Ahead of the March 2017 print launch of Vogue Arabia, the senior editorial team was invited to Vogue House in London for a tête-à-tête with Alexandra Shulman, the deeply respected editor-in-chief of British Vogue. Sitting in a boardroom, surrounded by black and white photographs of iconic Vogue shoots, we chatted excitedly when she briskly walked in. Anyone expecting a full Chanel look à la Vogue US editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was in for a disappointment. Shulman was dressed in a cardigan sweater and skirt, and possibly her favorite custom white Manolo Blahnik pumps, though I can’t quite remember. Rather than spend the duration of the meeting ogling Shulman’s clothes, we listened to her. In hindsight, it was as smart an outfit choice as any. Shulman was steely, forthright, and focused, and she gave us all the distinct impression that she had many things to get done that day – not least our pep talk.
Shulman stepped down from her editorship in 2017 after 25 years at the helm of British Vogue. She is the publication’s longest-standing editor to date. During this time, 306 issues were published and £200 million worth of revenue was earned for Condé Nast. Though now retired from Vogue, Shulman hasn’t stopped getting things done. Along with penning a weekly column for a British newspaper, she has continued writing books. Her fourth and most recent novel, Clothes…and Other Things That Matter, published in April this year, is already a bestseller. The story – part memoir and part history of clothes with beguiling social commentary – begins with a tally of her closet. Twenty-five dresses. Eighteen sweaters. Sixteen shirts. Thirty-seven handbags. Eight pairs of long boots. Four hats. And so on. The contents of her wardrobe feature some 556 items. Each chapter explores one piece – the little black dress, the bra, the tracksuit – reporting on its place in history, sharing intimate details in relation to her own life, and some rare insider information from her years at British Vogue – like the time she sat down next to Richard Gere for dinner at Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris residence. One can pick up the book and read any chapter; like a magazine, it can be enjoyed at random and invites one to dip in, jump around, and enjoy, as one should whenever reading about fashion.
“What I’ve realized is that for me – having worked all my life in an office role where you were aware of your clothes – personally, I still feel very conscious of what I wear,” muses Shulman. “I don’t have a uniform. I wear really different things ranging from a skirt and silk shirt to tracksuit trousers and a T-shirt, or a Japanese indigo dress. I have a very eclectic wardrobe with clear choices for different types of day.” Early in her book she admits to having determined from the get-go to not partake in any fashion competition, choosing to don informal clothing whenever possible.
Shulman is largely self-effacing. One does derive a certain satisfaction from reading that even an editor of Vogue might be “struck completely dumb in the company of anybody famous let alone Richard Gere.” She’s broken off split ends with her fingers and worn white after Labor Day. She snaps selfies on vacation when she’s feeling happy. She is a real woman. However, just before one might posit that Shulman is a real woman just like us, she details in a very off-the-cuff way that she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the magazine industry by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2007 (Chapter Brooches, Badges and Pins). HRH Prince William was next in line to put a pin on her lapel, making her Commander of the British Empire for services to British journalism the year after she left Vogue.
On the topic of royalty, one cannot forget that Shulman put Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge on the cover of the British Vogue centennial issue, in a trench coat and hat (and not a ballgown as many expressed they would have preferred). And, if we didn’t know – because she kept it a secret – Shulman was instrumental in discussions surrounding one of the most important dresses of this century. She was called to Clarence House to discuss potential wedding gown designers with the duchess. Among candidates like Erdem and Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen was at the top of Shulman’s list. We all know who the duchess wore to walk down the aisle and who she has been wearing ever since. Furthermore, that aforementioned vacation selfie made front page news. A woman just like us, Shulman is not.
With such varied triumphs now part of her history, Shulman appears entirely content to settle in her north-west London home. Describing herself as both an introvert and extrovert, one can picture her equally at ease in a room of highly talented creatives – whom she admits to be missing the most from her days at Vogue (she doesn’t miss the rigid diary, however) – or pattering about in her office at home, in her “incredibly comfortable” diamanté-studded Alexa Chung jellies. Through her window, she will admire her hydrangeas and roses bloom in her courtyard garden before settling into several hours of writing. “I can’t write anything after 2pm,” she laughs, before admitting that she is quite – shock – disciplined.
“I’ve been a journalist all my life but I started writing books quite late,” confesses Shulman. She wrote her first novel, Can We Still Be Friends, in 2012 at age 55. “If you start in your twenties, you might think you have a lot of time to experience or experiment; I don’t really feel that.” Shulman grapples at stating what kind of writer she aspires to be, having never sat down with a deliberate intention to pen a specific formula. “I like to write about emotions and I do want to be a writer that people read,” she enthuses. “Obviously, it would be fantastic if something became a movie or a TV series or a successful launchpad for a podcast, but I don’t think you consider that when you sit down to write.”
Following her hours of writing and later research, which she might do at the Victoria & Albert or London Library, where she serves as vice-president, she might read, pouring over old favorites like Agatha Christie, or the upcoming novel Exciting Times by Irish writer Naoise Dolan. She might play tennis, go for a run, or watch a movie – “the recent Guy Richie film, a gangster heist, was incredibly enjoyable” – before indulging in her true passion: spending time with friends.
Does Shulman still read Vogue? Of course, though perhaps not every issue. Nor is she so deeply immersed as before with what one single designer is doing. “I enjoy representing me rather than a whole brand,” she says of her newfound status, before reassuring, “I’ve always been interested in the business of fashion and I continue to be.” As for her notes on the on-going pandemic, Shulman states, “For a fashion designer, coronavirus will have been incredibly difficult. A lot of people will lose a year of their lives… I can’t see a way that they can just jump back into it.” She predicts that while big fashion brands will remain buoyant, their business models will shift. “I think that the whole system of fashion shows will change. I hope so. I have been wanting for years to see that trimmed back – the amount of money, time, and environmental damage done by these huge groups of people traveling constantly to go see some clothes.”
Perhaps more than ever, it’s important to examine and value clothes in the context of other things that matter. As the industry contends with its uncertain present and future, Shulman’s words are a delightful and articulate symphony assuring us that regardless of our individual paths, both good work and good fashion can carry us through. One can’t help but smile, Ms Shulman, whose childhood dream was a career in music, is still quite the leader of the band. Shop Clothes… and Other Things that Matter by Alexandra Shulman. Published by Octopus Books
Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
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