Hero Status: Grace Coddington

She makes magazine pages feel like whole new worlds.


Illustration by Chloe.

Have you seen the documentary The September Issue? It came out in 2009 and was about the making of American Vogue’s biggest issue of the year. If you haven’t, I recommend it. Anyway, there’s this one scene where Grace Coddington, the magazine’s creative director, kneels down to tie a model’s shoe. She jokingly mentions how no stylist kneels at anyone’s feet anymore, they all have assistants, and that’s true. I love this moment, because it shows how much this woman cares about every damn detail that goes into the making of an image. There’s another scene where she’s in Paris and she looks out a car window and says, “Always keep your eyes open…keep watching, because whatever you see out the window, or wherever, can inspire you.” She has seen this view a million times before, but she will not let its magic go away. The fashion industry can leave many people feeling jaded, but I get the feeling that Grace will never be one of them.

Grace Coddington’s job is basically to pick the clothes that will appear in Vogue, and to decide how to use them in the photo shoots, or “editorials,” which are basically the most important parts of any fashion magazine. Her spreads can tell a million stories with a simple cock of the hip or a twist of a collar, whether models are jumping in front of a white background or lounging in lush locations. With every picture, she seems to be saying, “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy,” and her intricate fantasy worlds have always provided me a beautiful escape from everyday reality.

While everyone familiar with Vogue has heard of the editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, it’s Grace’s creativity that drives the Vogue aesthetic year after year. Her visions of romanticism and humor are embedded into the magazine’s DNA at this point. In Grace’s hands, even the most basic of fashion-magazine ideas, like “the top trends of the season,” can become enduring ideals of taste and creativity.

At its best, fashion can inspire you to think about the way you see yourself in the world in new and revelatory ways. Grace Coddington’s work has done exactly that for me since the first time I saw it. It was January 1995, and I was casually flipping through my mom’s copy of Vogue, when I saw this:

Photo by Stephen Meisel for Vogue via the Fashion Spot.

Photo by Stephen Meisel for Vogue, via The Fashion Spot.

I imagined that these four perfectly dressed women were discussing something work related–a business proposition or an impossible boss. Each one was impeccably done up: Their hair fell just so, and their manicures and pedicures matched. I find power in such precision. In my head, they were businesswomen who are in control. I asked to myself, Which one would I be? I decided I was Shalom Harlow, standing at the far right, because she makes listening a dramatic act, and because I liked her snakeskin belt and sandals.

A few pages later, I saw five women packed into the frame like sardines:

Photo by Stephen Meisel for Vogue via the Fashion Spot.

Stephen Meisel for Vogue, via The Fashion Spot.

I imagined they were trying to get to the front row of a concert. I’d never even seen track pants look so good! One of was wearing hot pants and a jacket, but it somehow felt logical. Their hair was pin-straight in that rock & roll sort of way that Avril Lavigne would borrow years later. I could tell by their poses and the way their hair blew around (they were quite possibly banging their heads) that they did not give a fuck. I decided I would be the one in the black track pants (Shalom again). This became my lifelong template for what “cool” looks like.

I continued on, and the women were now wearing ’40s-inspired clothes, their hair in victory rolls and bouffants:

Stephen Meisel for Vogue via the Fashion Spot.

Stephen Meisel for Vogue, via The Fashion Spot.

It seemed like this time they were getting ready to go to a party—one was pinning a giant fabric flower onto the lapel of another’s jacket, while a third adjusted her gloves. Their hemlines may have been demure, and they may have been wearing petticoats under their party dresses, but they were clearly no wallflowers. This is the photo that taught me that wearing pink isn’t the only way to be girly. I decided that I would be the one pinning the flower on the other one: I’ve never met an over-the-top accessory I didn’t like.

These photos were all part of a Grace Coddington–styled editorial called “Looking Ahead: The Collections That Count,” and its premise could not have been more boring: to show some pieces from a few key collections by designers that advertise in Vogue, I mean that Vogue likes. But look at what Grace did with that! I kept flipping back and forth through those pages, incredulous that these models could look so different each time they appeared, and wondering, Could I look this different each day, too? Although, technically, I couldn’t—I wore a uniform to school every day for the next six years—the images instilled a sense of sartorial fearlessness in me that would come to fruition a few years later on, when I became obsessed with Gwen Stefani and thought nothing of wearing cut-off tank tops with massively wide pants or a pair of silver sneaker flatworms with space-themed stickers on the sole like it was no big deal. Through Grace, I have granted myself permission to just go for it whenever I feel like it—but if I want to go barefoot and stare at the camera, you know, that’s OK, too.

Maybe it’s because Grace grew up in remote island off the coast of Wales, reading Vogue magazine and dreaming of far-off places that her work is so imbued with the feeling of escape. So many fashion-magazine editorials are about SEX or being SHOCKING, but Grace prefers to make allusions to art, literature, and theater. In this shoot from the December 2003 issue, Natalia Vodianova plays Alice of Alice in Wonderland:

Photo by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue via Blogspot.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, via Blogspot.

Like Alice, she has changed size and become suddenly overgrown in a pleated cobalt blue dress that matches her eyes. She looks at us with an expression that mixes fear and sadness, as if she’s imploring us, “How do I get out of here?”

In an editorial from December 1998 inspired by the carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” Shalom Harlow and six male dancers represented the song’s “seven swans a-swimming”:

Photo by Stephen Meisel for Vogue via LiveJournal.

Photo by Stephen Meisel for Vogue, via LiveJournal.

She’s wearing a deconstructed reconfiguration of Odette’s costume from Swan Lake, her arms elegantly curved over her head like wings, and it’s as close to a Christmas gift as a corporation could ever give you.

Sir Frederic Leighton's Flaming June, 1895, and Jessica Chastain on the cover of Vogue.

Sir Frederic Leighton’s painting “Flaming June,” 1895 (left); and Jessica Chastain on the cover of Vogue.

Most recently, in a spread from this past December, the actress Jessica Chastain became the subject of Sir Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, one of my favorite paintings. The painting, which resides at one of the art museums in Puerto Rico, where I grew up, has always felt a bit like a secret of mine—it’s one of the only paintings that I’ve been able to visit again and again throughout the years. I was surprised to see it on the cover of Vogue, but then thought, Of course Grace would know about a painting of a redheaded muse.

Photo for Vogue via the Fashion Spot.

Photo for Vogue via The Fashion Spot.

Grace’s fantasies aren’t always so fantastical or otherworldly, but they are always inspiring, and they always reflect her cheeky sense of humor: In a shoot about the hoity-toity 1920s Hamptons, two of the models will be wearing paper bags as masks; an editorial set on gritty NYC streets will star a motorcycle gang of models in ball gowns.

Although a bit of whimsy is good every now and then, I am more drawn to her work that involves dressing a gang of women in more commonplace situations, whether they’re hanging out near a lake in white makeup, or wearing delicate eyelet dresses in front of a wall of chairs. She makes the unaccessible accessible, and vice versa. True, I won’t be painting my whole face white anytime soon, but I sure as hell have piled on white eyeshadow inspired by this shoot before heading out to a party. The most important lesson to take away from Grace’s work is that fashion should be fun and that it should bring something to your life. There’s no point in the most expensive bag or shoe if it doesn’t invoke a fantasy when you look at or hold it. The idea of fashion-as-fantasy is kind of like putting on a cape in order to become a superhero. Grace Coddington always takes me on a trip to the farthest-away-possible realms, with the most exciting of possibilities. When I come back to earth, I can turn those experiences into something that works for me.

Even now, almost 20 years later after I came across my first Grace Coddington editorial, I keep referring back to its images and charting my progress against them. Last winter, I purchased a gold leather skirt because it reminded me of the cool girls at the concert from that story. When I googled the original image for this piece and studied it again, I immediately emailed it to a friend, saying, “This is all I want to be.” I think her work endures because they are all fantasies rooted in reality. You get the sense that she is acutely aware of how lucky she is to be able to create these magical worlds for a living, and she passes on that wonderment through her images. For not only demonstrating the kind of career I hope to have someday, but for also helping me explore my own self-image as a woman, Grace Coddington has 100% hero status in my life. ♦


  • Sophii February 13th, 2014 7:51 PM

    I love Grace so much! She is my idol. I have a copy of her memoir on my bookshelf but unfortunately I haven’t gotten round to reading it yet. She is truly, truly deserving of hero status.

    • Claire February 13th, 2014 10:52 PM

      Oh my goodness. I cannot recommend her memoir enough. Once you start it, it’s impossible to put down! I would also recommend Grace: 30 Years of Fashion at Vogue. It’s fairly rare and super expensive, but if you can find a library copy (or someone who owns it), it is excellent. :)

  • ksofiaa February 13th, 2014 9:11 PM

    I love Grace. She is one of my biggest inspirations and idols <3 I fell in love with her and her work when I first watched "The September Issue" a long time ago, and ever since, she has been a huge inspiration in my life. Anddd she also has my dream job so yeah, she totally is one of my biggest heroes.

  • Claire February 13th, 2014 10:50 PM

    This made me so happy. Grace is my idol and it has been my long-standing dream to one day work alongside her and witness her amazing talent. She is evocative of a golden era of fashion and culture, and I wish more people were aware of this (or perhaps not…she doesn’t seem like the type who would crave celebrity).

  • Lillypod February 13th, 2014 11:04 PM

    ahhh i love her sooo much. i never knew she grew up on Anglesey!!!!

  • TessAnnesley February 13th, 2014 11:12 PM

    omg graaaaaace
    she was the real star of the september issue if you ask me
    those swans aren’t just boys dressed as swans, they’re from matthew bourne’s all-boy swan lake, so grace is including AND promoting other kinds of art <3

  • February 14th, 2014 12:07 AM

    love this piece! i wasnt familiar w/grace before, but i love what she says about keeping your eyes open, you could be inspired. i saw “flaming june” in vienna, and i could barely tear myself away. incredible painting. it was strange to see it on the cover of vogue at first, but now i like the reference, and the way she made it her own. xo

  • honorarygilmoregal February 14th, 2014 12:32 AM

    I loved the way Grace styled Jessica Chastain for her Vogue cover + photo spread, having her resemble certain paintings. From what I can see, her other styling efforts are just as great. She seems amazing.

  • shin o February 14th, 2014 6:22 AM

    this made me think that maybe Rookie should do something like “20 really good awesome documentaries u should watch.”
    surely everybody would love that. and surely it will include The September Issue and When Bjork Met Attenborough from last year.
    also, Tavi, youre choice of background image for each day is absolutely wonderful

  • onlykhenzo February 14th, 2014 11:07 AM

    All I cared about in The September Issue was Grace. And it’s amazing how connected she is to her craft and that’s she’s managed to stay enchanted with it for so long.
    I just want to be Grace one day and I want a job that doesn’t feel like a job but just everything I should be doing with my life.

  • flocha February 14th, 2014 11:58 AM

    I love grace so much (I may or may not have a picture of her on my bedroom wall) her photos are so inspiring and always seem to want to tell some kind story as well as showcasing clothes. Also her incredible hair and her obsession with cats only furthers my adoration of her.

  • moonshine28 February 14th, 2014 1:11 PM

    I loved this article! I don’t think enough people know about Grace Coddington and her ideas are so creative and original. They transport you into another world and for me that’s what fashion should be about. Thank you Rookie for this lovely article.

  • whatisemilywearing February 14th, 2014 1:25 PM

    This women is so iconic.
    She finds the beauty in all things.
    Thank you so much, Grace.
    And thank you Rookie for shedding light on her.


  • mangointhesky February 14th, 2014 2:25 PM

    She is so amazing. She makes me want to be exactly like her.
    I kind of want to meet Anna Wintour. There has to really be something about her that makes people call her nuclear!

  • I am Lily February 14th, 2014 2:56 PM

    It’s so cool she used Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake for that shoot! The only ballet where the main characters are gay: Shout out to innovators in their fields!

  • loopdeshor February 14th, 2014 3:33 PM

    omg all the photos look amazing

  • takethreestepsback February 14th, 2014 5:46 PM

    Such an interesting article, Laia! These are such fresh concepts that make you engage with fashion… I hadn’t pieced together the stories behind the photos as you have but it’s terrific!
    I thought when you wrote the Seal ‘Crazy’ lyrics you were going to link to the scene in the Devil Wears Prada where there’s an editorial shoot and they play that song :)

    • Laia February 14th, 2014 9:38 PM

      omg they play that song in that movie? i’m gonna have to rewatch! why is it never on netflix instant :(

  • Tiana February 14th, 2014 6:49 PM

    Wow such beautiful, powerful images. I love Grace’s work
    Tiana x

  • lydiamerida February 15th, 2014 2:22 AM

    Umm YES.
    When I saw that Jessica Chastain issue of Vogue I nearly pooped my pants I thought it was so beautiful. And I would definitely recommend watching The September Issue.

  • citylinds February 15th, 2014 5:47 PM

    Thank you for reminding me why I’m so in love with fashion magazines and why I aspire to work for one. Like you said, it’s all about the fantasy and finding a way to incorporate that into your own life in some small way.
    I’ve been feeling a little conflicted towards fashion mags lately, and questioning whether I really want to be part of something so commercial and and at times shallow. Grace’s work reminds me that at it’s best, fashion really is it’s own art form and can empower us rather than make us feel bad about the way we look in comparison. Thanks again for spotlighting such a fabulous woman.

  • dessertstealer February 15th, 2014 7:11 PM

    Grace Coddington is flawless and is my life goals.

  • Joyce February 17th, 2014 2:50 AM

    one of my inspirations! the alice in wonderland cover with Natalia Vodianova is hands down one of the best editorials for me. i watched the In Vogue documentary and discovered all of the sorceresses behind my favorite Vogue editorials.