The Naked Truth

To Karl Lagerfeld, she is a “genius.” To Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, she is the magazine’s “jewel in the crown.” In the eyes of her longtime photographer collaborators—from Peter Lindbergh to Steven Meisel—she is a tireless visionary. And that’s just a start. As the Creative Director of Vogue, Grace Coddington is a storyteller as much as a fashion editor, celebrated for the fantastical images that she creates for the magazine’s pages. For more than four decades—starting with her debut as a model in London’s swinging sixties—she has collaborated with the best photographers, designers, models, actors, hair and makeup artists in the business to create cinematic spreads that are the visual heart of Vogue, iconic in their depth and sheer imagination.

“She doesn’t stop until it’s over,” says photographer Arthur Elgort, whose first shoot with Grace featured young models running through the Jardins des Tuileries wearing the shocking-bright clothes Kenzo made famous in the ‘80s. “And you don’t argue with her, because she’s usually right.” Grace is known for her exacting eye—be it in the sartorial realm, or in our case, otherwise: here she’s applied that vision to a collection of nudes, many of them the artworks of her collaborators and friends, who are also the unequivocal leaders in contemporary fashion photography.

Grace’s eye brings stories to clothing, and witnessing the transportation of a dress from the runway to Grace’s sketchbook (in which she draws every piece from the front rows in New York, Paris, and Milan) to the pages of Vogue is nothing short of a thrill. She has a deep appreciation of fine art (in a recent spread, she transformed works by Gustav Klimt, Vincent van Gogh, Frederic Leighton and more into fashion shots) alongside a democratic attention-to-detail that, at times, means she herself will bend down to tie a model’s shoe on set.

Grace’s personal narrative is as picturesque as she is. She grew up reading issues of Vogue on an island off the coast of Wales, where her family ran a hotel. Her first modeling job was in fact an alfresco nude photo shoot for Norman Parkinson; he photographed her running bare with spirited abandon through the woods on his property. Gracefully transitioning throughout the years from subject to collaborator, she joined British Vogue as a fashion editor. By the time she came to American Vogue in 1988, her incredible focus and immersive process was much admired in the fashion community. In 2002 the CFDA honored her with the Lifetime Achievement Award. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Grace was launched into the public consciousness: she became the unwilling star of R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, about the creation of the then-largest-ever issue of Vogue. The film illuminated the vast effort and discussion that goes into every single fashion image in the magazine, and the creative director’s frankness and conviction captivated audiences. From then on, Grace’s crown of Pre-Raphaelite red hair—mirroring the flares of passionate creativity the audience loved—was recognized everywhere she went.

As an editor, the core of Grace’s work is the clothes. In the works she selected for Paddle8, it is fascinating to see her curation of images of the human form laid bare, in a natural state before you’d apply, say, tens of thousands of dollars worth of couture. The nude is Grace’s blank canvas, upon which she piles layers of elegance, empowerment, beauty and fantasy. And since so many of the works in Paddle8′s auction are photographed by her Vogue collaborators—from Steven Meisel to Ellen Von Unwerth, Mario Testino, David Sims, Craig McDean, Bruce Weber, and Annie Leibovitz—they represent an intimate look at her sense of beauty, as well as an enthusiasm for the stable of artists whose work she personally cherishes.

The array of nudes in the auction speak to Grace’s fascination with the human form as a foundation; her preoccupation is not with sexiness, but with the beauty of an internal story. “A narrative doesn’t have to be ten pages, it can be one picture,” she says, and each photograph here—whether by icons like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Guy Bourdin, Annie Leibovitz, and Bruce Weber, or visionaries like Ryan McGinley, Gregory Crewdson, and Juergen Teller—contains a story, a moment of tension that suggests what might happen next, or what possibly occurred just before the shot was taken.

The collection in itself is an experience of Grace’s rigorous selection process, guided by her remarkable visual precision. What catches her eye, what speaks—these mysterious combinations make her gaze wholly distinctive, be it turned to sartorial tableaux or other great bodies of work.

Image courtesy of Craig McDean