If you’ve ever watched The Devil Wears Prada, Ugly Betty, or flicked through a copy of a Condé Nast magazine, you’d be forgiven for assuming that plain and bookish Oxford is a million miles away from Vogue House. Well, having paid a quick visit there myself I’d argue that the two are more closely related then you might think. Like your college, Vogue House is grand and imposing from the outside and has an impressive foyer; but once you get into the offices it is rather more mundane. Like Oxford University, the world of Vogue is one outsiders associate with enormous prestige and glamour but is, in reality, manned by hard-working, ordinary people who are probably a bit fatigued. Vogue House and Oxford University even share some of the same characters. You’d be surprised by how many people you’d recognise: the kindly, elderly gentleman porter who knows everyone’s business, the boho-cum-sloaney young girls with back-brushed bed-hair and, most importantly, the accomplished, formidable and rather stern tutor. Who I am about to meet.
Alexandra Shulman is not impolite, by any standards, but she is brisk. Editor of Vogue for 17 years, working for so long at the head of the most profitable British magazine has taught Shulman that there is little time in the working day for idle chit-chat!
Shulman seems somewhat more skilled in avoiding controversy than her US counterpart Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour, but all the same many people see Vogue as promoting an aesthetic which is both impractical and inaccessible. I begin the interview by asking Alexandra what she feels the magazine is really for. ‘Well I have always thought that Vogue has to do with a vision of a world that actually does exist and is attainable. But it is the best end of it, really. It is the bit that deals with beauty, glamour, style: ‘fine living’. But I don’t think it is totally about money and about being rich, it’s about an attitude. And I think people like Vogue because they don’t buy it to look at their own lives, but to look at something that they might aspire to or might admire.’
Surely themes of aspiration and ‘fine living’ have had to be handled differently of late. Shulman recently said that she didn’t want people to find the magazine ‘offensive’, and I ask her to clarify: ‘I think in a recession what you have to be careful of is the fact that a lot of people are losing their jobs, and if you sound too glib about fashion and spending money, then that could be offensive to people who have found themselves suddenly with much less money and with real worries. But there is a limit to how far we can adapt – Vogue is what it is. A few issues ago we did our credit-crunch guide which was ‘40 Tips for Fabulous Frugality’. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek but with some really quite practical, good ideas.’
If anyone is qualified to pass judgement on which designer epitomises and leads the fashion of the noughties, it’s Alexandra, so I ask who the designer of our era is, expecting Miuccia Prada, or perhaps Marc Jacobs. ‘I think Miuccia Prada has been incredibly influential both in terms of her collections, but also in her vision of the growth of Prada brand. They have taken a small, expensive luggage company, and made it into a global fashion phenomenon. Their advertising is always looked at by everybody to see what they are doing, their stores are always incredibly confidently designed. And I have hardly ever seen a bad collection. But in terms of an individual designer, outside of the business and the brand, I think Nicholas Ghesquière from Balenciaga is pretty fantastic.’
It intrigues me that one person can look so fondly on both the work of both Balenciaga and Prada. The former whose collections have been rife with exotic fabrics, painfully sharply-tailored suits, armour-like dresses, gold robot leggings and general desirability and the latter whose looks have featured awkward, top-heavy silhouettes, dirty colours, tweed, strange pixie-hats and a refusal to make women into sex-symbols (or, at least, not in a traditional way). But it seems that variety is paramount to Alexandra’s vision of the magazine: ‘I have personal taste in fashion photography but I really don’t impose that on the magazine. I have deliberately got fashion editors with different styles, and we work with different photographers so that we are a broad canvas unlike, for instance, American Vogue or French Vogue, which are much more consistent in the way they present their fashion. I mean, all of those shoots could have been by the same person because it is so very clear what each magazine’s vision is. I like to think you can look at a Tim Walker shoot in British Vogue or look at a Nick Knight shoot and they’re completely different.’
This talk about the identity of UK Vogue makes me wonder what Shulman considers her greatest achievements in her time there. She responds modestly, only crediting herself in relation to other, more well-known talents: ‘I think I’ve been successful at working with the team that I work with. I backed Mario Testino relatively early on, in fact, before he was shooting for any other big magazines. I discovered Nigella Lawson as a food writer so I was quite pleased by that – that took off! The thing I would most like people to think about Vogues I have edited is that when you look at them they do have some feeling of the times, that they do reflect the times. And I think in the main they do. When I look back I often think ‘Well actually, yeah, we did have something about whatever it was that was going on’. If you’re going to write about grunge you would want to look at Vogue because you can see the way that art was changing and fashion was changing.’
Sat at Shulman’s desk, the interview isn’t rushed, the phone isn’t ringing off the hook, nobody outside in the bigger office seems all that crazed. I ask how frantic Shulman’s working life really is: ‘Well you can see it looks quite calm and normal in here, really. It depends, sometimes it is intensely busy. There are phases of the year when I know what I am doing every half-hour for the next four weeks and then there are periods when it is much slower and much more normal.’ Although she only uses Facebook for a very healthy ‘five minutes every three days’, it would seem that Shulman has enough time for life’s smaller pleasures. I ask what music she’s listening to: ‘Well I’m currently obsessed with Spotify. It’s some online thing, to download, and you go into it and you can type in…I was going to say Lady Gaga but it is interesting to do somebody older. Type in David Bowie, say, and every single version of everything he has ever done is on there that you can listen to, you can’t buy it but you can listen to it. I like kind of recherché cover versions of old Dylan songs and things like that. So it is perfect to play around on. But I haven’t bought any really new music recently. I kind of like those Indie people like Fleet Foxes. I like soppy Indie music, mainly!’
As I say, working at Condé Nast seems just like working as an Oxford student, but with more money and less Relentless/Red Bull-dependency. So if you’re the sort that doesn’t want to uproot from the Oxford lifestyle, entirely, and you quite like the sound of Vogue House, fear not – I have sought advice on your behalf. ‘You’ve got to be quite persistent now. I don’t think you can just waltz in and be lovely. I think you’ve really got to use your intelligence, find the right person to get in touch with, put together a good CV. Its not just about how much amazing work experience you’ve got, but also you have to sound like you’re on the ball; don’t make spelling mistakes, things like that. Always write something that indicates why you specifically want to do this thing, because as soon as you think you’ve got a round-robin letter, you’re not interested.’
And then? ‘Once you’ve got in to do work experience or something, being really willing and organised goes a very long way, whether you’re working in the fashion room, beauty room or my office. We really notice that – people who just come in and say ‘I’m not doing anything – is there anything I can do to help?’ and in the main most people that have come here and been good at work experience have, I’ve noticed, ended up with jobs.’