Former Vogue Editor Alexandra Shulman On Clothes & Other Things That Matter
The longest serving editor of British Vogue opens up her closet for a personal look at an extraordinary life lived in clothes
Embracing life with wild abandon might feel like an anomaly at the moment. What will we say to ourselves ten years from now as we look back at how we dressed? Oversized knitwear and track pants with a whiff of uncertainty might sum up our present reality or, like Hillary Barry’s #FormalFriday, it’s a chance to dress up in full black-tie for happy hour by the garage.
Whatever your dress code, perhaps one day we’ll look at our #stayhome outfits and think, ‘cheers, thanks for getting me through’. Because clothes do have the ability to capture the mood of the day. Take the tail end of the 80s and the early 90s; that period of rampant consumerism, conservative politics and ‘Yuppie Scum’. Shoulder padded power suits (probably Armani or Donna Karan) were worn by upwardly mobile professionals, closing deals over plates of champagne-fuelled lunches. It was a time that saw an increase in newspapers, magazines and lifestyle TV; with Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters and Tina Brown inspiring an armada of young, professional women to charge forward in a pair of cone heels and lacquered hair.
It’s an era Alexandra Shulman remembers well. The British author, journalist and former editor-in-chief of British Vogue, recalls in her new book Clothes And Other Things That Matter the power of particular pale grey Cerutti suit gifted to her by her aunt Constance.
The book’s release during lockdown is surprisingly well-timed; already a best-seller — “that’s partially due to my complete self-obsession and self-promotion, which has been unbearable for everybody around me,” she says laughing. Part memoir, part social commentary, the book offers a thoughtful look at our complex relationship with clothes and the memories imbued with it — like suits.
“Suits were as much a part of our lives as the zippy little Fiat Unos we drove, the fashionable wine bars where you would share a bottle of two with a girlfriend, Pepto-Bismol coloured taramasalata from the 24-hour 7/11, and Margaret Thatcher,” she writes. “If you were in your 20s, well-educated and free from domestic responsibility, you could breeze into this world in your Joseph suit and your black opaque’s with a sense that if you played the right cards, it was all there for the taking.”
Speaking over Skype from her home in Queen’s Park, in Northwest London where she is in quarantine with her son Samuel and partner David, Alexandra explains that while the hard edge period is responsible for some memorable fashion tropes (power dressing, clip-on earrings) it’s not one she’s especially sentimental about, preferring the soft spirit of the 70s as her decade of choice.
“In my dreams, but not in reality, I was Maria Schneider in Antonioni’s The Passenger. There’s a geography teacher’s dress that she wears. That was who I wanted to look like when I was that age.”
Like other poetic figures of that era she admires — Patti Smith, Carly Simon, Leonard Cohen — Maria’s mysterious and bookish character is not too far removed from Alexandra’s famously low-key style cultivated during her time editing Vogue. Compared to the razor-sharp look of her International Vogue counterparts — Anna Wintour and her rigorous bob at US Vogue, Christiane Arp at German Vogue, Angelica Cheung at Vogue China — Alexandra’s style is a master class in British insouciance.
“There is this idea of a ‘Vogue editor’,” she explains. “I tried to dress in quite an ordinary way because I thought that way I’d be less judged. I didn’t set myself up to be judged as a clothes horse. I really tried to dress down so that I tried to consciously, and unconsciously to some extent, remove myself.”
Raised by journalist parents — Milton Shulman was the Evening Standard’s theatre critic and her mother Drusilla Beyfus was an etiquette writer and editor for Brides magazine — Alexandra became a features journalist for Tatler in 1982 before moving on to The Sunday Telegraph as the women’s editor and subsequently on to GQ as its editor. In 1992, aged 34, she was appointed editor of Vogue and went on to shape the magazine to become one of the most journalistically oriented of the Vogue stable.
“Everybody thought that I’d write a book about my time at Vogue, but I didn’t want to write that book. I knew, however, Vogue was what people would be interested in. So I tried to find a way to use my time at Vogue to explore the things I did want to write about. I wanted to try and show the contrast between working in fashion, which is a very high voltage, smoke and mirrors kind of world, and contrast that with the reality of life.”
At Vogue, Alexandra oversaw an increase in circulation, championed British designers, and advocated an intelligent conversation with British women that excluded features fodder about diets and cosmetic surgery. For the magazine’s centenary birthday in 2016, she brokered a major coup and secured the Duchess of Cambridge for her first magazine cover in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery for which the Duchess is a patron — the subject of which makes riveting viewing in the 2016 BBC documentary Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue. Her involvement in advising the Duchess on what designer to wear for her wedding to Prince William in 2011 (Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton), reinforced her influence on the way British women dressed. In 2017, after a quarter-century at the magazine she loved, she stepped down, telling The Guardian at the time she wanted to “experience a different life, and look forward to a future separate from Vogue”.
Three years later, does she miss it? “I have no idea what it's like trying to put together a fashion magazine at the moment. Actually I would have quite loved to have edited a magazine in at this point because you could be really creative and you could have some fun with it. You're removed from the necessity to have to show a Ralph Lauren suit and a Prada handbag, which takes up so much of your time and energy and you can actually play around a bit more with what’s there now. So creatively, you should be able to have an enjoyable time doing it.”
Editing such a high-profile magazine often comes with a raft of scrutiny. During her first year at Vogue, a New York Times article highlighted the contrast between Alexandra’s style and her predecessor Liz Tilberis: “The British press has made much of the fact that when it comes to personal wardrobe, Ms. Shulman could learn a thing or two from Ms. Tilberis’s trademark Chanel, and that she could also become better acquainted with a hairbrush.”
WATCH: 5x15 with Alexandra Shulman
Upon her departure from Vogue, Supermodel Naomi Campbell criticised Alexandra for not showcasing enough diversity on her covers and within her own team; and last year as a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, her remarks about 50-year-old Helen Christensen going out wearing a strapless black lace bustier “something you wore at 30 will never look the same on you 20 years later” also drew plenty of criticism. As her mother Drusilla puts it in Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue: “She has this very unusual quality of being able to compartmentalise what she does. She somehow seems able to take a problem and wrap it up in her mind and park it until she can deal with it.”
Growing up in a household that encouraged open critique has also played a part in Alexandra’s ability to be impervious. “I’m really interested in how people can’t deal with argument as a discussion, not as an act of aggression, but an active dialogue,” reflects Alexandra.
It’s a personality trait that’s allowed her to engage debate and create dialogue with people and their relationship with clothes over the years, and is even more pronounced and personal in Clothes And Other Things That Matter, where she introduces an itemised count of the contents of her wardrobe, including 34 bras...“When was it that I became a person who emerged from the M&S changing room, as I did recently, with four bras substantial enough to house a children’s tea-party?”, she writes ... and “7 not immediately-categorisable tops”.
Whether it’s a chapter on bikinis and how an Instagram selfie ended up in the Daily Mail the next day with a front-page headline that read “Ex-Vogue boss, 59, and her warts and all bikini selfie”; or how a beaded Clements Ribiero skirt worn to a Vogue party in 1998 perfectly summed up the cool Britannia mood that prevailed during the late 90s, the book is a candid reminder of personal identity through dress, particularly in a time where the line between work and home life is blurred.
“The majority of the items came to me because I had something to say about them, not necessarily because it was a vivid memory at that point. I did start off with red shoes. That was the first piece I wrote, and in writing it, I probably realised what the book was going to be — because I wrote about being told as a child that my feet were too wide in a rather depressing and condemnatory tone. I realised that my feet did not conform to an ideal standard and in some way my feet weren’t glamorous. Even though I didn’t know what glamour was — that’s the kind of thing I wanted to be able to do throughout the book.”
A chapter entitled Rags & Feathers — which she describes as “satin and tat, scavenger style” — conjures memories of rummaging rails at Oxfam and Christian Aid shops, a style thrust into pop culture via Stevie Nicks and Florence Welch. It also opens up topical conversations around sustainable fashion, and how businesses affected by Covid-19 might find themselves in uncharted territory.
“I think it’s going to be really interesting because when you’ve got so many small brands struggling to produce anything and get it out, how central can those difficult challenges be about being sustainable, while still having those high aspirations for your production. Maybe you employ 10 people and you don’t know whether you’re going to have another collection. With the added time, expense and problems of being environmentally 100 percent conscientious ... it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
Other chapters in the book explore her relationship with wearing colour, whether it’s navy, black, gold or pink, the latter hue worn as a lethal weapon. “Pink is a rather effective disguise…something very unthreatening I’d wear when I actually wanted to get somebody to agree to something that I wanted.”
While Alexandra navigates the current reality of promoting a new book via live streaming interviews and podcasts, she’s looking forward seeing it have a life beyond print in another format “I’ve got quite a few things that I’m exploring”; plus working on a forthcoming television drama series set in 90s magazine world, alongside filing copy for her weekly column for the Mail on Sunday.
For the foreseeable future, as consumers increasingly reject purchasing for the sake of newness, will the pandemic change the way we shop? “I think it depends on the economies to some extent. I believe if people do have disposable income, clothes are one of the things everyone is going to continue to buy. It’s a bit like getting your hair done — which is really what I’m desperate for,” she says laughing.
And while we’re thinking of shopping mindfully and supporting local, pent up demand for fashion is a possibility (depending on your economic circumstances); people desperate to go out and treat themselves to a nice dress or shirt, especially for a self-confessed impulse buyer like Alexandra.
“As soon as I’m considered, it takes all the joy out of it. But I am really compulsive about buying clothes. I do think that you never regret buying something that you really love.”
I’ve already purchased four things online in the past two weeks, I tell her.
“Well I’ve only bought two things, so I’m just behind you” she says smiling. “But I’ll be able to catch up.”
- Clothes and Other Things That Matter by Alexandra Shulman is available now. $40, published by Hachette.