Nothing Vague about Vogue

Student Life

For the record, this interview will prove you can talk to the editor of British Vogue without mentioning The Devil Wears Prada. It wouldn’t be a very accurate comparison. Alexandra Shulman is nothing like the ice-queen Lucifer of chick-lit fiction. When we meet, the first thing she does is ask whether anyone has offered me a glass of water (it’s a sticky September afternoons and London heaves under its own sweaty weight.) They have: her smiling assistant did so as she led me through the narrow corridors of the magazine’s fifth floor offices. The second thing she does is apologise for the slick white chairs that scatter her office: “I’ve just had a meeting in here.” I wonder, out of all the fashion faces that have passed through, who was sitting there before. The space is practical and unpretentious: square bookshelves line one wall; papers, Post-Its and stationery cover the desk. The glamour is provided by the swirly signatures and photos that adorn the pin board.

Instead of coat-throwing, impossible demands and pursed lips, during her 18 years editing Vogue, Alex (as she’s known in the industry) has overseen a democratisation of British fashion. The magazine unashamedly features high-street clothes – which, according to Alex, “just get better and better.”  (If you don’t believe that, see the October issue, page 307 for £32 Topshop next to Armani). “British Vogue is very creative, and idiosyncratic, but it’s also got a kind of mainstream element, which in part reflects the high street we have…Fashion in this country is quite democratic and available to everybody.” So for all you cynics reading this, it’s clear that Alex isn’t here to talk about the need to dress designer head-to-foot. The Gap trousers she’s wearing today are testimony to that.

The daughter of author Drusilla Beyfus and theatre critic Milton Shulman, Alex worked on several publications before becoming editor of men’s magazine GQ in 1990. “It gave me quite a lot of confidence, because I knew nothing – and I mean, that was really nothing – about subjects like Ferraris, or shaving… at that point it was the 80s and there were all sorts of men’s ‘yuppy’ type things that I knew nothing about.” ‘And so what?’ you might be thinking. Her wide experience proves that an editorship of the country’s most venerable fashion magazine doesn’t necessary entail “knowing everything about everything that’s in the magazine” – i. e. being obsessed by ‘architectural heels’ or too-cool-for-school fashion labels.

“I tend to think that an editor is a bit like a mixture of a curator, an ambassador, and a diplomat.” So although Alex herself might not be responsible for hunting out a frilly frock, a snood or thigh boots for the magazine’s legendary fashion shoots: “You have to find people who do, and you have to have those people respect your opinions, so you can make a call on it.”

“I probably didn’t know anything about fashion when I started here…like anyone in their early 30s I loved clothes and shopping, I knew designer names, but I didn’t know about the business.” In her dry, witty tone, she adds: “that was 18 years ago, so now I do know quite a lot about fashion…I hope…”

In any case, the figures prove she knows how to manage it. Alex’s editorship has seen circulation of Vogue rise to more than 220,000. To put it into perspective, that’s roughly 30,000 copies more than even its closest rival in upmarket women’s magazine publishing. “For a magazine that costs the amount we do, that has the upmarket fashion that we do, we sell a huge number of copies.” But some women’s glossies run at circulations of 500,000. Is Vogue, then, more about exclusivity – selling fewer copies to a more discerning audience? . Because I am a journalist, and I am a real journalist, I always want to sell more, and that’s what drives me… but I’ve had to realise on Vogue that there is a cap and I can’t drive it that way. I mean I can think of things that would sell more copies, but they wouldn’t be things that would be right for the magazine…. It would be hard to sell many more copies than [we do], and still be attracting the constituency that the advertisers want, it’s no interest to them if we sell 300,000 to people who they think won’t engage at all with their merchandise.”

Ahh, the advertising issue. It has been observed that fashion journalism is sycophantic, for fear that adverts will be pulled and revenues will go down the drain. But what if that’s an utterly offensive suggestion? But she replies honestly: “It’s a good question.” She pauses. “There are different kinds of journalism and fashion journalism has a different remit. For example, news is reportage, and then you’ve got comment journalism, and to some extent that’s what you don’t get much of in mainstream fashion journalism. But you do get reportage, because we’re always writing about what’s out there. So, it isn’t that it’s not real journalism, but there’s probably not as much free comment [as elsewhere].” All this said, I’m pleased to find some of Alex’s constructively critical comments on Vogue.co.uk, post-London Fashion Week. Of one designer’s collection, she remarks: “he’s reinforced his modern glamour today…I’d be interested in seeing what he’d do if he moved it on a fraction – I did feel it was a bit repetitive.” In short, it’s not all air-kissing and cries of, ‘That was waaaaanderful, dahling!’

But is it still the case the magazine needs to keep people happy? A pause. “Yeah, I think there is an element of that…I mean I can only speak for Vogue – but the magazine’s role is not to have an opinionated piece about why somebody does or doesn’t like x designer, its role is to say, ‘this is what x is doing,’ and ditto all the other designers. They spend money on the magazine – that’s what the advertising is. We exist via the designer’s money, so kind of understandably they’re not going to invest thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds in a magazine that going to slag them off.”

But what about the unwritten rule that the magazine uses an advertiser’s products in the fashion shoots? This effectively gives them publicity that doesn’t cost £23,600, the cheapest full page rate.

“People think ‘Oh well they’re buying you’, but it’s not like that.” Alex is aware of the magazine’s power. There is arguably no other magazine that holds such influence over public views on fashion: “We don’t have to feature them [the advertisers, in the editorial], and we often don’t. But I think the deal is that they kind of use you as a ‘town crier.’ Really, that’s what our role is, in terms of the journalistic side of it.”

All this talk of money is relevant: Vogue is an expensive production. Over the years, fashion shoots have taken the magazine (or the magazine has taken fashion – whichever way you will) to some esoteric locations, to say the least. Alex smiles at the mention of the 2005 shoot with model Lily Cole in India, haute couture gowns spilling the length of rusty stairs in a maharajah’s abandoned palace. Photographers have paddled boats across milky dawn lakes, wooden slats creaking, to capture fashion fairy stories in the heart of Russia. How does Alex justify such shoots financially? “We’re probably one of the few magazines that still do it. It costs about £3000 a page to do a shoot like that, so with 20 pages, that’s £60,000. It’s a lot of money, but I think that’s part of what people want. It’s what people expect from British Vogue actually, is location shooting, rather than studio.”

I get the impression the magazine’s hard financial times don’t seem too catastrophic: “2008 was the most advertising we’ve ever had. In 2009, I think we lost something like 18 percent. This year, we’re not selling as much advertising as we were in 2008, but we’re selling more than 2009. Essentially we’re really pleased. Particularly with this September….and we’ve just had the [largest ever] October issue.”  There’s no doubt that last year’s Vogues were slimmer, but the magazine has survived two World Wars. It’s a thick-skinned publication that’s thickly bound again now.

Whilst economic woes may have eased, Alex is aware of the competition from the Internet, and is carefully cutting out distinct paths for the online and print editions.

“There’s actually another team that does the website – but we’re getting more and more integrated and I think that as times goes by that will be what happens in publishing.” She recognises the need for the magazine to move with the times: “We’re doing our first iPad app, which will come out at the same time as the December issue. It’s putting a kind of toe in the water to see what the response is. I think in this country the app, publishing thing is moving relatively slowly.  Everyone though it was going to be really quick, but actually I don’t think it is. So I don’t see us doing a monthly one immediately.”

There’s a reason why we love staring at screens: moving content is, well, moving, and the magazine uses this to its advantage: “The big change is that Vogue will be on three different levels. It will be operating as a hard copy, and as an app for the iPad, which will have some new content because it can have moving content and audible content. Then the website will be almost a kind of ticker tape, where we can get immediate information updating.”

Alex makes a square, solid shape on the table. “You know, this is Vogue, and then there are going to be three branches and that will just become more entrenched in the way we put the magazine together…. There will be more and more different ways of people getting your product, but they’re all probably going to come from the same route.”

And that same route is Vogue itself. For many, its essence is still captured in the glossy flick of the hard copy’s pages with their delicious scent of slick paper. There’s a tantalising glimpse of colours in the bits you haven’t read yet. Magazines themselves are still a treat. “I think I’m very lucky to edit Vogue because it’s one of those magazines that you do actually want. Even with the app, which I think looks great, there’s still something different. You don’t take it to the bath, you don’t have it on the table as something you are going to keep – you don’t keep it. I think that’s what will happen with book publishing as well. There are going to be certain books that people buy because they want to keep on the bookshelf. Then there will be books that people will just buy, and download, and read, and that will be…it.”

Alex stops and asks me a question: “What degree are you doing?” Cue short diversion into French Realism. It’s another gesture that dispels the haughty fashion editor image: she seems genuinely interested and the more we talk, the more I feel as though this is a conversation rather than an interview. After all, she wouldn’t ask about colleges and degrees if she wanted to get rid of silly student journalists.

Alex describes how, ultimately, it is the editor that “makes the mix.” It is the editor that decides how each Vogue (there are about 18 worldwide) is “incredibly closely tailored to the country.” Without being ingratiating, it sounds exhausting. How important is it that this editor keeps a life outside her work?

“Like, 99.9 percent. I think sometimes you have to go through periods where you really do have to sacrifice your life to ultimately get to what you want to do. [But you need]…time for taking in things that are not about the problems you’ve got. I always find that, if I get really stressed out, I go for a walk and look in some of the galleries on Cork Street [behind the Vogue offices], and just come back feeling better…It’s really important to try to balance work, friends, family and culture.” The family bit is unquestionable for Alex. When I ask what motivates her the most, two pithy words suffice: “My son.” Neither of us need say any more.

Time’s up. I stop the tape. In some ways, I wish I hadn’t. Whether out of politeness, or something else, the conversation carries on. Alex leans on the windowsill and considers me carefully. I attempt not to gawp back.

For all the supposed fashion magazine glossiness, the reality isn’t quite the same. It doesn’t fit that bill, but a better one. OK, it’s not every office that has Mario Testino prints on the walls or lacy gowns lining the corridors. But the staff dashing back and forth in jeans and T-shirts (albeit, very well-cut examples) are part of a successful business, with Alex at the helm. Year-on-year rises in the magazine’s circulation prove she’s right: we really do want to keep it. “What I love about Vogue is that we’re involved not just in clothes but in style – in art, music, books, theatre and film. So what could be nicer?” The magazine might not define her, but she knows it back to front.  Like a lot of things, she judges it soundly. What could be nicer indeed?