LONDON — Next year Alexandra Shulman will mark the 100th anniversary of British Vogue, which launched during World War One, published throughout World War Two, and witnessed revolutions sexual, mechanical and digital — not to mention the transformation of British society.
“Fashion was just part of what we were when Vogue was conceived by Condé Nast in America. It was style and lifestyle. Fashion takes off in the Eighties. Before that, it was the arts playing a bigger part,” said Shulman from her bright corner office with the powder pink walls at London’s Vogue House.
“And a lot of what was great about Vogue during World War Two was the actual editorial, you know, how to be a Vogue woman in this world of reduced, changing circumstances.”
Shulman said her aim with the anniversary is to bring the magazine’s role as a “filter” of contemporary society into focus, without getting too mired in the past — or obsessed with the present. “We also want to make it clear that we’re moving with the time,” she said.
Events to mark the anniversary include a show at London’s National Portrait Gallery starting in February, a limited-edition coffee table book set for September, and a collection of special products done in conjunction with luxury brands.
Vogue Festival, a two-day consumer-facing event, will take place in late May and tie into the June centenary issue. A gala event, meanwhile, is set for May 23, while BBC2 has also been filming a two-part documentary on the magazine, using the anniversary as the peg.
Shulman, who has served as editor for 23 years, has witnessed her own share of those changes in the 20th and 21st centuries. “I have to work so much harder now. When I got to Vogue there were 12 issues a year. Now there are still 12 issues but also four to six print supplements, the continual feeding of the Web site, Vogue video and the festival.”
Although Vogue remains profitable, combined print and digital circulation was flat year-on-year at 200,058 in the January to June period. Five years ago, in the same six-month period, circulation was 210,561.
Like other Condé Nast titles, Vogue has also been forced to look for fresh revenue streams, one reason for launching the annual Vogue Festival.
Here, Shulman talks about the anniversary, the changing role of the magazine editor, and whether Vogue will even be a monthly magazine in 10 years’ time.
WWD: Can you give any details about the show at the National Portrait Gallery?
Alexandra Shulman: The National Portrait Gallery exhibition is obviously a retrospective and it has works from all 10 decades, but I also wanted it to be very much about the work of a magazine. The images for Vogue were created by a team of people. They’re not works by individual artists, so the context is very important, the fact that the photos have been commissioned for a specific reason. Patrick Kinmonth is the artistic director and Robin Muir — a contributing editor at Vogue and the magazine’s former picture editor — is the curator. The exhibition starts in February, and will travel to Manchester in June.
WWD: What were Vogue’s most interesting decades in your opinion?
A.S.: Every decade had its interest, although the changes in the Twenties were monumental. We talk about the advent of digital, but that was the change to a whole new world. You had the advent of the motorcar, air travel, the telephone. The role of the upper class in England had completely changed by the end of the First World War. If you look at the changes that were happening in the Twenties, they put the ones we’re experiencing now into real perspective.
WWD: How did Vogue’s coverage evolve over the years?
A.S.: When you see the early Vogues, there are no such things as models. The models are social personalities. And then at a certain point you see professional models, and then the introduction of the Hollywood celebrity. Throughout, you do see women as creators, and I think it’s so important.
WWD: What about this current decade, and the drastic changes to the media landscape?
A.S.: On a positive note, the opportunity we have to engage with so many people is exciting. One’s voice can be heard loud and clear and we can reach people who can’t necessarily afford a print magazine cover price. We can immediately react to events in a way that you simply can’t in a glossy magazine.
We have also done an incredible job at still creating an object that people are prepared to pay for, and want to read in the print form. We’re still a profitable entity, and one of the reasons is because I’ve been absolutely unwilling to give away our content for free. I do not understand, even now, how people put an enormous amount of content online for free. Even [the titles within] Condé Nast differ in how much they give away. I think American Vogue runs a lot of their content online.
The newspapers, I mean, they just killed themselves. The genie is out of that particular bottle. The question is, are magazines going to do the same? Certain magazines still have such validity in print. Whenever we do research on how people want the magazine, the result is that 80 percent want print rather than digital. But you can’t ignore the digital channel. You have got to be creating material for everything and that includes video, mobile and online.
WWD: So then how are you dealing with the challenges that digital presents?
A.S.: I don’t think people are going to read Vogue on the phone. The great thing about digital is that it offers you the opportunity to tailor what part of your brand you want to do what with. It doesn’t really make sense to replicate something that’s designed for the pages of Vogue for a little screen. That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Vogue that absolutely are fantastic to have on the phone. It’s very much a “knowledge is revenue” situation. I think that is why people are interested in data. You’ve got to get the figures of what people actually want.
WWD: What are some of the other challenges brought on by the new climate?
A.S.: I’m slightly ambivalent about the idea of people working in the media all becoming characters in the landscape. I think you have to be careful about what you are doing. Entertainers are entertainers and editors are editors. You’re not necessarily able to do both.
WWD: Can you talk about newsstand sales?
A.S.: I think we are substantially less down than anybody else within our market. With monthly glossy magazines, everybody is down. A lot of magazines are struggling. Having said that, interest in the brands — and I include all of them: Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, Vanity Fair — is bigger than ever. That’s why I wanted to do the festival. We don’t make a lot of money from the festival at all, but we don’t lose money. It’s a way of raising interest in Vogue, and we sell a lot of subscriptions.
WWD: The fashion world is so much broader now, and people are getting their fixes, advice and commentary from a variety of sources, many of them online. What is the role of a publication like British Vogue nowadays?
A.S.: I think fashion has become hugely about entertainment. Like everything, you’ve got to keep the root quite pure. As soon as fashion becomes only about Project Runway, you’re actually cannibalizing yourself. There’s got to be something very special, inaccessible and rarefied at the core that people want to get into.
You have to remain luxury. There’s got to be something that people aspire to, and that’s to do with designing and creating beautiful things. The richness of it has got to be kept.
The whole secret of Vogue is that we’re giving people what they want before they even know they wanted it. I think the problem with digital is that it tends to cater for where we are now. The names of the absolute moment will always drive traffic. You put Kim Kardashian in, and you’re going to get millions of hits. But does that make it relevant? Should you be doing Kim Kardashian because you’re going to get a lot of hits?
Vogue’s role has been to look at new, and we are not something for everybody. We maintain our preeminence by knowing exactly who we are. I don’t think it’s the time to get doubtful about that.
WWD: What is Vogue going to look like in 10 years’ time?
A.S.: I would really like there to be a print entity. I think it might be that it won’t be monthly. I’m sure 10 years from now, we will have figured out a better way of monetizing digital. But I don’t spend that much time looking at my crystal ball because I’ve got quite a lot to do right now.
WWD: What are your thoughts about the launch next year of the new Style.com, and about the new e-commerce business at Condé Nast?
A.S.: I don’t see in any way how it can be a negative for us. It is hard to know exactly what the relationship will be between the magazine and Style.com, but essentially we will not be a magazine that is catalogue for it. We haven’t spent all that time criticizing magazines that are catalogues just to become one ourselves.