Grace Coddington on fashion, modeling, and a life in ‘Vogue’

'Grace: A Memoir' is out now. (Arthur Elgort)
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"I looked at the pages and thought, 'Wow, if I could go there, and be with those people, that sounds like a good life to me,'" said Grace Coddington, the legendary creative director of Vogue and author of the new book Grace: A Memoir, last night.

Coddington was speaking of her childhood, during which she took refuge in the pages of fashion magazines, especially Vogue. Of course she did eventually get “there” and got to be not just “with those people” but one of them. Last night she spoke about her life in fashion for the reading series 5x15 at the regal artists' salon The Players.

To a packed audience that included Brooke Shields and fellow speaker Jay McInerney, she told the story of how she left Anglesey, Wales at 18 to become one of the top models of the '60s, and then, at 26, transitioned to a career behind the camera for British Vogue, ultimately reigning as the artistic force behind American Vogue, as featured in the documentary The September Issue. The evening’s host, Amanda Foreman, began by stepping back to start, to Coddington’s youth in rural Wales.

"They didn't see [the glamorous] side of me because we wore uniforms,” Coddington said. “It was a very drab sort of gray and blue day in and day out." She had fond memories of her upbringing: "I had this enchanting, wonderful, wonderful childhood that I feel very lucky to have had, because I had to make do. Really, because it was so far away [from the city], you had to use your imagination."

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Unlike the current paths to becoming a model, which include, say, having Tyra Banks reprimand you on a reality show, Coddington "cut out a little coupon and applied to a modeling course." They offered her a photo shoot and taught her how to do her makeup and hair.

"I worked in a coffee bar to make money,” she said. “Someone in the coffee bar sent my picture [to the Vogue model competition].... I went to a big tea party and got chosen as a finalist and finally as one of the winners of the young section."

From a reader of Vogue to a model for Vogue, Coddington's star rose. In 1962, her face was on the cover of British Vogue and British Harper's Bazaar. She worked for Helmut Newton and Mary Quant and donned Vidal Sassoon's iconic chic bob, the five-point cut.

Foreman asked why Coddington switched from being in front of the camera to being behind it.

"I think people decided for me!" Coddington said to laughter. "In those days, when you got to be 26, 27 you were finished [with modeling] because retouching wasn't quite as sophisticated as it is now."

Foreman revealed a 1969 behind-the-scenes photograph of the author styling Prince Charles.

"I got there and was so nervous,” Coddington said, “I knocked over a chair when I was trying to curtsy."

Coddington reflected on working with risqué photographer Helmut Newton, noting a particular 1973 shoot.

"I wanted to put Helmut in a good mood,” she said, “and he likes sexy girls. So both I and my assistant and anyone who was around that I was responsible for, I said, 'It's Helmut Newton, girls, just get it together: plunge your necklines, wear black, a miniskirt, and very high heels.' I went a step further and I wore a bikini." Coddington doesn't often appear in the shoots that she styles, but Newton wanted her in this one: "'We'll put you in the picture,'” Coddington recalled Newton saying. “Like Picasso had his blue period, Helmut had his swimming pool period.”

Coddington spoke about the highs and lows of working at Vogue. One of her favorite shoots was the magazine’s 2003 Alice in Wonderland-themed photo spread that she worked on with Annie Leibovitz. The photos featured Natalia Vodianova as Alice and designers Marc Jacobs, Donatella Versace, and Nicolas Ghesquière (who departs Balenciaga at the end of the month) among others.

"I had been at Vogue for quite some time but had never got to do something so complicated and so gorgeous and also so expensive," Coddington said. However, one shoot that she said "went completely haywire" featured Kate Moss and Puff Daddy.

"I hated Puff Daddy. Or P. Diddy or whatever he's called." Of Kate, she said, "She drinks a little bit. Grabbing her and getting her in place and getting him in place—it was quite hard, I must say."

With a glamorous, virtuosic, and influential career in fashion, why did Coddington choose to write a memoir now? She answers that question in the book. The September Issue garnered her a delightful, comfortable level of renown, she writes, which is "better than the Beatles."