Having studied Social Anthropology at university, Alexandra Shulman has long understood the importance of fashion in society. “It’s a way of saying what tribe you belong to. It’s a way of saying what message you want to give out at that particular point.” She pauses. “On the other hand, I do think that if you make a decision not to be interested in what you wear, that is a decision that you are making too.”
We both laugh. Not interested in fashion is exactly how Shulman appeared to some people when she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue in 1992, and indeed to this day people still marvel over the fact that she doesn’t look like a Vogue editor. “It’s kind of hard to remember,” she says of that period, “because it was 23 years ago now.” And therein lies all the rebuttal one needs, she doesn’t look like a Vogue editor, she looks like the longest-standing British Vogue editor. She continues, “I didn’t come from a culture where anyone would think like that and so I had no idea that anyone would think like that.” She did expect, however, that they would think that she didn’t have much experience in fashion, which she says was “frankly nothing but the truth”.
“You wouldn’t believe how little I knew,” she says quite seriously. She may have understood the importance of fashion, but she didn’t understand fashion at all. “It does seem very odd now,” she continues, “a lot of people who go into fashion have very much decided to do so. I’m unusual in having come at it from another route.” Shulman’s particular route took her from her degree in Social Anthropology, via two jobs at her dream workplace of record labels, both of which she was fired from, only to come full circle to her parents’ career of journalism, writing for various magazines before she became editor of GQ and then Vogue.
This route may not have afforded her much experience in fashion, but next year she will have edited Vogue for twice as many years as she did everything else before. She is now not only very much interested in fashion, but she wants to encourage other women to be so too. She wants them not to be afraid of appearing “in a fashion construct”. It has become something of a “hobbyhorse” of hers, so much so that when I bring it up she nods, “Yes, I was just talking about this over supper,” as she launches into the issue again quite happily for my sake. “In America, you will have a politician and they will absolutely accept that they will get dressed up in a Donna Karen dress and be photographed for the cover of Vogue. Our female politicians find it really hard to get dressed in fashion and be photographed and be put in the magazine with fashion pictures. They are concerned that it trivialises them in some way. It’s so important to change that. We’re finding it is improving, but it is slow, there is no question about that.”
As the conversation turns to the fashion industry itself, it is clear that there too progress can be slow, especially when Shulman is one of the only voices consistently calling for change. We’re talking about what Shulman calls “extreme thinness”. In 2009, she wrote to a number of high profile designers asking them to make larger sample sizes to send to Vogue for shoots, as the ones they were supplying were increasingly “miniscule”. The letter provoked little reply- let alone change. “I can’t change it alone” she says with a sigh. “I think the fashion industry really lets itself down by not doing something about it. I think it’s unrealistic, I think it’s unhelpful, and I think it’s unattractive.”
Although she assures me that Vogue takes it really quite seriously, she reminds me that it isn’t only a fashion problem. “It’s in showbiz, films, television. I mean you look at women on television who aren’t models, they’re grown women and they’re tiny.”
Meanwhile, the fashion industry, and particularly fashion magazines, face other problems. If it’s the creative whims and fancies of designers she’s up against when it comes to size, its cold, hard economics she’s fighting when it comes to race. “If I put a smiley blonde girl on the cover of Vogue, she’ll sell more magazines than a dark haired model, let alone a black model.” Again, she insists change is happening, but she admits that it’s slow and due perhaps to the nature of the expanding Asian market with India and China (two places the industry is very excited about at the moment, along with Istanbul).
“We really are in the last stages of the American empire,” she says, “At the moment, China is following a western model. Real change is going to come when the Chinese start using Chinese models, Chinese designers, Chinese photographers, and then we’re going to start wanting Chinese fashion too.”
This eastern shift has been promised since the dawn of the digital age, which brings with it a looming threat to print media. What, I am by no means the first person to wonder, does this mean for British Vogue? “In the short term, or in fact in the medium term, I think that the print will really hold up,” Shulman assures me. “We are holding up really, really well.” By which she means there has been an increase in the magazine’s monthly circulation to 200,000 copies in the 20 years that Shulman has been overseeing it. However, as to the print magazine’s future in another 20 years she admits she simply doesn’t know.
What she does know and can tell me is that she has been looking at what Vogue is. “Vogue is an idea about something, an idea that is fashion, beauty and contemporary culture. We’ve been looking at what we can do with that thing that is Vogue apart from the magazine. There’s more and more of that, whether that’s Vogue videos, which we’ve just started filming, whether that’s e-commerce, whether that’s my Vogue Festival, whether that’s an exhibition. There’s a lot going on, but without the magazine, without that print magazine being really solid and being admired it won’t all really work.”
As Editor-in-Chief, Shulman oversees all of “that”. “When I came to Vogue editing the actual magazine was about 80 per cent of my job,” she tells me, “I should think now it’s about 35 per cent of it. It’s really changed.”
I wonder how Shulman, who describes herself as a journalist, has managed not only to cope with, but make a huge success out of, this exponential change and for so many years. Even if some people still don’t think she looks like one, she surely has the unflinching nerves of a Vogue editor? Perhaps not, she’s more than comfortable to tell me about the anxiety she has suffered with on and off since she fell ill with glandular fever at university.
“It happened badly at certain points in my life. I’ve learnt quite a lot of coping mechanisms. I have learnt how to try to switch it off when I see it happening, breathing techniques, I’ve got tranquilizers. But I think it’s very difficult when you’re at university at that age and more and more I see anxiety as being a big issue for people, far more than it was when I was at university.” The other big issue she sees in her young, mostly female, employees at Vogue, is the tension between family and work. It’s one that she faced herself, as a single mother of one. Of course she wishes that she had been able to spend more time with her son Sam, but in the same way she wishes “a whole load of things”, like, she says that she was a good gardener. “It was never going to happen because I was the breadwinner and I was a single mother for a lot of it. But I think we were lucky in lots of ways. I had enough money to have nice nannies I liked having around. I saw a lot of Sam – I only have one child so when I wasn’t working I was with him and so I spent more time one on one with him than probably many people who have a family of three who aren’t working full time.
“I think women have to realise women can’t have it all, because nobody can have it all. It’s nothing to do with women, it’s just unrealistic to think you can have it all. I think that a lot of the pressure that lots of people put on themselves is thinking that you can have it all: you can have a great career, you can have kids, you can look wonderful, you can be thin, you can have wonderful friends, you can have a beautiful home, but you can’t, nobody, nobody can do that.” Note, not even Vogue editors. She continues, “You have to decide what the most important things to you are and I think they change.”
After nearly 25 years signing off on Vogue, I wonder whether her most important things have changed and what that means for her and Vogue. After all, she has already told me that on the day we spoke she has just received the hard copy of her second novel. “I don’t know. I never saw myself doing this and I don’t really know what I’ll do next. I just think it will probably be something different and I’m sure it will be interesting. I feel very excited about the idea of doing something else without having any desire actually to do it.”
Whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like it will be what a Vogue editor should do next. We may be making light of the perceived Vogue ditor persona, but I point out that you cannot deny that personalities matter now in Vogue.
What was once a magazine that wrote about the industry, has now become such an institution within the industry itself, and so have the journalists that create it, whether they like it or not.
Shulman agrees, “There is no question that in a relatively short amount of time, I would say the last five years or so, the personalities involved in the industry and the magazine have become more objects of interest than they were and I mean in some ways it’s flattering, in some ways it’s interesting, and we are kind of creatives so that’s good, but on the other hand I don’t think one’s job is to be an actor or a model, it has to be a by-product of what you do.”
I suppose this is the sort of by-product she wants fashion to become for other women, who whether they are told they look like it or not, are at the top of their game.