new life; I’m not 100 percent sure what that is. But I’m looking for: “What is inspiring?” I want to do something as inspiring, or hopefully more inspiring, at this point in my life with the knowledge that I’ve gained over all the years—which is quite a lot. I want to interweave all that I’ve learned and use it in Part II of my life. Actually, Part III of my life, because for 10 years I was a model. You don’t want to throw everything you’ve learned out the window and be a gardener. Well, I wouldn’t mind being a gardener [laughs].

Grace Coddington in her apartment, Photo: Jamie Hawkesworth

What are you going to miss about being at Vogue every day?
GC: 
Since I haven’t left yet, I’ve been there every day and for longer hours as I’m not there all the time. So what am I going to miss down the line? There is a sort of camaraderie, even though we all fight amongst ourselves for dresses, photographers, Anna’s attention, or Raul’s attention, or whatever. At the same time there is a great support system between us editors at Vogue. Certainly we get frustrated with each other, but it’s not out of meanness, just out of always wanting what’s best for your shoot. It sounds cliché, but it is like being in a family. Anna is like the head of the family. You go and tell Anna that you love Tonne’s pictures if you want her to try and get another spread or something. We do actually fight for each other, and that’s something. I come from a not very close-knit family, and I’ve had this particular family now for 30 years and another one for 20 years at British Vogue. I’ll miss that.

You don’t want to be a freelance fashion stylist. Does that mean you’re going to miss doing sittings from time to time? Or is that something you’d like to continue?
GC: 
I’m still contributing to Vogue. But I see freelance stylists work every day and their work overlaps sometimes: you’re doing a show, then a shoot and a show, so you leave the show before it’s even finished. I hear those stories and am shocked by it because I can’t imagine leaving something before it’s finished—that overlap and intensity. I don’t want to get into that. I just did a recent advertising shoot, and the other thing about freelance styling is, it’s really weird for the pictures not to come into you. Once you leave the studio, that’s it. You don’t see or hear anything.

You see it when it runs in the magazine.
GC: 
Six months later. Or you don’t, as the case may be! I’m used to following things through and obsessing about them. You know, you’ve worked editorial too. And you’re more obsessive then me, I’m told [laughs].

I’m not going to rise to that, Grace.
GC: 
I always eventually would leave Vogue because you have to have rollover. If you don’t leave room for young people to come into a magazine, then it doesn’t matter how good the ones at the top are; in the end it starts looking the same. I moved over from British Vogue for the same reason. If the fashion editors stay, then everybody else is kind of stuck on down the line.

So young talent doesn’t make you feel threatened in
any way?
GC: 
Absolutely not. I find young talent really inspiring. Any time there was a mention of somebody young or new coming to Vogue, I always thought that’s only a plus for me. It makes me look good and drives me on to show that I can be as good as a younger person. I can be as young as a young person.

One of the first projects that you are going to launch is your collaboration with Comme des Garçons, your fragrance Grace by Grace Coddington. How did that come about?
GC: 
Well that’s been in the works a very long time.

You were still full-time at Vogue.
GC: 
A couple of years ago, our friend Gabe [Doppelt, creative consultant and editor], came to me and said, “You and I should do some projects together, shall we think of something?” We landed on a perfume. It’s kind of an obvious thing. Before I went any further, I told Anna what I was thinking and asked if it was a conflict. She’s smart and knows it would be a very long process. In the beginning it wouldn’t be any conflict and I’d still be giving 100 percent to Vogue. In theory, it is a conflict if you produce something and you work for a magazine.

Anna was OK with you doing the fragrance?
GC: 
Yes, she was; she’s always very supportive. At the same time I had been talking to her about a movie. But again, movies take even longer—I’ll probably be dead by the time the movie comes out.

This is a movie you’re hoping to make based on your memoir?
GC: 
Yes. I’ve sold the rights to a film company called A24, who are a young company based in New York which I love. It’s not a Hollywood thing.

Grace Coddington’s photographs, Photo: Jamie Hawkesworth

Let’s come back to that.
GC:
Yes! Sorry! That’s what I do: digress. I had been talking for three or four years about the film and talking to producers. It was sold quite recently. So I was already one foot out of Vogue, so then I came to Anna with this perfume idea. I guess it’s all about “Let’s cash in because right now I have a name”. Particularly, coming out of the memoir, which came after the movie [The September Issue]. Each person from each beauty company we talked to, we learned something, but no one was making a commitment because that’s what happens with those big companies. They talk to you, they sound really excited, they’re really nice. They say it’s fabulous, but they just have to talk to their CEO and will get back to you. As soon as they say, “What a fabulous idea, we’ll get back to you,” you think, “Let’s just try somebody else.” [Laughs].

We started getting a bit fed up, so I had the idea to give my friend Adrian Joffe from Comme des Garçons a call. He had just done a perfume with [the milliner] Stephen Jones and maybe he’d be interested. He said, “Funnily enough, I’m in New York now. Come over at 3 pm tomorrow afternoon.” So we went to his office in Dover Street Market and waited for the “I’ll get back to you, I have to speak to Mrs. Comme des Garçons in Tokyo.” We kept saying, “Don’t you have to speak to Rei?” and he said, “No, no I don’t have to speak to anyone.” The whole process is a one-man show.

So he wanted to do it?
GC:
Yes. He said, “Well, first of all think about what sort of thing you want; we need to design the bottle and we need you to meet the nose—we’ll get all these people together.” Little by little it started coming together. It’s been incredible. We realized you need more than just me drawing a bottle to create a bottle. There are all sorts of technical things you need to know. So I called my friend [the creative director] Fabien Baron to see if he could help us out. I told him the problem was we didn’t have any money and he said, “No problem! I’d love to.” We got him on board. And when I was in Paris, we made an appointment with our nose, Christian Astuguevieille.

How was that experience? How difficult were you with the nose process?
GC: 
Well of course Christian spoke French, so it was all done through Adrian, who was our translator. That was quite funny. I was praying that Adrian wasn’t interweaving some other ingredients, because Comme des Garçons has those funny perfumes that have quite odd, off things in it.

Tar, smoke…
GC: 
Atomic something or other. I kept saying roses! Maybe the odd peony, but roses! Christian gave us some things to smell to see my reaction. He made all these mixtures up and we sat around the table and sniffed it and then some liked it, some didn’t. You put the fragrances on little tabs of paper to smell, but I like smelling perfume on skin. Perfumes on my skin tend to smell very strong. Everybody is different. A perfume on you will smell different to a perfume on me. It’s a little confusing.

What perfume do you usually wear?
GC: 
I’ve always been attracted to roses. I used to buy Red Rose from Floris. It’s a light toilet water, slightly masculine. I cannot stand heady, strong perfumes. I like a very light aroma. That was my brief: I want something very clean that doesn’t overwhelm you.

You don’t want people to smell you before you walk into the room?
GC: 
No.

It was an enjoyable process?
GC: 
In the end you have to do what you love, which is my mantra. I cook what I love to eat. I’m only interested in a smell that I would wear myself. Even clothes. I can fantasize about clothes and think, “If I was a 15-year-old nymph maybe I would wear this.” I have to be able to think it through and rationalize whatever I do. The perfume had to be practical too—something I felt comfortable with. Meanwhile there was the bottle process. The bottom is a stock bottle because if you make it custom it is incredibly expensive. And I want a lot of people to have it; I want the kind of people that come up to me in the street and say that they love what I do, to be able to buy my perfume without going bankrupt. I wanted something simple and classic, like Chanel No. 5 or those kinds of bottles. I like something that looks pretty on your washstand. Fabien came up with this one that is so simple and so plain, but it just had a nice feel about it. It is very rounded; there are no sharp corners. It feels like a lovely stone that you’ve picked up by the beach that’s been washed by the sea. So we got the bottom half, and we kept playing with what materials to make the cap out of. I just felt I needed something special. I put all the money we didn’t have into the cap.

Grace Coddington’s cat, Photo: Jamie Hawkesworth

So what’s the cap like?
GC: 
Due to the fact that I’m rather partial to cats, when I was doodling it became a cat, of course. The drawing just got simpler and simpler until it’s basically just a round ball with two little spiky ears.

A little cat’s head.
GC: 
This sounds pretentious: But it’s like if Jeff Koons would do it, like his Balloon Dog, but not. It’s that kind of simplicity. I didn’t want it to be cute. I mean, look around my house and it’s full of knick-knacks. I didn’t want it to look like that. I wanted it to have a clean modern feeling about it, but still be a cat because I’m so obsessed with them. It was cute but not so cute that a grownup couldn’t have it on her table. I got carried away and thought it was so clever and gave it a tail. Fabien actually went white when he saw the tail! I think he was trying to persuade me not to get too silly. We all looked at each other and thought, OK let’s keep it simple. So we did. It’s like everything; it’s an editing process really. You push it further, then you pull back, then push it and pull it—like all the things I’m connected with. Even when I did my memoir, they would have liked it to go straight to paperback with a big color picture of me on the cover and not too many pictures in it. Even with the memoir I wanted something pleasing in the hand and more than just a book to read. I think I achieved that even with a memoir, which is quite a commercial thing.

And you’ve achieved it with the perfume. Are you happy with it?
GC: 
I’m really happy with it, yes. I’m on tenterhooks because I’m waiting to see the first real one.

You mentioned the people who you want to buy this perfume; it’s the people who come up to you in the street who’ve seen you in The September Issue and say, “I love what you do.” So would you do another film?
GC: 
Would I do another film? Well I’m hoping eventually if it happens before I die…

You haven’t cursed once in this interview, Grace! [Laughs].

GC: I’ve been really, really careful! You haven’t heard me hesitate a few times?

That’s what it was! [Laughs]. So, you’re going to continue at Vogue, there’s going to be this new direction as yet undefined but it’s starting with the fragrance. When you look back in 20 years, what do you want the message to be? What do you want people to remember about your work?
GC: 
I want them to say she didn’t waste her time as soon as I was doing a bit less at Vogue. I want someone to say, “That’s incredible that life begins at 75!”

To read the rest of the interview, please go to Document Journal

Following the interview, Grace has taken on new projects: She will be guest creative director for a heritage American luxury brand and will return to modeling in an upcoming fall advertising campaign. And as of yet, she still has no record deal! Grace by Grace Coddington is available at Comme des Garçons boutiques and Dover Street Market internationally, Colette in Paris, Doverstreetmarket.com, and Gracecoddington.com.

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for nonstop inspiration delivered fresh to your feed, every day. 

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes