“The print magazine is still really where my heart lies. If I had a choice between allocating funds to sell more print copies or drive digital traffic, most often I would choose the former.”
So writes Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of Vogue, in her new book Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. She spoke to Sali Hughes at the Sheldonian about her experience in twenty-five years of editorship. Starting in 1992, Shulman has seen Vogue change over time, with the development of the website, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. She highlighted how this enables them to get a story out immediately, whereas it previously would have taken three months before it appeared in print.
Yet Shulman’s loyalty still remains with the physical magazine over its younger online sibling. This was borne out in conversation with Hughes, as Shulman stressed how important the physical object of Vogue remains for readers, with its glossy pages and aura of indulgence. “I still think that to look at a beautiful fashion shoot is so much better on paper than on a screen,” she says, as a rare moment of laughter erupts in the Sheldonian at her exaggerated mime of zooming in and out on a phone screen. From Inside Vogue, one gets the sense that the visual now seems to be Vogue’s strongest asset:
“Our ability to be the informers of which trends are the newest and strongest has obviously been diluted by the speed and reach of digital websites, where so much information will already have been published, but none of them has, as yet, managed to create the memorable imagery that we can. So this season I feel less bound by the stories being trend-driven than I have at other times, and more by the originality of the photography.”
Shulman, however, was not always interested in fashion: “It’s not a secret that when I first came to Vogue I knew nothing about fashion. My interest was always first and foremost in journalism and that idea was that I’d bring an ‘everywoman’ approach to this aspirational magazine.” Compared to her American counterpart Anna Wintour, Shulman explained how she is known as the ‘normal’ editor. She has always tried to stay clear of questions about her personal style, and anecdotes from her book serve to portray her as a surprisingly grounded individual.
“I find myself on the fashion floor Selfridges, which stocks every conceivable designer, utterly lost as to which direction to turn. Problem number one is that I don’t know where to find anything. I am the editor of Vogue. Surely, this should not be happening.”
Later in the book, she describes getting a dress made and fitted for Vogue’s centenary gala and trying cycling shorts on underneath to see if it would make her look better. Again, we get a brilliant moment of dry humour:
“I tell him about the removal of the shorts and he’s polite enough to say that it looks better without, though I immediately feel I’ve loaded him with too much information on the underpinnings situation of a fifty-eight year old woman.”
Despite this modest self-deprecation, Shulman is not a woman to be messed with. She talked to Hughes about how the rising power of celebrities and their PRs is making photo-shoots more and more difficult. She envisages the fashion industry moving away from photographing actresses and singers, and back to models, because “at least they’ll wear what you ask them to!” From her book, it is clear that Shulman’s attitude remains consistent —Vogue do not give copy approval or pander to celebrities:
“Her [Rihanna’s] ‘people’ want all the pictures to be in black and white, and there is a specific pair of thigh-high denim boots they want featured on the cover—which may well be hard to achieve as our covers in general are crops. And we don’t get told what clothes to put on them.”
Towards the end of the hour Hughes moved the session on to questions from the floor, and a young woman asked how Shulman feels about fashion and politics, particularly the Daily Mail’s recent ‘Leggs-it’ story. Shulman took an interestingly nuanced view on that, arguing that although the Daily Mail piece was wrong, she doesn’t want fashion to become estranged from politics, or any other field. She explained that she feels that many women take pleasure in what they wear, and she doesn’t want us to reach a point where it is not PC to talk about clothes.
In her book she berates the fact that brands lend clothes to ‘street-style’ girls as opposed to for example “the head of pathology at a hospital”.
“How are we meant to inspire young girls to be judged on criteria other than physical appearance when worlds they admire, like high fashion, don’t encourage the notion that you can mix being a fashion plate with working in other fields?”
Shulman acted on her opinions and Vogue’s November 2016 edition was called ‘The Real Issue’. It championed the everyday working woman, by only featuring women in professions that had nothing to do with fashion—‘a model-free area’. This was a pioneering and impressive step for Shulman to take and you can see the initial thoughts about it forming in her book.
But when questioned on body image and the success of Vogue’s ‘Health Initiative’ by another audience member, Shulman was slightly less inspirational. She admitted that Vogue’s ‘Health Initiative’, if put through the metrics, probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. She didn’t provide any alternatives, and just stuck to repeating the fact that Vogue don’t hire models under the age of 16, and have always taken care of them. Even in her book, she doesn’t provide an answer to the problem or a discussion of the issue. She simply berates the backlash she received for doing an interview on the subject of body image for a parliamentary inquiry. It must be a fine line to tread as Editor of Vogue when discussing such matters, and yet one cannot help feeling a little disappointed that Shulman doesn’t address these important issues more frankly, especially considering that her tenure is nearly over.
Shulman is due to leave her role this summer, and she explained to Hughes how her role as Vogue editor has expanded over the years, to become far more multi-layered—“If I’d known what the job would entail I probably would have been too frightened to take it!” she laughs. She feels like an ambassadorial voice of the fashion industry, and often gets asked to bring a ‘Vogue’ idea to it. “I have to take care of Vogue the brand, not just the magazine…Vogue is more than a magazine, it’s an idea”.
When asked her what prompted the decision to leave, Shulman explained short stay in Suffolk enabled her to focus her mind and solidified her decision to take a break. But that’s not to say she won’t miss her job. Shulman seemed genuinely saddened at the idea of leaving . She talked of how she would miss the act of coming into an office in the morning, something she’s done since the age of 23: “What’s a holiday without an office to come back to? What’s a weekend without work on Monday?”
But of course, as Hughes jokingly suggests, Shulman doesn’t seem the type to settle down. She’s already written three books—Inside Vogue, The Parrots, and Can We Still Be Friends, but she intends to write even more and become more involved with the Vogue fashion and design college. Her new predecessor has just been announced as Edward Enninful. He comes from being fashion and creative director at W Magazine where he has worked since 2011. Yet again Vogue seems to be paving the way and pushing boundarie—Enniful is the first male editor in Vogue‘s 101 year history, and the first black editor of a mainstream British style magazine. It is a tough job to take though, Shulman leaves very big boots to fill.
The Oxford Literary Festival was fascinating, and the audience clearly enjoyed their insight into a life at the centre of British fashion. Deeper thought about more serious issues surrounding the industry is perhaps on its way—despite her detractors, Shulman has been a progressive force.