Grace Coddington, legendary fashion editor and global traveller, has spent the last twenty two years honing her travel techniques as the Creative Director of American Vogue. In an interview shot at her Hamptons home by travel companion and long-term collaborator Arthur Elgort, Grace shares an insight into her packing habits, the well-known faces she turns to for travel recommendations, and the Smythson products she has relied on for decades.
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In our overly sensationalised world, it’s easy to give in to hyperbole. But when legendary flame-haired editor Grace Coddington says she’s been everywhere, it’s no exaggeration. Coddington has crisscrossed the globe many times over, first as a model, then in her variety of roles for Vogue, where she has worked as an editor for nearly 50 years.
In 2016, she exchanged her role as Creative Director of American Vogue for the role of Creative Director at Large so she could pursue more projects – because she certainly doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon. In fact, aged 76, she’s embarking on a new period of productivity and freedom, one that includes launching a namesake fragrance, writing several books, and continuing to creatively direct photo shoots for Vogue. “It’s nice because I haven’t lost them altogether as a family,” she says of the magazine, whilst sketching out one of her signature cat drawings, at her home in the Hamptons. “But I can also do other things that I could never do when I was full-time. I’ve tried to broaden what I do so it’s not just clothes. It can be anything.”
And though it’s true she’s been almost everywhere, there’s one thing Coddington hasn’t had much of a chance to do when it comes to travel: go somewhere just for the fun of it. Now, with a more liberal schedule, she can now work on remedying that.
“Hopefully now I’ll be travelling for reasons other than work,” she says. “Hopefully I’ll be going to London to visit Smythson, if they invite me.” Needless to say, Coddington’s certainly prepared for the task at hand: despite an abiding fear of flying, she’s managed to hone her travel routine to a fine craft. Here, her hard-won wisdom.
“I think that the art of travelling is to be well-informed before you go. Before I go somewhere, I will ask everyone I know who’s been there for their personal experience and take their advice. I think it’s more important to have someone’s personal point of view than to read a book, because a book tells you what it wants to tell you rather than the truth. Who I ask depends on where I’m going, so I have the whole world to choose from. If I’m going to South America, I’ll probably ask Mario Testino. If I’m going on safari, I might ask Arthur Elgort because he’s been on a lot of safaris. Asia… I don’t know, I might ask my ex-husband.
In order to stay sane while travelling, a good bit of advice would be to always leave yourself plenty of time to get there. If you get ready at the last minute, you get more stressed. I am a stressy kind of traveller, because I don’t like flying. It does scare me, particularly if it’s bumpy.
“Who I ask, depends on where I’m going. If I’m going to South America, I’ll probably ask Mario Testino. If I’m going on safari, I might ask Arthur Elgort because he’s been on a lot of safaris. Asia…I don’t know; I might ask my ex-husband.”
Another thing that’s difficult for me about travelling is that I don’t like leaving my cats. I’ve set up a series of failsafe things for people coming to take care of them – as in, if a person doesn’t turn up one day, then there’s always got to be a backup. As you can probably tell, I like to be very prepared in all senses.
When it comes to pre-travel beauty routines, the only thing that I do is to make sure that my hair colour is as up to date as possible beforehand. I go to Louis Lacari, who has been keeping me red for a very long time, otherwise nobody would recognise me. Actually, maybe that would be a good thing. I often think I should just let it go grey, but I haven’t had the courage yet.”
“The moment I book I panic at the thought of having to pack. I usually pack the night before. I take everything out of my closet and lie it down the bed, and then I realise I’ve got a mound this high [puts a hand above her head] and that’s not very practical. So I sort of leave it there for awhile, and then I come back and edit it down. What I like to do is edit it enough so that it all fits into a small carry-on bag – I really love the Smythson holdall. It’s the perfect carry-on. The leather is super soft and its surprisingly light.
If I’m going on a much longer trip and need to check my luggage, I always make sure to put a Smythson luggage tag on my suitcase. I find the whole luggage pickup process really tedious and thus, I want to minimise my time standing by the carousel trying to find my suitcase. I’ll make sure that at least my jewellery, iPad and iPhone – and all those things that we can’t live without these days – fit in a small bag like the Burlington backpack. I also like to take a hanging bag that has coat hangers in it with everything already hung up. Then when I get to the hotel I take everything out and hang the whole lot in the closet, so it’s very minimal unpacking.
“I always make sure to put a Smythson luggage tag on my suitcase. I find the whole luggage pickup process really tedious and thus, I want to minimise my time standing by the carousel trying to find my suitcase.”
“I pack everything in my Smythson washbags which are so great for make up and skin creams but are so elegant and well-made that I also use them for storing other things too.”
I have a uniform, so I pack a little bit like a man: I have six folded shirts, six trousers, underwear, et cetera. I don’t have a huge extensive wardrobe so the most I have to do is question, shall I take this extra sweater or not, or do I need two coats? Probably not, I’m probably not going to wear it because I will probably go everywhere by car. And depending on where I’m going, I’ll have the necessary essentials such as mosquito stuff, suntan lotion, or big heavy boots if I’m going to the countryside, or Wales or somewhere. A fold-up raincoat if I’m going to England – no, that’s mean. But a fold-up umbrella is always a good idea. I did a trip to the Seychelles once and we took a taxidermy tiger because we were trying to recreate a Henri Rousseau painting with animals coming out of the forest and there are no animals in the Seychelles. So we had to bring them with us to create the picture. He was very expensive. We had to look after him quite carefully. We carried him on the plane, and carried him off, wrapped in plastic.
If I’m going to the collections, I pack a uniform of things. It’s very repetitive in order to make it easy. And it makes unpacking when you come home easy, too. I always take my Smythson notebooks, and pens. As I travel so much, I always want to make it easy and a routine helps with that.
“One thing that always stays at home is my address book. The one I have now is probably 15 years old. I’ve always had these Smythson address books; I like them. The paper is very thin, and you can get a lot in them.”
I use eye drops a lot. I have a problem with my eyes, they get very dry in the air conditioning of a plane. And I use moisturiser from my dermatologist, Orentreich. They have really, really good skin products. I pack everything in my Smythson washbags which are so great for make up and skin creams but are so elegant and well-made that I also use them for storing other things too. I have my own perfume, Grace by Grace Coddington, and yes I take that with me because I like it a lot and I want everyone to smell it. It’s basically roses; I made a perfume that I really wanted to wear otherwise it would have been pointless for me, I’m not really in the big perfume business. I also take a hairbrush, that helps, and I pray that each hotel has a hairdryer. If I just drip dry it takes forever, though it’s better because it’s more curly if drip dried. I also always take my own Philip Kingsley shampoo and conditioner.
One thing that always stays at home is my address book. I’m scared to lose it, although I have it backed up on my phone, nevertheless. I’ve had a series of them over the years. The one I have now is probably 15 years old. I’ve always had these Smythson address books; I like them. The paper is very thin, and you can get a lot in them.”
“I think I pretty much travel in the same thing whether it’s summer or winter. I have a shirt or a sweater, and a pair of trousers. Sneakers. I keep it simple. I think layers are important. I have a coat that’s kind of like a blanket, which is my favourite coat because I can use it as a blanket. Having said that, I also always travel with my own blanket because I don’t really like aeroplane blankets. I don’t mind the beds if you’re in First Class and you have the puffy quilts and things, but I like to have my own cashmere blanket. I’ve had it for, god, I don’t know how many years. I got it while I still lived in London, so that’s thirty or something years ago. I think it was a present from Donna Karan. My feet are always cold on the plane, so I take very, very thick, woolly socks when I’m flying, rather than using the aeroplane stretchy socks. I like to be completely ready before the car comes and I like to get to the airport early. I’m not one of those people that leaves it to the last minute and runs straight to the gate, even if I go First Class. People will say to me, well you got a First Class ticket so you can go half an hour later. I’m like, no, I want be there. Once I’m there, then I will relax.
“Even if I go, First Class, people will say to me, well you got a first-class ticket this time you can go half an hour later. I’m like no, I wanna be there. Once you’re there, you can relax.”
I hate airports, so I can’t say that I have a favourite, but I definitely have a favourite airport lounge: the Air France lounge in Paris. It’s amazing; you can get a massage in most airports nowadays but, with Air France, it’s right there in the lounge. I like to have a stiff drink before getting on the plane. A Bloody Mary. I don’t usually eat before I board, because when you get on the plane having a meal gives you something to do. You can have a meal then you doze off to sleep. Eating and sleeping is what I do on the plane. I very often start reading a magazine but I always doze off when I do that. I never take heavy sleeping pills or anything; I would be scared that I’d end up in Australia, which wouldn’t be bad but maybe not where I intended on going. But I do take something called Rescue Remedy, which is kind of like a herbal sleeping pill. They have these little things called melts, they’re so small that you can’t imagine they would help you to sleep, but they do.”
“The first thing I do when I get to a hotel is check in, and then I very quickly unpack. Because usually when we go on a trip, we say okay meet you in ten minutes downstairs, so I like to just let everything breathe and hang out, and then I go downstairs and have lunch or whatever time of day it is, that meal, and check on what the program is going to be for the next few days. There’s always a meeting the moment you get off the plane. It can be brutal. It’s not like I lounge around in a bath for a few hours. And I don’t usually go early. I mean I go early to look for locations but not to hang around and have massages.
“The first thing I do when I get to a hotel is check in, and then I very quickly unpack. Because usually when we go on a trip, we say okay meet you in ten minutes downstairs, so I like to just let everything breathe and hang out.”
The signs of a good hotel are that that they recognise you; that they make sure you have the room you prefer; that you can always find someone if you need to ask them to do something. The laundry service is really important to me because I tend to send stuff every day and it’s essential they don’t lose it. And it’s nice if they have a nice bar so that you can meet your friends. In the good old days, I used to stay at The Ritz a lot, and I bought all their bath towels, so all of the bath towels and mats I have in my New York apartment are The Ritz. I did steal a few cups and things from the Crillon, because I like to collect restaurant plates. Once, I bought a whole set of plates from Brasserie Balzar, and carried them back on the plane.
I’m not someone who goes to the gym in every hotel. I keep wishing I would go to the swimming pool because I like swimming, but somehow there’s never quite enough time to dry your hair. I’m not a very athletic kind of a person. I don’t go to the gym. I should, but I don’t.
I think the main thing I do at a hotel to feel at home is just giving myself time to relax in a warm bath. It makes you feel refreshed, obviously, and I think it’s good to start your day with a relaxing thing, rather than just to rush into it. Every morning I like to have quite a long bath.
When it comes to in-room dining, the one thing I love to order from room service is the spaghetti bolognese. Somehow it’s always good.”
Finally, on the art of travelling…
“I give a lot of credit to the photographer Norman Parkinson for opening up the world to me. He is the one who taught me about travelling. He would say ‘always keep your eyes open’ and ‘don’t get blasé.’ He himself loved to travel and was great at embracing each country he visited. He first introduced me to the Caribbean, which I just love. Paul Bowles has been a big inspiration for my many trips to Morocco. I’ve been there over the years to shoot with Bruce Weber, Ellen von Unwerth and Patrick Demarchelier.
“I give a lot of credit to the photographer Norman Parkinson for opening up the world to me. He is the one who taught me about travelling. He would say ‘always keep your eyes open’ and ‘don’t get blasé.’”
I’d define the art of travelling as keeping an open mind. Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone and don’t be stuck on everything being luxurious. You have to make do with what a place has to offer if you want to get to know it.”
Photographed by Arthur Elgort for Smythson