race Cobb: a Central Saint Martins Womenswear graduate turned stylist. It’s a career-move that many creatives nowadays often seem to take, however, the term career wasn’t quite ‘in the picture’ when Grace started out with styling in the 90s. Nor was there a real job description for what she set out to do, either.
Many of Tim Walker’s early editorials have been shot in collaboration with Grace; she became Fashion Director of The Face in 2002, and launched Wonderland Magazine in 2006 as Creative Director. In between her freelance styling, we met Grace for breakfast in Notting Hill’s Electric Diner. Her energy and quick wit was warming, and her great share of advice even more so. We jumped from her Saint Martins past with Katie Grand and Giles, to her career in 2015, and everything in-between. It’s a quite rare experience to leave an interview as uplifted as we did that day, but instead of rushing to the end of our conversation, let’s start from her beginning…
“I think a lot of people are spending too much time thinking about their careers, and not enough time exploring what it is that gets them excited.”
You studied Womenswear at Central Saint Martins and subsequently went into styling — was this planned? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do?
I don’t think you ever have one. I think it’s fine to not have an idea.
The CEO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, said that if she had decided what she was going to do in college—at a time when Internet did not exist — it would have been a big mistake, as she’d have limited herself to the only the options that were available to her at that time.
Exactly, I don’t make plans. I think stuff happens. I think you put yourself in the right place — which you have done: you’ve put yourself in St Martins; you do that, and then other things fall into place. You are among your contemporaries, for the rest of your life. These people who you’re working with now, you’ll be working with them for the rest of your life. I still work with most of the people I was at college with.
It seems there is always a group of the cool kids at Central Saint Martins — in your time it was Giles, Katie Grand, David Kappo, you…
I don’t think we were the coolest kids at school; we drank a lot, partied a lot, and had a brilliant time together. We became good friends. We weren’t particularly career orientated, we were quite messy. It took us a lot of time to get our stuff together. I think a lot of people are spending too much time thinking about their careers, and not enough time exploring what it is that gets them excited. That can sometimes mean that you don’t build up enough to last.
“Bloody hell, if we went back to everybody’s first collection. I mean, really? It’s called a process!”
It feels as if too many young people are afraid of making mistakes; they believe it will make a mark on their “career”.
It’s all about career! I think you make your own career, and you make your own mess, my God! Mistakes are really important, you really learn from them, and I’ve made some big ones.
I think while we don’t have careers, we are so privileged; we shouldn’t care about anyone and we can make mistakes. But, often we have students who are even worried about putting a picture on Instagram.
I 100% agree with you. It’s sad, there’s a lot of scared youth. It’s because everything is recorded, and everything is watched, so everybody has gotten nervous. I don’t know what the answer is, maybe everyone is jumping from 1 to 10 without kind of thinking about the bit in-between. I feel very lucky that I didn’t have that pressure.
If you’ve just graduated at twenty-three and made a crap collection, everyone thinks that “you’re done”, but you literally graduated few months before and you’re just starting out… It shouldn’t be like this.
Bloody hell, if we went back to everybody’s first collection. I mean, really? It’s called a process! That’s what keeps you evolving; you don’t stop. You always think that the last thing you’ve done is crap, and that’s why you do it again, and again. That’s the whole point: it never stops. You can’t ever reach perfection — that’s a kind of unknown entity; a subjective energy. You carry on and on, you wake up in the morning and you do it all over again. As a fashion editor, you do a story, and by the time you see it, you probably hate it, and you probably think it’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done.
“You can’t ever reach perfection — that’s a kind of unknown entity; a subjective energy. You carry on and on, you wake up in the morning and you do it all over again.”
Why did you choose styling instead of design?
I think designing is a very different mindset. It is a lonely thing. I love being around other people; I like photographers, makeup, all of that; and in a magazine, you fire off from other people. For me, that’s how I get the most out of myself.
In an interview with Business of Fashion, Caroline Issa mentioned how much the power of street style has helped push her magazine. Have you ever considered being a street style celebrity?
No, that has never been something in my consideration. For me, what I do is always behind the camera. I enjoy seeing things through a lens. I love how unrealistic that is. It’s a fantasy. It’s a transformation, and I find it very difficult when that turns into too much of a reality. I think the source can be from the street, and that swaps constantly; but as a notion of fashion, as an editor, it’s taking something from fashion and putting it on a pedestal. That doesn’t excite me. It’s absolutely projecting another world. I certainly wouldn’t want to be involved in that.
Do you think that the new generation needs it? In CSM we had short courses on self promotion.
In this day and age it’s important to be yourself; you need to know what you’re doing. Work without honesty is not proper work, unless you give it your all. That’s the point. And that’s why sometimes it’s embarrassing; sometimes it’s crap, sometimes it’s brilliant. But you never do anything properly unless it’s that. It’s like what you said, if you worry about everything constantly, then you’re not really doing it — it’s half hearted, because you’re bloody worried about how it will be conceived. If you look at the best people out there, they’ve never worried about what anyone thinks.
“People say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I think you need to kind of hold onto that a little bit and think, well, “if people hate it, it’s better than not having an opinion.”
I hope they still don’t
Because you can’t. There has got to be that arrogance, hasn’t there? “I don’t care what people think.” People say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I think you need to kind of hold onto that a little bit and think, well, “if people hate it, it’s better than not having an opinion.” You have to be a little bit arrogant. Just do what you believe in.
How did you personally get into styling? Where did it all begin?
It’s really weird, but it all happened by accident.
You did graduate?
Yes, I did. Only just, by the skin of my teeth. I wasn’t exactly working. I was kind of basically just~ Well, as you know, I was friends with Katie, Giles… we used to hang out and~
Were you all in the same year?
No, Giles was the year above me, so he’d left by the time I was in my final year. Katie was in my year, but she’d left to start Dazed. I did fashion design because I love clothes, and then, if I’m really honest, there wasn’t the world that there is now… Not everybody was a stylist, like they are now: every other person is a stylist. I think I looked down my nose when I thought about what a stylist was, when I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I realised that it actually started to be something interesting. You can be quite fickle as a stylist, whereas, as a designer, you can’t, you have to stick to~
Yes. Whereas a stylist can flip around, and work with different people, you can get inspired by different things, and it’s more throwaway. That excited me. I remember having a conversation with Katie and she said to me that I should try being a stylist. So, I did. I met this guy, Duncan Ord, who now is a major model agent. He was friends with somebody called Tim Walker, who was just starting out as a photographer; he’d just won an award in the Telegraph as new photographer of the year. Duncan said that I should meet him and I started doing some styling with him, just using second hand clothes. It was different then, easier; I know that sounds really romantic, but it was.
“Being published? Oh my god, that’s such a bonus! It sounds really pretentious, but you hear about painters saying that they paint because they don’t know what else to do: sometimes they sell paintings, and sometimes they don’t. Whether you make money out of it is a separate entity.”
It’s very rare for people to get together just to do something, “oh, I have some clothes in my flat, lets just do it”, everyone is like, “it should be in this magazine, otherwise I’m not shooting”. Finding models from agencies…
I don’t think people are that honest about their work anymore. You have to do things! Just get it out; if you believe in it enough, you just want to do it, whether it’s published or not. Being published? Oh my god, that’s such a bonus! It sounds really pretentious, but you hear about painters saying that they paint because they don’t know what else to do: sometimes they sell paintings, and sometimes they don’t. Whether you make money out of it is a separate entity. There’s no idea that it was a career, it was like, “that’s such an exciting thing to do, I just want to do it.”
Do you think you can learn styling? There are so many courses about it now.
I believe you can be taught things, and that’s why art schools exist. But there’s something there, an enthusiasm, a want, a visual thing that can then be fine tuned. I don’t think everyone can be that brilliant, no.
Just because of talent? Or personal qualities?
I think just law of averages. I think everybody these days wants to be creative. It’s this word that’s overused all the time.
“Just stick to your guns. Just believing in what you’re doing. Even if everyone goes, “it’s a pile of crap”, or “what the hell are you doing?”, “why aren’t you making money?”… forget it.”
Do you love what you do?
You wouldn’t change it?
Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, depending.
Any secret formula for a magazine success?
No. Just sticking to your guns. Just believing in what you’re doing. Even if everyone goes, “it’s a pile of crap”, or “what the hell are you doing?”, “why aren’t you making money?”… forget it. If you believe in it, don’t worry. You have to go home at night and sleep, and know if you’re doing something good or not. Anybody knows in their hearts whether they’re doing something good or not. People at college should start independent publishing, they should start magazines. There has been a slowdown of making lots of magazines, because everyone has been so bothered about money, that changes everything. I think if something can sustain itself, it’s exciting.
“Slowly, the new generation evolves. That’s when the best things happen. Everyone’s in such a hurry.”
When you work on shoots, what is the process? Do you ever think that everything is horrible during a shoot, and how do you resolve that?
Yes, like anything. Obviously you prep it. I’ve got millions of books. It might be one picture and you think “oh! I want to do that”, so then I obviously call in all of the clothes.
Do you do fittings before the shoots?
No, I’m not that organised. It’s very much on a song and a prayer kind of thing, I know what I want it to look like. I call in all the stuff according to that. I don’t over call in either. You can only control to a certain extent; if you are constantly trying to get what you see in your head, you might miss out on what comes in-between. I’m always very conscious of what’s happening, while hair and makeup and photographers are there. Obviously you have conversations before, have references etc, but it happens there: to miss that out, because you want something you planned, is a big mistake, in my opinion, because so many magic things happen.
Are you bossy?
Controlling. You have to be, don’t you? Otherwise you don’t have an opinion. I don’t know whether I’m a control freak, or it’s just being in charge of what you think. I certainly listen, because that’s important.
When you’re on a shoot with a photographer – whose opinion is more important?
You pick your photographer, don’t you? You build up teams, and you know how somebody works. Obviously there are sometimes problems with egos, but I tend not to take any notice. You end up working with somebody once, if there’s a problem like that. For me, it’s always a collaboration; if not, then it’s a battle. It has to be a proper discussion. If you get to the point of the shoot and the photographer is seeing something different, then there has been a problem with communication from day one.
“A career is something that lasts your lifetime. I don’t ever want to give up. At twenty-one, I knew nothing.”
Who is the best assistant for you?
Somebody who thinks about it before you have.
Did you ever have that?
Yes, now. He’s amazing. I’ve been very lucky. My previous assistant, Fran, is incredible too, very intelligent. They have ambition, but they’re not wanting to shoot straight away — they want to learn. I think that’s a great quality in an assistant, because there are so many people at Wonderland, who used to come to do work experience, and they were literally like “so, when am I shooting?” It’s like, “well, maybe in seven years? When you’ve assisted for four years and learnt about this”. Everybody wants to do everything straight away. The best ones are those who have been doing it for a long time. You learn, and you also get in touch with your contemporaries; you build up a team. Slowly, the new generation evolves. That’s when the best things happen. Everyone’s in such a hurry.
I guess it’s because we read about 18 year olds with great success stories and compare ourselves to them.
Everyone’s so insecure! Why? I didn’t start doing what I’m doing now until I was twenty seven. These kids will get depressed very quickly. A career is something that lasts your lifetime. I don’t ever want to give up. At twenty-one, I knew nothing. I was full of ambition and I thought I knew everything, but I’d just graduated, so I was just doing what I thought I knew to do.
“There are different types of careers these days: those that are short, sharp and young, and those that are proper and are going to stay forever.”
Do you think it’s fashion that pushes it? It’s an industry that looks for the next young thing.
You’re right, yes, we are all looking for the next young talent. We’re right in that now, and it’s that sort of Warhol, fifteen minutes of fame type of thing. There are different types of careers these days: those that are short, sharp and young, and those that are proper and are going to stay forever. The young new ones are good for injections of fresh blood. I think we use and abuse it, and then dump it. The thing is, you have to feed your brain, you have to be looking for stuff. It’s so important to research and look at other people’s work, and to constantly be knowledgeable about all sorts of things. Otherwise, things have too short a cycle. You have to preempt a reaction, which becomes easy once you have a balanced idea of the history of how it works, so I think your instinct is stronger because of the knowledge you have. You can never be too researched. About anything. People come into our office and they don’t know about films. I think, “oh god”, fashion and films have gone hand in hand forever, one always influences the other. There’s a lack of research.
What is vulgar to you?
Anything obvious is vulgar. I hate anything obvious. I don’t like it if you know something is from somewhere instantly, it’s an extension of my research I guess. Subtlety is a nice thing.
We have lots of fashion depressions at CSM, this whole blogger scene and instagram, sometimes you just think “am I a part of this?” and you have to keep reminding yourself that there is a different kind of fashion. When you’re a student, you’re trying to figure out what you actually want to do. Where you want to go, why you want to do it?
Too many questions, just do it.
Interview by Olya Kuryshchuk
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