“I don't really see myself as a fashion critic, per se...” – Alexandra Shulman
An exclusive interview with the editor-in-chief of British Vogue
This year, British Vogue's editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman is busier than ever. The Vogue Festival is looming, and she will be hosting talks with the likes of John Galliano, Kate Upton and Bobbi Brown. Shulamn's new book, The Parrots is also about to hit the shelves, and to top all of this off, British Vogue will soon celebrate its 100 year jubilee anniversary. Of course, all of these things mean that not only are we lucky to find time in Shulman's calendar to meet with her – but it all makes for a great reason to interview the iconic British journalist...
Greeting us in her spacious office within Vogue House in Central London, we spot an expansive display of Vogue's international editions on the wall. "Shame I can't read many of them. Without that I can't really judge them, apart from the imagery" Shulman notes. "Do you like the covers?" we enquire, "When you look at those magazines, every cover is so reflective of the culture it comes out of. We have India, Japan and so on. For instance I don't think I could've put butterflies on a British Vogue cover, but they put them on the cover in Russia because they like their theatricality" Could she be an editor in any other country? "Probably not. I'm successful here because I understand the British culture."
Shulman possesses a firm stance and an assertive voice, and as she speaks we notice an earring which says 'Sam' – an ode to the fashion icon's 19-year-old son, whose pictures so often pepper her Instagram account, "not as many as I would like to post though, he rarely allows me to do that," she laughs.
Her workspace is decorated with a personal touch, but without feeling cluttered. There are archives of Vogue issues from 1992 (the year Shulman started editing it) up until the present day. It's a chronicle of staggering 23 years of British fashion neatly kept in sets of green folders.
What do you think is the secret to the impressive longevity you have experienced at British Vogue?
Understanding of what Vogue is and the ability to see what's happening around you and understanding of how to accommodate that. Just because somebody's been on everybody's cover doesn't mean that I want to have him or her on mine. What's important is to feel that you're looking around and seeing what it is that people are interested in, how are people engaging with what you do? There is the print magazine, which is still my passion, but I can't deny that there are so many other strands now that take up my time.
"I think Vogue is lucky because it's not just another fashion magazine. People want to keep it. Very few people buy it, read it on a train and chuck it out."
How involved are you with the digital version?
I'm an editor-in-chief so I'm overseeing the digital. We have an editor Lucy Hutchings and on the day-to-day basis. She edits the website but we have Vogue on an app, we have mobile Vogue, and we are making more and more videos.
Alexandra is fairly optimistic about the future of print Vogue and, according to her last year was a successful one for the iconic publication. Whilst the market is shrinking, Vogue's circulation has gone down by only 5% in the last six years. Which is far less than many other mass-market magazines, some of which lost up to 60% of their sales:
"We have a lot of people engaging with Vogue online because it's free, but we know that a lot of people still want to buy the object, they want to keep it, they like the experience of reading the magazine. If you look at iPad sales of the magazine – they are relatively small. I think Vogue is lucky because it's not just another fashion magazine. People want to keep it. Very few people buy it, read it on a train and chuck it out."
Sometimes you sound more like a businesswoman than a fashion editor. Would you describe yourself like that?
I am definitely a journalist and a bit of a businesswoman. However, I don't really see myself as a fashion critic per se.
Who do you think dictates fashion nowadays? The fashion critics or celebrities?
There's definitely a broader constituency of voices that are heard than it would have been 20 years ago. It's not that the celebrity dictates fashion; it's the public's reaction to that celebrity. However, it doesn't mean that if Kim Kardashian wears something that makes it fashion; it's something that Kim Kardashian wears. I think fashion is still mainly driven by designers, by the magazines, the photographers and the imagery created around it.
Yes, and Kim Kardashian now has a Vogue cover under her belt.
Yes! It happened when she had become so famous she couldn't be ignored any longer. Do you think this means that Vogue tries to follow the mainstream as opposed to setting trends?
I don't know. It wasn't my cover.
Could Kim Kardashian be on a British Vogue cover do you think?
We haven't had her. It's never come up.
"I am definitely a journalist and a bit of a businesswoman. However, I don't really see myself as a fashion critic per se."
What do you think of the street style phenomenon?
Street style has always been interesting, particularly in this country, and actually very influential. But that's proper street style. I'm really uninterested in the street style circus around places like the shows or the idea of people just dressing up in order to be photographed. I wonder what happens to all those pictures of girls in bright coloured clothes?
They go online. I was just reading a blog on best-dressed women and your fashion features director Sarah Harris was on it!
She will be thrilled to hear that when I tell her!
What do you think of red carpets? Some critics have been complaining that they have become a bit too safe and dull...
To be honest I think red carpet is something people walk along to go to a ceremony. I don't see why it has to be in any way a fashion show. Personally I think that quite often the girls look better when they're dressed safely than when they wear some kind of extraordinary outfit, which might be very strong in terms of innovation but doesn't necessarily suit her.
Would you say fashion as a whole also became safer instead of bold and experimental?
I don't think it has become safer – if you look at Comme de Garcons, or Givenchy, or McQueen for example. There's always been a level of fashion that's very creative and conceptual and I think that carries on, but there are more labels and more people consuming fashion and more layers underneath that fashion pyramid now.
Are there any British brands today, which deserve more recognition in your opinion?
The British brands are growing I think we've got fantastic designers now. I think the opposite, they get a lot of recognition given even though they are relatively small businesses. We just gave an award by Vogue and the British Fashion Council (BFC) to Mary Katrantzou. There is a very good example of somebody whose got very strong vision and her shows have always been pretty conceptual. But we actually gave her the award because she has created a business underneath that.
Is fashion business or art?
Fashion can be an art and can be business. You have to decide what you want to do with it really.
What's is your personal stance on that?
I'm probably slightly more inclined towards business. For me I like the idea that people actually buy fashion.
"Next year we're going to have a Centenary issue because we're going to turn 100 years old. This is my new challenge – a year of celebrations."
Shulman first started working at Conde Nast in 1982 with a position at Tatler. In 1990 she became the editor for British GQ before taking over at British Vogue. Inevitably she is often compared to another high-ranking Brit at Conde Nast - U.S Vogue's Anna Wintour. When asked who is the tougher boss out of the two, Shulman struggles to answer: "I really don't know. We are different people and we produce different magazines. I'm not sure if it's a matter of tougher or softer. I don't compare myself to her."
What do you still find personally challenging in your role at Vogue?
Everything. I'm here all the time, I read or write every cover line, every caption on every page, look at every picture and 'okay' every shoot. I never think: 'Oh, that issue went really well!'
But surely there must have been issues that you have been really proud of?
I did love the Millennial issue in December 1999. It was brilliant and sold very well. By the way next year we're going to have a Centenary issue because we're going to turn 100 years old. This is my new challenge – a year of celebrations.
How are you going to go about it?
We are having a big exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and we haven't started working on the actual magazine – I'm just about to start thinking how to handle that.
100 years is a lot for a magazine, such an achievement...
It is and it started in 1916 so the majority of the contributors are no longer alive. You don't want to celebrate by only looking back; you also want to look forward. Besides there wasn't a lot of photography for the first 30 years of it, there was a lot of illustration.
In 'The Devil Wears Prada' film it was said that a job at Vogue is one "a million girls would kill for." How does one get a job at British Vogue without resorting to murder?
We have quite a lot of people who started working here who came through the work experience programme. Of course you need to apply for the job and do an interview, but I always hire people based on whether I like them or not, much more than based on their qualifications.
How does one become liked by Alexandra Shulman?
(Smiling) Write a really good letter with a reason as to why perhaps I should meet you...
Have you ever thought of leaving Vogue?
What was the reason?
I don't know, perhaps got out of bed in bad temper that morning? I mean, obviously you think what else you might do in your life and I think about it a lot.
What conclusions do you come to?
I know that when I leave Vogue, I would probably do something different.
I know you've written a book – that might be a new direction?
I have another one coming out it's called 'The Parrots'. I just got the book cover for it actually (she reaches for the book, proudly showing it off to us.)
What is it about?
It's about the disruptive influence of beauty and desire.
That's an intriguing subject...
Well it's got a story too. It's happening in London, about young Italian siblings who are 23-24 who come to London and they disturb the status quo.
"I'm not sure what the definition of journalism is, I have to look it up, but I think of journalism as of something involving writing."
How is it writing a book compared to working as a journalist?
Really hard and different! I see my role at Vogue almost like I am a conductor. I facilitate other people who are creative. But the book, it's just me and nobody else. Which is great but also quite frightening because you're just sitting there with the computer.
In the new world of declining print press and rising social media and YouTube stars, Shulman notes that she isn't sure what kind of journalist she may have become if she was starting her career today: "It's such a great thing that happened to me. Being a journalist is a wonderful job, but it is so much harder to earn a living off that these days."
Do you think YouTube stars represent a new breed of journalists?
That's a different career, isn't it? It's a YouTube video maker. I'm not sure what the definition of journalism is, I have to look it up, but I think of journalism as of something involving writing. It's a big moment of change right now. In the end there will be careers involving lifestyle, but at the moment it's slightly unclear how and what form it's going to take.
How does Vogue attract new generations of readers?
We have the Vogue Festival and people come and spend a day in the environment where we have talks, make-up demonstrations, and styling. This year Galliano and Gaultier are coming; and Christian Louboutin and Alexa Chung are doing talks. For the price of the ticket you can also do the speed styling challenge, get fashion advice. That's a pretty young audience, and in general I think young people love Vogue. It doesn't seem to be a problem with young people engaging. I guess because of the way the communication is now, we do have much wider audience. I mean, you're doing this interview right now, for example...
American Vogue has been very successful with its '73 Questions' videos, would you not want to make something similar?
We aren't going to copy that, we are doing our own things. We had a very successful interview with Kate Moss at home about the story we did on her in the magazine. Alexa Chung did a very good one for fashion week. We have a separate team, which creates videos and they are doing a great job.
You've mentioned that your long career at the magazine has been able to happen because you had a very good understating of what Vogue is. What is it in 2015?
It is kind of the same as it was in 1916. It's a chronicle of fashion and contemporary style created by the best talents in the business.