Lunch with the FT: Alexandra Shulman

Lunchtime at 34 is everything you’d expect from a Mayfair restaurant, a meeting place for hedge funders in shirts as crisp as new banknotes and women with power blow-dries. Alexandra Shulman was also expecting a little privacy but the editor of British Vogue is scarcely going undercover by nipping round the corner from her Hanover Square office to this smart new steakhouse. In bounces well-connected foodie Tom Parker Bowles (“Is this your new haunt?” he asks), followed by restaurant critic AA Gill (“Hi Adrian”, “Hi darling”). “Rather more people here than I expected,” Shulman says, jaw tense, voice dropping to a near-whisper.

Fortunately, the background noise swells and the sense of an accidental audience fades. I order sparkling water and Shulman has a Virgin Mary. She mixes it vigorously with the stick of celery, spilling tomato juice on the table, declaring it “a really good one. It makes you feel like you are having a Bloody Mary even if you aren’t. It’s very good for hangovers.”

One might think that hangovers have been airbrushed out of the aspirational world of Vogue, with its upbeat, beautiful frivolity – but Shulman, 54, has not cultivated an image of perfection around herself during 20 years at the helm. Nor has she subscribed to the extreme mythology of the Vogue editor, from the grandeur of Diana Vreeland at US Vogue in the 1960s to its current editor, fiercely groomed industry power broker Anna Wintour. Unlike, say, Emmanuelle Alt of French Vogue, who could make a whippet look hefty, Shulman is curvy. And the result of the subtle make-up, laissez-faire hair and lack of cosmetic work is that Shulman looks younger, and prettier, than a lot of her fashion contemporaries. “I’ve got to the point where I don’t judge myself [on my appearance] because that way madness lies,” she says, convincingly. “I know so many people who are upset about not looking as good as they used to but you’ve got to realise that’s what happens and find something else to be interested in.”

I ask if she’s ever been tempted to cultivate a grander image: “No, I think it sometimes disappoints people that I don’t have that,” she says, “but I knew the only way I would be able to do this job was if I didn’t try to create some kind of carapace around myself. Up to a point, I guess, the Miss Down to Earth thing is its own persona ... Sometimes I would like to make people quake more.” Does anyone quake? “I’ve never seen anyone quake, no,” she replies, laughing at the prospect.

Her outfit of black knee-length Marc Jacobs dress with a sketchy pattern, capacious leather handbag perched on the banquette beside her and an armful of assorted bangles (gifts from assorted former boyfriends) is undeniably chic but it doesn’t have the kind of studied glamour that announces to the uninitiated that she is a big deal in the fashion world.

But she is a big deal, and this is a big year for her and for Vogue. It’s Shulman’s 20-year anniversary as editor, this month she’s publishing her first novel, Can We Still be Friends, and Vogue is staging its first festival.

I ask about the highlights of the past 20 years, hoping for crazy-fashion-world anecdotes, but she says she can’t recall a lot, thanks to “a terrible memory”. As she speaks she pauses, big brown eyes gazing off into the distance, while she rummages in her memory as if digging around in her handbag for an elusive lipstick or set of keys. She does remember what she wore for her first day at Vogue in April 1992. “A bright turquoise coat jacket that I’d got from Joseph and a black skirt.” Her lack of specific fashion credentials – she was editor of GQ, and before that features editor of Vogue – was met with some scepticism, and she recalls that “a lot of people were pretty horrible, some of the staff weren’t very nice, a lot of the PRs in the industry weren’t particularly nice, but strangely it didn’t bother me.”

When she started, Liz Tilberis, her predecessor, made “a rather tart comment, something like, ‘Good luck kid, you’ve got no idea what’s in store for you.’” If she could have her time again, she says, “I would have got rid of the people who didn’t want to work with me, sooner.” It’s a hint of the steeliness that must have helped keep her at the top in a fickle industry.

I ask how much power she has as editor of British Vogue. “Shall we order?” she replies. “I know what I’m having – the hamburger.” She takes it cooked medium, no fries but with barbecue sauce and a side of sprouts. An unusual mix, I say. “Is it? I love sprouts.” I order a cheeseburger with fries and she returns to my question.

“Power,” she says. “You have a lot of power in different ways, things that appear in the magazine have an immediate connect sales-wise, and, because Vogue has been around for so long, it does have an authority that people believe in. If you endorse something, people believe that endorsement.”

These are the perks of power but her position puts her in the line of fire for the accusations flung at the fashion industry. Eating disorders, low self-esteem, credit-card debt, elitism ... you name it, apparently the fashion industry is responsible for it. “If you have the power, then you are always going to have your head above the parapet,” she shrugs. In June 2009, Shulman wrote letters to designers suggesting that they should make their sample sizes larger, in the hope of shifting perceptions of the ideal female body size. Did it work? “I’m pleased I did it but it hasn’t changed the sample size so you could say, ‘Well, you don’t have very much power.’”

Vogue’s real clout lies in being the last word in matters of style, a maven in magazine form, but how does Shulman see the essence of British Vogue? As our burgers arrive – slightly overdone but she doesn’t mind because she doesn’t like them too bloody – she explains that she thinks about the magazine as she did before she edited it. She was once a thrift-shopping, Leonard Cohen-loving St Paul’s schoolgirl living in Belgravia with her parents, the late theatre critic Milton Shulman and the journalist and etiquette expert Drusilla Beyfus. Then, Vogue was “a world that I wanted to know about, but which was utterly different from my own existence. You felt in some way that reading it added a lustre to you. I wanted to have some reality in it but I didn’t want it to be an everyday existence.”

In March 1993 the magazine caused a sensation when it featured a shoot by Corinne Day of a teenaged Kate Moss, photographed wearing just underwear. It was decried as exploitative “heroin chic” by much of the media but the plain, gritty images became one of the defining fashion styles of the 1990s. This being Vogue, however, edginess was never going to oust establishment; the following year Princess Diana appeared on the cover, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier.

In the 2000s Vogue shocked again, this time with its choice of celebrities. A shoot with Coleen McLoughlin (now the wife of Manchester United star Wayne Rooney) in 2005 met with claims that the magazine was dumbing down, as did subsequent covers with Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole. Recently, popular music has provided the cover girls – singers Rihanna, Florence Welch, Adele and Lana Del Rey.

Compared with the edgy cool of French Vogue or US Vogue’s positioning as the ultimate fashion authority, Shulman’s magazine is aspirational but surprisingly accessible, with a slightly more eccentric tone. “It’s eclectic. I made a deliberate decision when I came to Vogue not to have one aesthetic. I try and put in one shoot that’s quite graphic and hard, one that’s whimsical ... British fashion is about that mix. We also have more mainstream and high-street clothes than other countries.” Recently, however, increased fashion content in newspapers and online has meant that Shulman has “had to make Vogue a bit more rarefied again, whereas when I came I wanted to make it more of a broad sweep”.

Despite a difficult climate for magazine publishing, in which sales are declining, advertising is harder to get and free online fashion coverage is proliferating, Vogue’s circulation stands at 211,624. Shulman stresses that she’s lucky because the “physical object remains desirable”. She brandishes a rolled copy of the new issue, as if it’s a makeshift weapon in publishing’s ideological battle over whether content should be free or paid for, and it’s clear where she stands.

“I get very angry about the idea of journalism for free,” she says. “In the end you can’t sustain a business where people don’t get paid for their services. I have real issues with something like the Guardian because, while I love the website and it’s great that I can go on it without having to pay anything, it’s also very destructive in a way because it has meant that everyone else is following suit and journalists have to produce more and more for less.”

Instead, she’s looking at ways to extend the Vogue brand. “You’ve got limited amounts of people who are going to buy a print magazine and, if you can hold on to the ones you’ve got, then you’re doing brilliantly. It’s good to think of other things you can do without extending it too far. I’m not interested in Vogue bottled water.”

Enter the Vogue Festival, which is Shulman’s “baby”. The event at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington next weekend is not a camping and warm beer affair; it sounds more like Davos for the fashion world. There will be talks (Stella McCartney and Diane Von Furstenberg), conversations (Tom Ford and Shulman; Nigella Lawson and Kirsty Young) and panel discussions, makeovers and make-up lessons. The aim, Shulman says, isn’t to make money, it’s about “dipping a toe in the water ... to do something else with Vogue”.

Shulman is extending her own brand, too – perhaps testing the waters of a career post-Vogue – with her novel. She started it around two years ago, writing before work and at weekends. Set in the 1980s, it centres on three young women living in London and their attempts to forge careers, relationships and identities. Shulman’s brother Jason, an artist, dubbed it “chicken lit” – or mature chick lit – a phrase she thinks he should have copyrighted.

One character works at a newspaper, another has wealthy parents living in west London, but Shulman is adamant that only fragments are autobiographical. She’s nervous about its reception, saying “I’m a sitting duck,” while forming her fingers into a gun and channelling quite a lot of drama into miming someone taking pot shots at her. “It’s not high art, I am not Alan Hollinghurst.” She says one publisher turned it down, describing the book as a cross between Esther Freud and Penny Vincenzi – but she seems pretty chuffed with this comparison.

As we allow our plates to be cleared and order coffee – espresso for her, filter for me – our conversation meanders easily to Christopher Simon Sykes’s biography of David Hockney (“Hockney is one of the best-dressed men in the world”), London’s public rental bicycles, known as Boris bikes (“great fan, but there’s a real problem with parking them”), running by the canal in Ladbroke Grove and her life in Queen’s Park with partner David Jenkins and son Sam, 17 (from her marriage to Paul Spike).

When I throw in a badly phrased, last-minute question about whether she thinks about feminism when editing Vogue, Shulman shows that, while she might not make anyone quake, she’s certainly capable of raising a mild tremor. She retorts with a fierce defence of fashion: “I don’t think about feminism at all. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s important, but why would you ask about feminism? What I think is that if you are a hairdresser you focus on appearance, if you edit Vogue you focus on appearance, that’s what I do. It’s a pity people feel that’s incompatible with being a feminist, that there’s something lightweight about caring about your appearance.”

To prove her point about the social value of fashion, she talks about a historian friend who says that it’s essential to wear a pin brooch as an icebreaker when she gives talks. “Pins aren’t very fashionable,” I blurt out, images of the Queen and Madeleine Albright floating though my mind. “No, but I’m quite tempted,” Shulman replies. “I saw a beautiful diamanté star in a second-hand jewellery shop in Kensington the other day.” I point out that if anyone can bring back the pin, it’s the editor of Vogue. “Maybe, when the book comes out.”

As I pay and we get our coats to leave, she says she’ll stay in her position for “as long as they will have me ... I can’t really think of anything that would be nicer than what I’m doing.” For now, Alexandra Shulman isn’t going anywhere but back to the office.

Carola Long is the FT’s deputy fashion editor

Vogue Festival, April 20-21

34 Restaurant

34 Grosvenor Square, London W1

Cover charge x 2 £4.00

Sparkling water £4.50

Virgin Mary £5.50

‘34’ hamburger x 2 £33.00

Double espresso £3.75

Filter coffee £3.25

Total (including service) £60.75

Poise: Lee Miller, c1931

A short history of Vogue: Fashionable highlights

● Vogue was first published in 1892, as a weekly magazine for New York’s social elite. Its cover proclaimed a broad range of contents: “Fashion, Manners, Society, The House, Literature, Art, Music, Drama”. The title caught the eye of would-be magazine magnate Condé Montrose Nast (1873-1942). Nast was already working in publishing and had been very successful in boosting advertising revenues for his former employers. He bought the magazine and turned it into a monthly, making it the fashion chronicle of the times. In 1959 newspaper magnate SI Newhouse bought the Condé Nast empire. It is still owned and run by members of the Newhouse family.

● British Vogue launched in 1916. The timing was astute – during the war non-essential shipping was restricted so no US magazines could be imported to the UK. French Vogue was launched in 1920 and there are now 19 editions worldwide with a combined readership of 24.8m.

● In 1932 US Vogue pioneered the use of colour photography on its cover, showing clothes in more detail. This in turn boosted revenues as fashion designers, delighted with the showcasing of their products in colour, placed more advertisements in the magazine.

● Mid-century, Vogue featured the work of photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Lord Snowdon, Horst and Norman Parkinson. Lee Miller was another notable contributor. Born in 1907, she was 19 when Nast himself pulled her from the path of an oncoming car in Manhattan. She went on to model for the magazine before moving into photography and reporting from the second world war.

● In the 1960s Diana Vreeland at US Vogue coined the term “youthquake” to describe the fresh young mood sweeping popular culture. Models and photographers such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree, David Bailey and Terence Donovan brought this younger, more liberated feel to Vogue.

● Anna Wintour began her reign at US Vogue in 1988, with a model in a Christian Lacroix jacket and the first pair of jeans to feature on the magazine’s cover. Her formidable reputation was crystallised when a former Vogue assistant, Lauren Weisberger, wrote The Devil Wears Prada, a novel about a demanding boss presiding over a fashion magazine in New York. Rather than damaging its image, the implied similarities with Condé Nast’s most famous title only strengthened the brand’s elite reputation.

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