It’s Saturday morning, 9.30am, and I’m frantically pointing at the back of a woman’s head on the platform at Paddington—“It’s her!” I aggressively whisper to my friend. As we get to our seats and I explain that I’ve just seen the woman we’re going to hear at the Oxford Literary Festival—Alexandra Shulman, the editor-in-chief of Vogue.
Moments later I am nervously heading down the train towards First Class where I find her and ask for an interview for Cherwell. Luckily, she nods knowingly when I mention the paper, and amazingly tells me to meet her later at the Randolph Hotel. I back out of the carriage, with a flurry of awkward “Thank you”s.
No one has ever walked from Oxford train station to the Randolph at such a speed. I wait in the foyer for a good 20 minutes, and eventually am ushered in and allowed a short interview with Shulman in one of the tea rooms. She decisively explains to the waitress that “We’re just going to do a brief recording!” and marches on through.
During our interview Shulman remains calm and talks in a very measured manner, despite having only 30 minutes to go before speaking at the Sheldonian Theatre. We first start discussing her new book Inside Vogue: A Diary Of My 100th Year, a record of her day to day life as editor during Vogue’s centenary year.
She has written other books, but this one seems particularly special to her: “I really enjoyed doing it because I’d never written a diary for publication before and the great advantage to it is that you don’t actually know what’s going to happen, and you don’t have to create what’s going to happen.”
On reading the book there’s a refreshing sense of honesty. It doesn’t feel too tampered with or overworked. One day she’s berating the impossibilities of the Rihanna photoshoot ever going ahead but in a few weeks’ time, everything’s worked out. Shulman explains how this was one of the key elements of interest to her: “It was rather fascinating to see how I’d think something one day and then realise maybe a week later or two weeks later or six months later how wrong I was, or how things turned out differently. It becomes quite addictive actually.”
When appointed editor of Vogue in 1992, there was concerns that she did not have enough experience in fashion and wasn’t Vogue editor material. This has been completely undermined—she has had an extremely successful career and is the longest standing editor of British Vogue. However, you still get a sense that she isn’t ‘high fashion’, but rather extremely down-to-earth, and a very real person.
During her talk at the Sheldonian later in the day, Shulman explains how she was given the editor job in part to bring an “every-woman approach” to the magazine and this is clear even within her book: exasperation at trying to find a chicken for an evening meal at home is juxtaposed with glamorous dinners in Milan.
She explains why she took the conscious decision to include more of her personal life: “One of the things I wanted to do when I decided to do the book was to show that I was going to have this year which was going to be quite star-studded and very hard work, but that everybody in those positions has a personal life and a home life. I wanted to balance the high and low within it so I was very aware of making notes about every-day life—what we were eating, or a discussion at home, or something that was going on in the park. It was meant to be a kind of counterpoint.” A life lived at the centre of British fashion still involves taking out the bins.
We swiftly move on to discussing her experience of the 25 years that she has spent at Vogue. I ask her what changes she has seen in the fashion world, especially with the development of technology and am met with an exasperated laugh: “Just so many. It’s really unrecognisable. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like in 1992, but when I think back, and also when I actually read about things that happened, or were happening in the early 90s, I realise that the way the fashion industry operated was not completely different, but very different really. Obviously digital has changed both the way we publish and the way that we consume fashion to a large extent.”
Shulman is the only Vogue editor whose tenure has spanned the rise of digital technology. She concentrates on the way in which fashion has now become much more accessible. “The amount of general fashion literacy in this country has hugely increased, so that there are so many brands that people know about, there are so many more stores, the idea of fashion as kind of entertainment, rather than something for a limited group of people is something that I think has really grown a lot.”
I pursue this, asking if she feels that this is a positive step forward and she is unusually enthusiastic. “I think it’s great. I think everybody’s intrigued by fashion now, even if they’re not interested particularly in the clothes, they’re kind of interested in the characters behind them.”
Shulman herself is undoubtedly intrigued by other people. Throughout her book she gives us sharply observed descriptions of celebrities and designers and during the talk at the Sheldonian she explains how her degree in Anthropology has made her far more interested in bringing the subject of fashion to personality of people.
Shulman hit the headlines recently with the announcement of her decision to step down from the editorial position this summer. After 25 years in such a highly stressful job, one can understand her desire for a break. When asked about the worst bit of her job, she unequivocally says “The relentlessness of it, there’s never a gap. It’s slightly fish and chips tomorrow—you do magazine and then there’s another magazine, and then there’s another magazine, and now there’s a website, and there’s another website, and you know another story. Whereas what’s been lovely with this book, and in fact with every book I’ve written, is that you’ve done it and it’s there and you can actually step back and enjoy it for a bit.”
In her talk she compares resigning to the relief of having this “incredible golden rucksack that I carry around, lifted.” But, that is not to say that she will not miss Vogue.
She continues, explaining the best elements of her job: “Definitely working with my staff who are really fun, and always have been. I’ve always hired people I like so I’ve been surrounded every day by people I enjoy spending time with and who are funny and talented. And the other best bit is having a soap box in a way. Everything in it isn’t me or my opinion, but if I really want to say something I can.”
We move on to discussing how she sees the world of fashion changing in the future and she seems very engaged by this question, taking a second to reflect before explaining the complexities surrounding the industry at the moment: “I think we’re in a real period of flux. There are lot of industry discussions about things like ‘see-now buy-now’ fashion where you change the idea of a fashion show being not for the press but being for the customer, so that you use your whole PR and marketing spend at the point where people will go into the shops.”
The ‘see-now buy-now’ model was taken up by brands such as Burberry and Ralph Lauren last year—pieces from their collections were available in stores and online the following day. Shulman, though, is not entirely convinced of this change and the speed of the turn-around from catwalk to clothes rail: “At the moment the main idea is that you show clothes to the press and buyers and there is a period of time where we are able to help create a desire in a way.”
Whatever is likely to happen in the fashion world in the future though, she is clear that things will settle down and regulate themselves eventually: “I think at the moment everyone’s going to test different things but we’ll come to a kind of compromise solution. I think that probably like everything there’s been a huge explosion of what’s out there, a huge explosion in the amount of stuff there is, and some people are going to probably fail or fold because we just need don’t need so many brands.”
It is now about 11.38. Her Q&A at the Sheldonian is at 12, and her assistant is hovering at my shoulder. I quickly ask about any advice she may have for students trying to get involved in fashion or journalism.
“For fashion I guess just make as many contacts as you can. I’m afraid that all important work experience, internship, networking, is really helpful. And for journalism definitely read as much as you can. I mean read really good journalists, don’t just read short form journalism. I think the important thing if you want to write any kind of journalism is you’ve got to tell a story. So even if it’s a little thing, it’s got to have a beginning and an end.”
And so my story comes to an end. Alexandra is whisked away by her assistant and I’m left sitting in the tea-room, still slightly star-struck at this chance encounter. After having spoken with her for a short while, I’m even more excited to go and hear her in the Sheldonian; she clearly has a lot of more interesting things to say.