Alexandra Shulman: unravelling the woman and world behind a quarter century of Vogue

After 25 years as editor-in-chief of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman has left. Flicking through the glossy pages, it’s impossible to imagine a single person refining the mass of creativity which comprises the fashion world to something found in every local cornershop. But amazingly, now we can get a glimpse of life as editor-in-chief: in her final year at Vogue Shulman chronicled her day-to-day life by writing Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. It surprised me that one of the women I admire most isn’t actually operating on an entirely different plane of existence. She is not quite so completely cossetted by the fantasy of fashion after all. I mean, she is immersed in many ways, front and centre in the whirlwind of fashion; but she also has a (reoccurring) broken boiler, a horrific fear of flying (preventing all but the essential work trips from home) and a plan to go home and cook for her son and partner. Not to mention getting, like the rest of us, that inability to find anything in the shops when you really actually need it. It seems Shulman is in the unusual position of being able to make the world of high fashion accessible to real people.  After reading the book I am left with the impression that Shulman is incredibly capable, no-nonsense and decisive, but equally, genuine, fair and down to earth.

I was lucky enough to interview her myself. This unusual opportunity arose as Shulman was due to speak at the Oxford Literary Festival a few weeks ago, in a talk entitled Alexandra Shulman talks to Sali Hughes, Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year. Sali Hughes questioned Shulman on a number of fascinating topics branching off from her book. Afterwards, Shulman let me interview her with my own burning questions.

First up, what does one actually do as editor-in-chief of Vogue? Shulman’s diary shows the editors’ role goes way beyond just putting together a magazine (as if that wasn’t hard enough). Here, the image of Shulman as not so different from the normal person falls away rather spectacularly. Every day in her office seems gawp-worthy; working with the likes of Kate Moss, Kate Middleton and Rhianna, and immersed in the surreal world of fashion shows, designers and dinners. Shulman talks to Hughes about her role as an ambassador for Vogue. She explains her involvement in discussions with industry about what they are attempting to achieve and their ideas on the direction of fashion. I am pleasantly surprised by the behind-the-scenes reality of Vogue’s interactions with the fashion world. It lends a validity and authenticity to Vogue’s commentary. Shulman has to communicate with an enormous range of, often powerful and opinionated, people. In particular, the worlds of fashion and celebrity are becoming increasingly linked. Shulman is firm that Vogue refuses to lose its identity to celebrity demands. Indeed, Shulman wittily points out, there is a recent shift back to using models for shoots since “at least models will wear what you ask them to”. Again, Vogue’s commitment to its vision is clear, refusing to completely pander to what makes money.

“Shulman is not someone who likes to sit still.”

Shulman is clear Vogue treats its models very well, working hard to ensure they are looked after. Under Shulman’s leadership Vogue has made an effort to encourage healthy attitudes to beauty with their “health initiatives”, a pact between 19 Vogue editors across the globe to promote healthy body image in the industry. On their success, I am impressed by her frankness, but conflicted about the implication of her conclusion: she says it’s hard to tell, but Vogue’s efforts probably haven’t made a huge difference to how people behave. She concludes quantitatively no change would probably be found. On one hand there’s a sense we should be frustrated: surely Shulman could have done more? But certainly, she did try, for instance running a model free issue in November 2016, pushing to feature successful women with non-fashion related jobs, and a refusal to feature diets. In any case, there’s the question of to what extent this is Shulman’s role. Her method of editorship has always been not to constrain other people’s creative visions, with her role as curating not monopolising Vogue’s content. In the past, she has discussed the huge frustration of not being able to get designer samples to fit actresses. Several questions arise: to what extent could Vogue create a new reality, morally superior than that which they are to be reporting on? How much are attempts to change the industry itself from the inside, which Shulman was certainly involved in, be the responsibility of magazine editors?

What will Shulman do once she is no longer defined by the role as editor-in-chief? As one might expect from a woman with the energy and drive to edit Vogue for 25 years, Shulman is not someone who likes to sit still. During the talk, she seems a little nervous at the concept of not being occupied – she is keen to be immersed in many future projects and when asked about future plans Shulman seems open minded, but has clear directions mapped out. She plans to do some work at Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design, which has close connections to Vogue. She also has plans to work with retailers and continuing her writing career (she has already published two novels, as well as her recent diary).

“Next time I pick up Vogue, I will look at it a little differently.”

There seems no better woman to help demystify perhaps the central debate surrounding fashion – what is its value? Ultimately, is it a superficial affair? During the talk, Shulman explains that despite increasing popularity of online content, rendering some previous uses of paper Vogue futile, there is an enduring power of “the object”. Having and poring over the beauty of a physical copy is different to digesting new information online, suggesting a sort of magic to its contents. When I asked where the line was between fashion as fantasy and fashion for real women, Shulman makes an interesting point. “Fashion has to be a fantasy.” She continues, “nobody needs, really needs […] more clothes” Shulman sees the fantasy and aspiration bound up in fashion as very important; in a way it goes beyond what people will actually wear in reality.  I ask Shulman how she’d counter someone who’d (foolishly) told her fashion was utterly superficial. She is sharp and defiant, declaring “How could you say that? Would you say art is superficial? Would you say theatre superficial?”. It is, she reminds me, “your most immediate way of connecting with people around you”. Fashion is a cultural form as inevitable and important as other important forms of self-expression. This gives it intrinsic worth, even where it appears frivolous or abstract.

I sit up and listen when Sali Hughes asks if Shulman ever has those moments: when something horrible happens (maybe someone is ill) and she thinks “Oh, it’s just shoes and handbags, it doesn’t really matter”. Shulman replies, no, she doesn’t. Of everything Shulman has said, this seems one of the most interesting and moving. If a woman as smart and talented as Shulman judges fashion has such fundamental importance, we can take her pretty seriously. This doesn’t mean everyone should want to read Vogue. But it means Vogue’s analysis of one of our most basic forms of self-expression, through the lens of high fashion, becomes a commendable project. That’s not to say Vogue has no issues: it’s shaped by excessive materialism and unhealthy attitudes to appearance. But these things form part of how we define self-expression, so I suppose Vogue’s role is not just to report on the culture of fashion, but to recognise where this culture is damaging and make steps to change this. Next time I pick up Vogue, I will look at it a little differently.

As for Shulman, I’m excited to see what she gets up to next. More likely she might be found doing five things all at once. Oh, as long as none of them involve getting on an aeroplane.