Alexandra Shulman on Her Final Days at Vogue
As she packs up to leave the British edition of Vogue after 25 years, Alexandra Shulman reflects on her time at the magazine
Alexandra Shulman and I are discussing what she’s going to steal from the stationery cupboard on her last day at Vogue later this month. You can never have enough Post-it notes, I tell her. Then again Tipp-Ex, paperclips: those bills can really add up. She nods - worried, all of a sudden. “Gosh, I haven’t given nearly enough thought to what I’m going to steal. Pens, probably.”
We’re in a Conde Nast meeting room because Shulman’s fifth-floor office is “so full of packing boxes you can hardly get in there”, and beneath the jocularity there’s a poignancy. Twenty-five years is a long time in a job, and when the 59-year-old steps down from her position as the second longest-serving Vogue editor-in-chief in the world (Anna Wintour is the first), it’ll be like a long-caged animal being forced to relearn how to live in the wild.
“I had to go and get my first mobile phone in 25 years the other day,” she laughs, “and actually I was quite proud of myself for negotiating a good deal.”
She is realistic enough to accept that “it will feel wildly exciting on a good day, but more like a bereavement on a bad one”, yet Shulman is adamant that she has made the right decision.
“I want a richer mix of life and a bit more control over my existence. I have worked very hard at editing Vogue, so right now I do not want another job. I’m going to take quite a bit of time doing nothing. Actually, I’m rather excited about being able to walk around the streets of London at 3pm.”
I expect she’ll find the mid-afternoon street world as humdrum as it was a quarter of a century ago, but the Vogue she hands over to the new editor, Edward Enninful, OBE, the creative and fashion director for W magazine in New York, will be a very different publication to the one she took over in 1992.
Her appointment, at 34, may have raised eyebrows in the industry (much more seemed to be made of her untamed hair and non-emaciated figure than any lack of experience), but with her journalistic background (her father, Milton Shulman, was the Evening Standard’s theatre critic for more than 40 years and her mother, Drusilla Beyfus, used to edit Conde Nast’s Brides magazine), her patriotism (she has criticised British designers for not showing at London Fashion Week) and her level-headedness, Shulman has made British Vogue accessible while keeping it aspirational. She has also built up the magazine’s circulation, which has consistently hovered around the 200,000 point in her tenure. “I hope I’ve made Vogue a much broader magazine both in terms of the characters that are featured in it and the world that it’s about,” she muses, pretty and put together in a Schumacher blouse, silk Balenciaga skirt and her trusty patent Manolos.
“I remember when I first did a high-street issue some people were horrified, because Vogue wasn’t meant to address that. But I always wanted to make it a magazine for every person rather than for the industry.”
That meant putting Crossrail engineers in the features pages and Victoria Beckham - before her reinvention was deemed credible - on the cover. “Nobody else would have done that then because they didn’t think Victoria was ‘Vogue’, whereas I just thought that she was really interesting to a lot of people,” she says.
WATCH: Alexa Chung and Alexandra Shulman on Getting a Job at Vogue:
Unlike the US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Shulman never bought into a Vogue-style private life. Ask Shulman whether she’s ever had Beckham or any of the world’s top designers and models over for supper to the Queen’s Park home she shares with her journalist partner, David Jenkins, and she flings back: “No. Victoria’s not a friend, but I like her and she likes me and I can pick up the phone to her if I need to. David is forever moaning that I’ve failed to have the most beautiful women in the world to dinner - he sees it as a wasted opportunity.”
Because there are now so few models “who really register in a commercial way”, Shulman has developed different concerns from those she had in the 1990s.
“Back then you could be sure that if someone was famous and you had a reasonable picture of them, they would sell magazines. That’s not necessarily true now. You’ve got Gigi Hadid, who sold very well for us.” She pauses. “Cara Delevingne did a very good job at creating herself as an interesting and strong woman - and Kendall Jenner, basically because of the Kardashians.”
When I ask how she feels about the likes of Kardashian and the model Emily Ratajkowski stripping off on Instagram in the name of feminism, she grimaces.
“Feminism has become one of those tricky concepts because I think we all want to feel that women should have equal respect and absolutely equal rights. But just as I don’t want to see a naked man on Instagram with the hashtag ‘alpha male’, I don’t want to see naked women with the hashtag ‘feminism’. That’s not what feminism is about. Feminism is about being proud of and happy with your body - particularly if you’re leaving it absolutely as nature gave it to you.
She shakes her head: “I can’t bear the whole ‘empowering women’ thing. It has become this catchphrase, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. I particularly hate it when it is attached to anything commercial.”
To remain as sensible and non-faddy as Shulman in an often whimsical, fad-peddling industry is impressive. And anyone mistaking either these comments or those made two years ago when she warned women not to expect their jobs to be reserved for them “in aspic” while they are off on maternity leave as un-sisterly has got her wrong.
A lot of the women at Vogue are the chief breadwinners, she tells me, and many are on a four-day week. As a single mother raising her now 22-year-old son, Sam - whom she had with her former husband, the American writer Paul Spike - “I didn’t really feel that I could have a big job and not work full-time,” she admits. “My generation didn’t, but I’ve noticed that many more women are prepared to sacrifice the full-time aspect now, and if you can sit down with your boss and have a civilised conversation about how to make that work, then great.”
One thing she will caution against is the notion that women “can have it all. Because of course men can’t have it all either - but maybe they’re not trying to,” she sighs. “I don’t know why women have created such impossible standards for themselves. Not just in their looks, but in their whole lives. Maybe it’s over-compensating: if you’ve come from being judged basically on your marriageability and emerged from that through a lot of fighting, maybe you think you can do everything. Well, I’m a full believer that you can’t. And I find it particularly depressing how perfectionist and judgmental so many women are about their own appearances. Because on the whole men aren’t saying, ‘You’re too fat and your legs are too hairy and you’ve got a double chin'. Women are doing that to themselves.”
Although Shulman hasn’t seen any evidence that women are worse at asking for salary rises than men in her tenure, she will point out one niggling Conde Nast discrepancy: “If you look at this company you’ll see that the people at the top are almost all men. So that’s not about asking for rises but something to do with the culture, whereby the highest-paid people are all men - even though the company is basically aimed at women.”
Could this be, I wonder, her way of addressing rumours that Enninful - who will be Vogue’s first male editor - has negotiated a substantial salary. Whatever that figure may be, however, Shulman does sound utterly confident that her successor will do a good job, adding that as a former GQ editor herself, “It would it would be very hard for me to say that a man couldn’t edit Vogue: I absolutely believe that a man can.”
Shulman needs to get back to the September issue - her last. But I have one last question: will she manage to keep it together on her last day, as she and her packing cases exit the building?
“I’m not a terribly weepy person but this is like leaving your family, so I’ll almost definitely cry. But then I’ll remember that lovely empty diary...”
And of course all that stolen stationery.
- The Sunday TelegraphShare this: