Since her celluloid fame as The September Issue’s hot-tempered scene-stealer, we’ve been fascinated by Grace Coddington, the Welsh model turned master of sartorial storytelling. And now, at 71, Coddington—long-time creative director at Vogue—tells her own story in Grace: A Memoir (Random House), from early styling gigs that included powdering Prince Charles’ nose, to the countless collaborations with top photographers that have made her fashion’s most mentally bookmarked image-maker. “Are they inspired or just copying me?” she counters during our conversation, held in her office ensconced in Vogue’s steely corridors.
Has the evolution of digital photography—and what you call its “visual trickery”—ultimately made your work stronger?
For me, those original pictures are more interesting because they came from the heart. People [now] give you reference shots which are usually Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. I find it amusing. I’m not going to knock off that—I did it already, on the original! Then, it was smaller teams and more focus. Now, it’s such a business.
Did fewer people produce more innovation?
Yes, I think so. I used to go to a place to find something. Now they send a location person. We go to China for the day. People already have an idea of what the country is so they don’t go with an open mind.
One of your favourite faces, you write, is Canada’s Daria Werbowy—who you say hates modelling.
Well, yes. [This] gives her character. She’s smart and she’s beautiful, it’s just annoying when you get her on a day when she’s not into it. It’s a shame that I’ve never been to Canada, because my mother was born in Vancouver Island when it was just one great forest. She had this little wooden house.
Why do you make a point of mainly working with models?
[Actresses] usually don’t work with you and kind of dictate. They often don’t have the ideal figure either. I like the English girls though—Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan. They’re regular human beings; I don’t find that with a lot of Hollywood actors.
Anna Wintour is scrutinized with a celebrity-like fervour…
Yes and it’s twisted. You have to be tough to survive that criticism.
What did you wish to communicate about your famously push-and-pull relationship in the book?
I just had to say it like it is. I wanted to wait till it was finished before she read it, but finally, she came to my office and said, “I am flying to Paris in half an hour. Where is your book?” [A few days later] I went to Sicily and there was this amazing four-page note from her in my room—so lovely, warm and encouraging. I was so touched, I burst out crying. She never does that.
After five decades in the industry, what keeps you motivated?
Fashion! And young people. More and more, I’ve realized that you can’t do anything just on your own.
Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington, $45, randomhouse.ca