Grace Coddington: Lessons on building a unique, personal brand

Brand + Business x Christine Moody*

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Grace Coddington, the Creative Director of American Vogue has stepped down from her role and has assumed the role of ‘Creative Director at Large‘,  to enable her to take up other projects. Coddington is a great example of someone who has built up a strong, person brand and we have much to learn from her on how to develop an authentic personal brand. There are many lessons to learn—her strength in turning something negative into something positive ie, her need to abandon her modelling car as a result of receiving facial injuries in a car accident but turning her inside knowledge of the fashion industry into a career as a stylist for the most famous fashion publication in the world.
If you watched the documentary, The September Issue, you will understand how Coddington stole the show by simply being herself. The star of this behind-the-scenes documentary on the production of the September issue of American Vogue should have been Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour—well at least judging by the amount of screen time with Wintour. But instead Coddington became the stand out star.
What the documentary revealed was Coddington’s natural, strong-willed personality and willingness to go the extra mile. She became the ‘character’ we fell in love with. We fell in love with Coddington’s passion and love of the fickle, fashion industry; we fell in love with the fact that she did not act like a ‘star’ and just went about her job (even if it meant having robust discussions with the Art Director as to why her pages were cut from the issue); and we fell in love with her down-to-earth, uncomplicated, and authentic style.

Coddington started work at Vogue on the same day as Wintour which explain why she seemed to be the only person who was not afraid of Wintour and the only one who could speak up and defend her ideas during the editorial meetings. She truly seems to live and breathe her job with the results being the beautiful photographs seen on the pages of Vogue each month. In the documentary we also see Coddington at home and she is no different than when working with famous models and photographers. She also treats everyone with respect and seems to be able to get the best out of her team—whether advising them on how to deal with Wintour or just survive the difficult world of fashion.

Coddington had been with Vogue for 30 years and although she worked for a well-known brand, she was able to stand out from her peers by doing the best job she could and reach the high standards of this prestigious publication—no matter if she agreed 100% with the direction or not. She made it work within the budget and timetable worked magic within the constraints she was given.
She always immersed herself in the project at hand and always went the extra mile and looked at every detail to ensure photographs captured the story she was trying to tell Vogue’s readers. She was willing to put her point of view across and work with the best models and photographers to capture the story—compromises in quality was not an option. The entire team seemed to love working with Coddington and each member—including the often hard-to-work-with photographers—were able to understand the story she wanted to tell in the layout. And she did not just direct from the sidelines—she worked alongside her team doing everything from buckling models shoes to adjusting an outfit. No task was too menial and it was all hands on deck to achieve the outcome she envisioned.
What surprises me most about Coddington was the fact that she did not dress like you would expect someone who worked at Vogue to dress—with access to free products and samples. While I expected Dior suits and Prada pumps, Coddingington prefers low-key, comfortable, and mainly black outfits—flat shoes and simple, button-up, ‘house-style’ frocks. This simple colour scheme forms a dramatic backdrop for her stand out trademark and her brand’s calling card—her wild red hair. But it is all of these brand elements that come together to create a person who appears very approachable and professional. She obviously does not feel the need to conform to the ‘fashion rules’ and it was these traits that endears her to the millions who have watched the film and purchased her 2012 book, Grace: A Memoir.
Not knowing Coddington personally but studying her career and following her for many years, here are some lessons on Coddington’s personal brand:
> Create your own—and unique—personal brand under the company brand (working for a company does not stop you from creating your personal brand and persona on social media—as long as it is done in a manner that reflects the organisation’s protocols)
> Be the best you can you in your chosen field and if something derails your career path, pick yourself up and use your unique knowledge you have gained, to take a different path (sometimes this can work out much better than the original plan!)
> Be authentic and develop your own voice while at the same time respecting others opinions (listen to others but be prepared to speak up if you have something important and relevant to say)
> Good work will be recognised and rewarded if you continue to do good work (don’t let others standards pull you down)
> Wear clothing that suits you and your job and don’t conform to what you think others will expect you to wear (choose to keep high dress standards and appropriate to the tasks you have to do each day)
> Be interested in the entire organisation and make friends across each business unit as you need to understand the bigger picture and where you fit in (this helps you identify the next role you might like to apply for and who the key decision makers are).
The key to personal branding is aligning your goals and aspirations with everything you do and say. Find your voice and use it in everything from how you dress to what you say on your Linkedin page. You have a unique voice so use it to stand out and achieve your goals.

*Christine Moody is one of Australia’s leading brand strategists and the founder brand management consultancy, Brand Audits. With more than 30 years’ professional experience, Christine has helped a diverse client base of local and international brands, including Gold Coast City Council, Hilton Hotels, and Wrigleys USA, to develop, protect and achieve brand differentiation. Her particular interest is personal brand audits to assist executives realise their full potential.

For more information: or +61 419 888 468.

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