British Vogue’s Alexandra Shulman on women, careers and fashion

Megan Lea 27 November 2016

This year is British Vogue’s Centenary Year, under its longest reigning Editor-in-Chief, Alexandra Shulman. Forever humble about her unique longevity in the fashion industry, Shulman is as sharp-minded as she is passionate about her work. It shows in the pages of her magazine, the creation of which was visually documented as part of the centenary year in the BBC documentary Absolutely Fashion, but also in person. She prefers to use the word “life” to “career” in reference to her success, and has previously said in an interview that “it’s Vogue’s voice, not mine” that is portrayed in the magazine she has crafted over the last twenty-five years.

On a visit to Newnham College this week, she was kind enough to spare ten minutes of her time in which we had the opportunity to ask her some questions, delving into the future of Vogue, women and the ever-changing identity of the fashion industry.

Vogue is celebrating its centenary year, having weathered a century of perhaps some of the most dramatic socio-political changes in modern history. Our current international climate is as fragile as it has ever been. How do you see Vogue bracing itself for the future in such uncertain times?

Vogue has survived by adapting. It has survived, I think, by being interested in the time that it exists in. Although I think overall there is an idea of what Vogue is, which is a kind of recorder of contemporary style and lifestyle, I think, as well as that, when you look through the old issues, you see that it has always been a part of that time as well. I have no idea how we’re going to react to a Trump America, or how we’re going to react to Brexit. Although I immediately see that in a way one’s being drawn to doing more stories that are home-grown, and trying to support people here in an interesting way, whereas I think a lot of the emphasis in the last ten years has been on promoting international brands. So I think there’ll be a little bit of a difference there.

Thanks to the growth of digital platforms and social media we seem to be living life at a faster pace than ever before. You have previously talked about the long processes that are necessary to produce high-quality magazine content. How do you think the fashion industry can reconcile the demand for such content with the ever-more transient and immediate nature of digital information?

In my dream world we operate on two levels. We operate on a level whereby we have the time to produce the photography and the stories and the research that we do at the moment in the print magazine, whilst at the same time being able to feed the hungry beast that is digital news. It’s a very profitable magazine, and it’s what people really think of – when they think of Vogue they don’t think of a website, they don’t think of a Facebook page, they think of a magazine. One of the things that is at the moment a major question in the business is the whole question of the retail cycles: this thing of “see now, buy now”. We’ve always worked way in advance because we’ve seen fashion shows way in advance, and that’s where we make the decisions about the stories and fashion shoots etc. But some people in the industry are saying “oh we don’t want to show you the clothes then, we’re actually going to show the clothes to everybody just before they go into stores” If that happened everywhere, that would be the end of glossy magazines, because we couldn’t produce the content.

Women in the fashion industry often hold very powerful positions. Do you think we are starting to see similar dynamics in other sectors? Do you think the future will bring more of these positions to deserving women?

I do think it’s really, really changing. There are certain areas where it’s not and I think maybe in the case of a lot of businesses the structure and finance, maybe, it’s not something I’ve ever worked in, but the structure doesn’t seem to lend itself. I mean I actually think it’s got to a point where you look around and think “hang on a moment”: we’ve got Theresa May, we’ve got Angela Merkel, we may (horribly) have Marine Le Pen – in politics there are women everywhere! If you look at the directors of national institutions now, a lot of them are women. I’ve got a twenty-one-year-old son, and sometimes I think “oh god, poor Sam, you’re at a disadvantage!”

You have crafted a longevity that is extremely rare to find nowadays in the fashion industry, which is not particularly well-known for propagating longevity, be it in designers, models, or journalists. How would you say one goes about establishing such success in such an ever-changing environment?

Probably not to think about it, actually. I certainly never had a plan to be at Vogue for twenty-five years and even saying those words makes me feel slightly sick! I think it’s helped that I am a journalist, and so I have a kind of curiosity about what’s around us and I’m quite reactive to what I can see happening. Although I don’t feel it on a day-to-day basis, when I look back at Vogues I did fifteen years ago, I see that actually they are really quite different to what we’re doing now. I think any job that you do for a long time, you’ve got to be open to change, probably, but you’ve also got to drive the change. You’ve really got to work at how you can make it work for you. And I think that’s true about everything in life.