I've long been an admirer of Alexandra Shulman - not just because she edits the weighty tome that governs the trends, titillations and turbulent world of fashion. She is one of the reasons I buy that magazine. I have only experienced UK Vogue under her editorship and it will sad and strange day when she eventually leaves for pastures new. She also very rarely gives interviews and I can only assume The Times got this one because it's a neat way of PR-ing the forthcoming Vogue Festival. Now, you can pop out and buy The Times to read this or I have kindly pasted it below. Words by Helen Rumbelow..Enjoy and let me know your thoughts.
The other day, Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, was trying to persuade one of her employees that women based too much of their self-worth on their appearance. Shulman’s clothes-junky subordinate turned to her, aghast.
This, coming from a woman who for more than two decades has held the “God job” working for the fashion industry’s bible?
“She said: ‘You’re just in the wrong business aren’t you? You edit Vogue; why are you saying to us we’re all mad, caring so much about how we look?’”
Shulman tells me this story in her office in Vogue House, Central London, sitting at a dazzling white gloss table that perfectly matches her white Manolo Blahnik stilettos. So far, so much that you would expect, and yet in person, Shulman is not what you would expect. She is an insurgent in a feminine world: anti-guilt, anti-superficiality, anti-career angst, anti-diet, anti every neurosis that holds modern women back in the 21st century.
She has been singled out as the “normal” one of the elite cabal of Vogue editors, the permanent plain Jane compared to the weird showiness of her counterparts either in America (the imperious, sunglasses-dependent Anna Wintour), or France (the departed editor of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, who had a penchant for S&M chic), but that’s wrong too.
She is far from normal, in that she has achieved and exerts power through a sane, sure and moral sense of self. She sets her own trend, and it’s better than the others.
That, when you consider that she was one of the highest-achieving single mothers in Britain, or that she barely knew a thing about fashion before becoming Vogue’s editor only 12 years after leaving university, is extraordinary. Before I met her, I worried about my clothes. “Don’t,” a fashion journalist I met said, “She won’t judge you on your clothes.”
This weekend is the second annual Vogue Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. It’s a bit like a literary festival, with better cardigans. As well as Shulman interviewing Victoria Beckham, there is a debate that she was determined to include, entitled “Too Fat, Too Thin ... Will We Ever Be Content?” For Shulman, this is an intellectual mission, rather than a personal one.
“I’m still intrigued why people never say, ‘Oh I wish I was much cleverer. I wish I was more intelligent.’ They always say, ‘I wish I had longer legs, I wish I was thinner.’ It’s such a pity that everyone doesn’t like how they look more, because just imagine the happiness it would give them.”
I’m tempted to add: how many fewer magazines would be sold, but Shulman will, later, argue me out of that way of thinking too.
She is the daughter of the late Milton Shulman, the legendary Evening Standard theatre critic, and Drusilla Beyfus, a journalist who had worked for Vogue. By the time she went to St Paul’s Girls’ School in London she had a bit of puppy fat, whereupon the headmistress announced to the whole school: “Alexandra’s mother has said she is not to have potatoes.”
Now she looks to me like a fiftysomething Minnie Driver: pretty, rebelliously uncombed hair. Yet because almost every Vogue editor from Diana Vreeland onwards has been X-ray thin, Shulman encounters a reaction akin to a vague anticlimax when people see her for the first time. Does she like how she looks, I ask. I get a long pause in return. Shulman smiles as often as a powerful man — hardly ever — but she never takes herself as seriously.
“I’m beginning to think I’ve got body dysmorphia the other way. Do I like how I look? No, I think I’ve complained to myself about how I look all my life, but I feel really strongly that you’ve got to just not make that a big issue. It is complicated. Obviously, I don’t want to sound like a complete freak. I do care about how I look and I want to look nice.”
You do look nice, I say.
“Thank you! But I’ve got some odd kind of confidence that means it’s not the sort of thing that bothers me as much as it bothers other people.” But, I say, what about the pressure of living up to the Vogue editor “look”?
“People say: ‘Well, what did you feel like when you became editor of Vogue and you first went to the fashion shows and everyone was looking to see what you were wearing?’ It genuinely never entered my head that anyone would be looking. I’d worked for years in journalism that wasn’t about fashion. I didn’t realise it would be different.
“I hope I’ve embodied some of the intellectual qualities of Vogue, but looking back now I think I made an immediate decision that I wasn’t going to embody the physical ones. I was never going to be able to sell the magazine by being a clothes horse. You do things the way you can, and now I have been here so long, I am the editor of Vogue, and this is what it looks like. The next person can do it their way.”
She runs a magazine that has never featured a diet story. This is more revolutionary than it sounds: there is not a women’s glossy magazine that doesn’t plug an ever-changing roster of diets, usually on the cover. Diets sell magazines to needy women.
Vogue “never” runs diet pieces. “It’s not the kind of thing we do. We don’t do any ‘How to improve yourself’ things here.”
Commenting on other magazines, she says: “It just drives me mad when every week it’s another diet. It’s really boring. You know if you’ve got half a brain, that a diet just doesn’t work.”
So Vogue is for pleasure, not admonishment. I admire that, I say: “It makes you an outlier.”
“Most other women’s magazines do feature diets,” Shulman acknowledges, “but quite a lot of men read Vogue. It hasn’t even been tempting. We’ve had fantastic food writers, but that is a celebration of food, rather than being about how to lose weight.”
She does sigh a bit when it comes to the “skinny models” question, a debate that began some 20 years ago and that does not seem to have moved on. Shulman has often been the first, or only, editor to use her clout to question extreme thinness. Only this month, British Vogue was the first to sign up to a code of conduct that, for instance, prevents child models from being used to represent adult women.
She says: “But I’m really bored of skinny model conversations. I can see it will go on. I feel I’ve said everything I can say, I would love to change the world but I can’t.
“We don’t judge ourselves by the way the girls look in the magazines, because we create that look. Actually, I’m doing this programme for schools, how to deconstruct fashion shoots, so that for 12-year-olds, they don’t look at an image,” (she gestures to the recent Vogue covers on her wall), “and think that’s what she actually looks like.
It’s a fantasy; we construct these images for a purpose.”
She said that models did not get out of bed looking that way. “Nobody does.”
Shulman knows, through experience, how big the gap between image and reality can be. She had a baby and then suffered a marriage breakdown just a few years into her editorship. There began a long stretch of a crazy double life, where she felt as if she was flipping back and forward between extremes: editor of Vogue by day, purée-splattered single mother by night.
Shulman said that she’d considered writing about it, depicting the unglamorous reality alongside the image of high fashion. “At one point, I thought about keeping a diary. It would have been very much about the private and professional, trying to get Sam to eat mashed banana at the same time as I’m trying to squeeze into Versace.”
Her experience, having done it the hard way, has made her forthright. She wants her team to hand, rather than working from home; she believes it’s hard for a career to survive long stretches of maternity leave, or working part-time. “For most people there comes a point where you have to make decisions about what your priorities are. You can’t have a really big job and be there when your kids get home from school.”
Would she have had more children if she hadn’t had to be the breadwinner?
“Well, for me, my situation was very specific. I split up with Sam’s dad when Sam was three. By the time he was two, it was pretty obvious another child wasn’t going to make things better. And by that time I was 40, so it was unlikely I was going to have another child.
“I would have liked to have had two children. But, looking back, my life was doable with only one. If I’d been on my own with two I actually don’t know how I would have survived doing this job. I was completely on my own.”
Sam’s father also went to live abroad for a long period of time.
Shulman, who is now in a relationship, says: “I’m pretty positive that if I hadn’t been the sole breadwinner, I would not have worked full-time.”
I say that I find it hard to believe when she tells me she is not ambitious.
“Nobody can [believe it]. But I think I know myself better than other people know me. It’s hard to explain. I am competitive. I want to do what I do well. But there were definitely moments when I thought about not doing this, when Sam was small, but I couldn’t see how to make it work.
I would still have to pay the mortgage.”
If not ambitious, did she feel guilty?
“No. I was brought up by a working mother.
I think I’ve turned into her, really. All the time I wasn’t working, I was with Sam. In some ways I was more with him than a lot of people who don’t work. It was just me, it wasn’t like I was sharing him. That was intense. And lovely.”
Amid the preparations for the Vogue Festival and other plans to promote the brand; along with wooing certain members of the Royal Family, (who would she most like to have for a shoot? “The Duchess of Cambridge”, of course); the thing she loves about her job is that “Vogue has a voice”. Not a look, but a voice.
She stands for creativity over perfection, both in terms of looks and life choices. I ask for her best advice. “Perfection is the enemy of promise. How about that?” she says.
Then, as she leads me out of the offices and past her team, she points to them and says: “See, they’re all normal aren’t they?” I nod obediently, of course, while thinking that to me they all look fabulous.