Deskside

Grace Coddington on Social Media and What She Looks for in An Assistant

A one-on-one conversation about the state of the fashion industry with the ultimate expert.

By: Emily Ramshaw
Styling: Alicia Cesaro
Photography: Leslie Kirchhoff

As you already know, going to Grace Coddington’s house and hanging out with the woman herself was a momentous occasion—up there with our first kiss and first love (we’re only partly kidding). The chance to spend time with the legendary creative director called for a long and in-depth conversation—about her new fragrance, uniform and signature lipstick, but also about her career and what she’s up to now that, after 30 years, she’s no longer full-time at Vogue. One thing we can confidently say about Coddington is that she has no problem speaking her mind—no filter. Here, she opens up about what it’s like to work for a boss other than Anna Wintour and exactly what she thinks about social media (hint: she doesn’t love it).

What it’s like to go from being behind the scenes to very (very) public:

“It’s funny because I grew up the opposite. I worked at British Vogue for twenty years and we were completely anonymous there: you were on the masthead, but you didn’t get your name underneath the pictures. In fact when Anna Wintour went to British Vogue after the old editor retired, that’s one of the first things she did: she put everybody's name on their stories and gave credit. All the fashion editors had been anonymous until that point. I guess I became better known when that movie came out [laughs]. That’s what made a big difference. People in the fashion world knew who I was, but not everybody in the street. Literally I walked out of my door and suddenly everybody was like, ‘Grace!’ It’s funny to be recognized. I’m normally the one that is like that over major movie stars. I swoon at them, but now the table’s turned. It’s odd.”

How she decides on a worthy project:

“I only do things that are fun. I don’t ever want to do things that are boring. If you do things that are boring, you don’t put your heart and soul into it and it’s a waste of time. Life is so short and precious—you should actually have a good time through your life if you can. Obviously there are tough things, but generally I like to do things that are intriguing and interesting and a little bit different.”

The difference between being at Vogue and being freelance:

“When you start doing projects like what I’m doing it’s not compatible with being full time at Vogue. You just can’t: a) time wise and b) it’s wrong to work for clients and work for them. You can’t be on both sides. So I made an agreement where I do four shoots a year and I’m freelance—and I started into this whole other world of creating advertising campaigns, which is fascinating.

I thought decision making would be easier, but actually, it’s more difficult. At Vogue, there’s just Anna—everything goes through Anna and she either says ‘yes’ or she says ‘no.’ She’s a very decisive person, so you know exactly where you are. She’s amazing. But in the outside world it’s not so clear. There’s a lot more people and money involved.”

How fashion has changed:

“I think fashion has really changed—it’s broadened. It’s not just in that very unapproachable, monied world. Fashion is at every level now, from the street upwards. And everybody has an opinion now and people listen to it. It’s not just for the smart people [laughs].”

On the topic of social media and fashion:

“It drives me crazy, I don’t love it. [It’s changed the industry] completely. Before, everything was quite controlled and you knew the seasons. Everything was organized. You came up through the ranks and you learned your trade, but now a fourteen-year-old can give, as I said, an opinion and people listen. Particularly if that fourteen-year-old is on TV or something—then they really listen. I guess it’s very democratic. Before it was very elitist and now it’s not.”

On who she’s learned the most from:

“My first editor-in-chief was an extraordinary woman, Beatrix Miller. I worked with her for twenty years in a much more old fashioned way. Then again, when I started working with Anna it opened up another aspect in a new world. We’ve been working together since 1987 or something like that—a long time. Then there are photographers that have taught me a lot. Firstly, way, way back, Norman Parkinson taught me a lot. Bruce Weber, too. And then the young ones. Now there’s another whole lot of them and it’s very interesting. You’re always learning and you’re always having to catch up somehow. Even if you’re terribly old like me! But that’s what I find interesting and exciting and why I’m not rolling my eyes and bored.”

How digital photography has changed things:

“Digital photography brought a different way of looking at things. With regular photography you didn’t see it [right away] so you sort of prayed that it was okay—now you see it and you have to decide whether that’s good enough. And sometimes it’s difficult to make that decision: that you can stop now and you’ve got the picture. Before you couldn’t be blamed—you’d be told off but not blamed. And there are so many people that have opinions now on the photograph. From the hair and the makeup to whoever else comes on the shoot—in advertising many more people come to the shoot. There are millions of opinions. And that’s very hard because if you want to please everybody it’s almost impossible.”

What she looks for in an assistant (you know, in case you were interested):

“Someone that’s not lazy. Someone that has enthusiasm and has a similar love of fashion that I have. Someone that doesn’t keep to specific hours—work doesn’t stop at 5:30. In fact, it’s 24 hours a day. It’s not that I’m calling my assistant up in the middle of the night or anything, and I respect people’s home, but you can’t just cut off and cut away. It’s got to be part of your life, even if you’re working as an assistant—you’re always growing.”

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