The first thing you notice is the hair. Grace Coddington’s signature vermilion mane is full and fluffy, somewhat triangular, parted in the middle, and held back on one side by a comb.
The clothes the creative director of Vogue magazine wears are also her signature: black, well-cut, and not a stray thread or piece of lint in sight. Everything, in fact, looks almost exactly the way it does on film, in documentaries such as “The September Issue” from 2009 and HBO’s current “In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye,” from which she has become a cult celebrity for those who view fashion and its photography as an art form — everything except where the film captures her in the midst of work, lacking makeup and a bit harried.
At Kinnaman and Ramaekers Antiques on Saturday she looked glamorous and radiant, with a bit of lipstick on as well. Ms. Coddington was there to sign her new book “Grace: A Memoir” and had agreed to a 15-minute interview through her publicist. She was reluctantly placed in the spotlight three years ago with the first movie, after years of relative anonymity outside of the fashion world, and still hates being interviewed. Nonetheless she was generous with her time, allowing it to extend well past the agreed-upon parameters, offering a number of insights into her job, potential retirement, and life on the South Fork.
She bristled at the notion of a “Hamptons style,” but acknowledged that one existed. “I suppose it’s that very Ralph Lauren classic American look of a lot of money, where everything is painted and clean.”
Instead, the Bridgehampton antiques store, with its eclectic collection of mismatched glassware, Christmas ornaments, urns, chandeliers, ethnic woven blankets, an old punching bag, quirky furniture, and other odd and random bits, seems a candidate for Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop.” It’s like a second living room for Ms. Coddington, who has become good friends with the various dealers who show their wares there: Brian Ramaekers, Barbara Trujillo, Jolie Kelter, and Michael Malce.
“What I like about this shop is that it's very real, very lived-in: the cooking pots hanging down, the chair covers in bright colors. It’s very arty with the black floor,” she said. “My house looks somewhat like this.” She pointed to glasses displayed on lighted shelving. “You look at them and realize they only have three of one kind. It’s beautiful that they’re all different and don’t match.”
Ms. Coddington and her partner, Didier Malige, bought a newly built house in Wainscott because of its relative affordability in 1988, but she has set about re-making it in a similar personalized fashion, often using items from the store and displaying pictures and photographs the way her friend Bruce Weber, the photographer, does, in multiples on shelves.
“My friends don’t have ‘Hamptons-style’ houses. They have their houses,” she said, adding that she hoped that didn’t sound pretentious. Of Ms. Trujillo’s house, which is chock-a-block full of objects even when it is not decorated to the hilt on Christmas and Halloween, she said, “It’s so charming and personal to her.”
The designer Helmut Lang, turned sculptor in his retirement and year-round resident of the South Fork, has an old house on the ocean. “It’s very minimal and modern, except it’s not,” said Ms. Coddington, adding that it was where she herself would live if she had to choose another house. “It’s the most beautiful house I know.”
Her life in Wainscott is simple. “I swim a lot, cook a bit.” She is loyal to the Seafood Shop, not far from her door, and to Pike’s farmstand — she’s “a sucker for” its corn. They spend the entire month of August here, as well as weekends and the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Known for her devotion to her cats (she and Mr. Malige wrote a book called “The Catwalk Cats” that chronicles their lives as seen through the eyes of their cats), they take their holidays here and nowhere else, so that they do not have to be apart from them.
Ms. Coddington was born on the coast of northern Wales, and the East Hampton beaches in winter bring her back to her childhood and the inn her family kept there. Her father, with whom she was close, died when she was 10. She was sent to a convent school, even though her family was neither Catholic nor even religious. Her fascination with fashion and style began early with films such as “The Red Shoes” and “Sabrina,” and by reading an older sister’s copies of British Vogue.
At 18 she began a modeling career, no doubt inspired by the magazines she loved and because it would be a way out of the Welsh island life she saw ultimately as a trap. She attended modeling school in London, supporting herself as a waitress. Before long, she was appearing on the covers of magazines such as Elle, Harper’s, and yes, even Vogue, with photographers such as Helmut Newton, Frances McLaughlin-Gill (twin sister of Kathryn Abbe of Montauk), and Norman Parkinson, who was an early mentor for photo-styling.
In an era where the models were becoming as celebrated as the new mod clothes they wore, with nicknames such as “Twiggy” (Lesley Hornby) and “The Shrimp” (Jean Shrimpton), Ms. Coddington was known as “The Cod.” She had the same vagabond, rock-and-roll lifestyle as others in that era.
We learn from her book that she kissed Mick Jagger but ran off to Paris for the weekend with someone else before it went any further. She was the first to debut one of Vidal Sassoon’s geometric haircuts, and her career was in full swing when she lost her left eyelid in a car accident. The eyelid was recovered and replaced in a series of surgeries that sidelined her for two years, after which she continued modeling before retiring to become a junior editor at Vogue. The rest is history.
Ms. Coddington’s love life was certainly colorful and complicated, befitting the times. After some broken engagements and failed marriages, including one to Michael Chow, the restaurateur, she has settled down in a long-term partnership with Mr. Malige, a hair stylist on many of her Vogue shoots, which is where they met.
She celebrated her 70th birthday last year, and there has been some speculation since about when she might retire. She concurred that retirement is on the horizon, but when is an open question. “Maybe I’ll get kicked out eventually,” she mused, “because I have slowed down.” Technology, she said, is making her job — to create uniquely beautiful and memorable print layouts — more tenuous. “People look at things so fast now, they’re not really concerned with the quality.” She finds the cold perfection of digital presentations too sterile, preferring the flaws of print: the crinkle on the paper, the unexpected placement of a shadow seen in a different light.
Allowing imperfection into the work is a strategy she shared with Irving Penn, the legendary photographer and one of her idols. “Working with him once, the hairdresser fixing the girl’s hair let a hairpin fall out onto the floor. I bent over to pick it up and he said, ‘No, no, no, leave it there.’ It’s that little imperfection that makes his work so beautiful.”
Reflecting in her memoir on the art in and of her profession, she observes that calling fashion “art” may be “pushing it a bit.” For fashion photography, “rule number one is to make the picture beautiful and lyrical, or provocative and intellectual — but you still have to see the dress.”
What makes a fashion photograph great, she said on Saturday, is typically “very much a thing of that instant, even if is very contrived and controlled and designed and thought about beforehand . . . if something goes wrong that can be so much the better, it makes it interesting. When something goes out of control, it can make the picture.”
Although Ms. Coddington describes herself in the book as an intensely private person, she said writing about her life seemed more obligatory as her fame grew and publishers clamored for her story. She enjoyed the work as one of her increasing number of side projects, and said it allowed her to tackle her story her way.
“People have been asking me why I haven’t talked more about my father dying or my marriages, but I did it on my terms, like everything I do,” she said with a smile.