LONDON — Dressing the part of the ultra-polished fashion editor has never been a big priority for Alexandra Shulman — even if she has been editor of British Vogue for a decade.
“I don’t see myself as a model. I don’t show off the clothes, other people do that. I wear the clothes that I like to wear. In London it’s great: You’re not defined by what you wear,” said Shulman, 44, who’s wearing a crocheted Céline tank top, suede Versace jacket, DKNY denim skirt and Manolo Blahnik shoes. “I suppose I don’t spend a lot of time on dressing. I can’t bring myself to do it. There are so many other things I’d rather do. I couldn’t get my hair done every day, I couldn’t get my makeup done every day.”
It’s an odd attitude for the editor of Britain’s preeminent fashion magazine, known for her no-frills look and — horror! — size 10 figure. It also is one that has stirred some backbiting among the inside world of British fashion editors. But from the moment in 1992 that Shulman moved over from being editor of British GQ to replace Liz Tilberis (who had gone to Harper’s Bazaar), her goal was to demystify the editorial coverage and speak more directly to readers. That meant more first-person stories, more general news features, a column called Notes From the Changing Room, about what it’s like to try on evening dresses when you’re a size 14, and information on shopping.
“I want the magazine to include what people — and not just the fashion industry — are talking about. Fashion is always going to be the bulk of the magazine, but today more people buy British Vogue than just dedicated fashion diehards.”
Shulman has always considered herself a journalist, not a fashionista. She goes to fashion parties and is well-known in the U.K., with a weekly column on fashion in The Daily Telegraph newspaper. But the shy, thoughtful Shulman is far from having the high international profile of Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue, or of Carine Roitfeld, editor in chief of French Vogue (all of which are owned by Advance Publications, which also owns WWD). And she doesn’t want it.
Her appointment raised eyebrows among some in the fashion sector, since at GQ she built a reputation for a literary bent and fascination with strong features. It’s a focus she has continued at Vogue, like the profiles in the June issue of Piers Morgan, the 37-year-old editor of the tabloid The Mirror, and tennis player Tim Henman.
But Shulman’s Vogue doesn’t ignore fashion; the magazine regularly uses such photographers as Nick Knight, Juergen Teller and Mario Testino, with layouts that balance the edgy with the commercial. And while British newsstands are filled with a plethora of hip fashion titles — from iD magazine to Pop — and the Saturday and Sunday newspaper supplements heavily feature fashion, British Vogue has thrived under Shulman’s stewardship. Shulman’s more approachable Vogue helped boost the magazine’s circulation to the current 195,167 from about 170,000 in 1992. A Vogue spokesman said the magazine’s circulation figure should bounce back to 200,000 in August. The dip was due to a difficult post-Sept. 11 selling season. Last year the company took in 2,038 ad pages, compared with about 1,400 when Shulman began.
“I think her staying power comes from the fact that she’s always on the side of the reader,” said Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Condé Nast U.K., who moved Shulman from GQ to Vogue. “Also, she’s more of an editor than a fashion editor. She could be editing any national newspaper or national magazine.”
There’s no doubt Shulman, whose father Milton Shulman is a former theater critic for the Evening Standard and whose mother is the writer and former editor of Brides magazine Drusilla Dreyfus, sees herself as an ordinary woman who doesn’t shy away from some home truths. Earlier this year, in her column for The Telegraph, she wrote about breasts, and how hard it was to wear clothes if you’re bigger than a 34B. “Inconceivably, it’s not only men who seem incapable of designing dresses that flatter, rather than expose, the breast — some of the worst offenders are female,” she writes, and goes on to slam collections by Phoebe Philo for Chloé and the young British designers Gharani Strok for being unwearable with a full bosom.
She said some of her favorite clothes to wear include those by women designers including Alberta Ferretti, Tracey Boyd, Diane Von Furstenberg and Versace. “I like Dolce & Gabbana, but the clothes have gotten so small that even thin people can’t get into them,” she said.
Fit and cut aside, Shulman considers the most influential designers of the past 10 years to include Miuccia Prada, whom she describes as having “consistently provided the kind of take on fashion that appeals to a very broad range of people,” Tom Ford for his “clear-headed” approach to Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Nicholas Ghesquière for Balenciaga, Marni and Helmut Lang. Other names include London-based Hamish Morrow, Sophia Kokosalaki and Preen.
“I’m less good on the young New York designers. The people that I think are influential and good who are new tend to come out of London. It’s like they have to wade through the mud to get up there,” she said, adding that British fashion designers need a lot more support than they’re currently getting.
“I’ve never felt that I edited Vogue at a time when London fashion hasn’t had a lot to say for itself, and I don’t say that in a partisan way because there have been periods when there hasn’t been much going on. It’s become so substantial now, and there’s no turning back.” Shulman said, adding that if she had it her way the London designers who make it big would remain in London to show — rather than defect to Paris and New York.
Matthew Williamson, a young British designer who shows in New York, said, “I’ve known her since the start of my career about six years ago, and I respect her loyalty. So many people in the media are focused on the newest thing, but Alex likes to nurture and build relationships with designers. At Vogue, I think she bridges the gap between putting out quite a commercial magazine and a creative book with flair. She can mix a page of ‘cheap buys’ with a really aspirational Lucinda Chambers [Vogue’s fashion director] shoot.”
“I adore her,” said Manolo Blahnik. “I think she has really shaped Vogue and made it right for now. I like her mind, and while it’s true that Alex is more of a features editor and intellectual, she has given a lot of space to her creative team for the fashion coverage. I wish, however, that Vogue could be more English, that it could accentuate English designers more. This European, global thing is not for me. I think that the Vogue in each country should focus more on the specific country’s designers.”
Now that Shulman has been editor of Vogue for 10 years, Coleridge said her job is to maintain the magazine’s momentum. “She’s managed a fine balancing act, appealing to everyone from the hard-core fashion followers to socialites to young professionals.”
There’s also another balancing act. Shulman is a single mother of one — her son Sam — and her interests include reading, gardening, painting, and teaching herself the guitar. “And I manage to squeeze Vogue in there somewhere,” she said.