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 Klein—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 stylist, celebrated for the fantastical images that she creates for the magazine’s pages. For more than four decades—starting with her debut as a onetime model and radiant presence in London’s swinging sixties—she has collaborated with the best photographers, models, 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 garment from the runway to Grace’s sketchbook (in which she draws all of her favorite pieces from the front rows in New York and Paris) to the pages of Vogue is nothing short of a thrill. She has a deep appreciation of high art (she’s transformed works by Gustav Klimt, 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. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, models showed up ready to adorn themselves, as there was no such role as a stylist. Gracefully transitioning throughout the years from subject to collaborator, she changed that. 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.

But with worldwide renown as a master stylist, 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 these works 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 the famed editor’s 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. In this collection, we can see Grace’s eye holding each figure, many of which showcase the whole body, a preference Grace takes to her fashion shoots as well (“I drive photographers mad because I say, ‘You’ve got to show the feet.’” she says, “For me it gives you the character of the person.”). Take Kristen McMenamy at the Ritz, photographed by Steven Klein in 1993. To Grace, Kristen is timeless: “With her cool, stately looks she has the stylized quality of a 1950s couture model,” she says, “but in front of the camera she always manages to look truly modern.” Modernity and the beauty of an internal story are more interesting to her than sexuality. Even of her good friend Mario Testino, who has photographed some of the sexiest women (albeit, clothed) with Grace as a collaborator, she says could button it up a bit. “[He is] is certainly fun to work with,” she says, and adds as a parenthetical: “Though I prefer it when he doesn’t make the pictures too sexy.”

Her selection contains works by Bruce Weber, a friend whose work she also collects. Sitting alongside Weber’s works on her wall at home are photographs of Natalia Vodianova as Alice in Wonderland, photographed in 2003 by Annie Leibovitz—the only fashion editorial from Grace’s archives she’s opted to hang. It’s fitting then that Grace included Leibovitz’s dramatic painted portrait of Keith Haring here. An artistic risktaker in a dramatic, graphically exciting environment has Grace’s taste written all over it. “A narrative doesn’t have to be ten pages, it can be one picture,” she says, and each photograph here-—whether by stately icons like Herb Ritts, Bert Stern and Horst P. Horst, or fresh visionaries like Ryan McGinley 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