The burn out from sitting at the same desk for weeks on end is starting to get to me. Starved of external stimuli, I’ve found myself scrolling through Pinterest, Instagram, even Tumblr, for images which might evoke a sense of life before lockdown. In my search for inspiration, I keep coming back to the work of Grace Coddington. The iconic stylist known for her collaborations with Bruce Weber, Annie Leibowitz and Mario Testino amongst others, she is hailed by many as the most influential fashion editor of the past forty years. Her eclectic repertoire, from moody to ethereal to romantic to noir, provides an endless source of uplifting imagery. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself pondering what makes her images so unique, and indeed so ‘Grace’.
In her memoire, Grace reflects, ‘For me, one of the most important aspects of my work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs.’ As Fashion Director of British Vogue and, later, as Creative Director of American Vogue, she masterminded page after page of dream-like editorial. Naomi Campbell in a white convertible surrounded by a pack of dalmatians. Natalia Vodianova as Alice in Wonderland flanked by John Galliano as the Red Queen and Stephen Jones as the Mad Hatter. Keira Knightly bottle feeding an elephant in Kenya in Comme des Garçons. All these images are rooted in the same desire to create a world which readers can escape to and momentarily revel in the beauty of the impossible.
Grace is thought of by many as a romantic heroine who premises her work solely on her vision of beauty as opposed to commercial ideals. In the 2009 documentary The September Issue, we see her grappling with Anna Wintour over budget and advertising constraints, adamantly defending her twenty-two-page spread ‘Paris, je t’aime’. When she arrives at the Palace of Versailles to shoot the September 2007 couture story, she becomes tearful when confronted by the beauty of the gardens and reflects ‘I think I got left behind somewhere as I’m still a romantic.’ For me, this moment perfectly encapsulates the essence of Grace, and her authentic approach to fashion. In the midst of an increasingly commercialised industry, her images have a sense of purity and fullness, and it is as if she is seeing everything for the first time.
Despite her reputation as one of the bastions of the fashion industry, Grace has always professed to disliking trends. In weaving her own narrative out of the latest looks, she creates a timeless vision which immunises the clothes from the ravages of time. In American Vogue’s September 2007 issue, she styled Fall/Winter Giorgio Armani and Carolina Herrera in the style of Brassai’s 1920s photographs of Paris. In the magazine’s December 2013 cover story, she styled Jessica Chastain in Alexander McQueen posing as Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting La Mousmé. In the December 1996 fashion feature, ‘A Feast For the Eyes’, nine supermodels are presented in Christian Lacroix Haute Couture, having a picnic in the park.
In her images, Grace creates stories and characters around the clothes, and in doing so she makes fashion secondary to beauty. This gives her work an enduring quality, and her images remain as magical now as when they were first created.
By Violet Caldecott