Alexandra Shulman CBE, journalist and former Editor-in-chief of British Vogue
Alexandra Shulman never intended to be a fashion journalist, setting out after gaining a degree in social anthropology to make her mark in the music business. That didn’t work out and by 1982 she was working at The Tatler, before moving on first to The Sunday Telegraph, Vogue and then becoming editor at GQ. But it was her next move that established her name, when she became Editor-in-chief at British Vogue in 1992. For someone who hadn’t intended to be a fashion journalist, she didn’t do badly, staying at the helm for 25 years until 2017, and overseeing a major boost in circulation. She was also responsible for some of the magazine’s most iconic covers, including its Millennium Issue in December 1999, with reflective mirrored cover, which became the highest-selling issue in Vogue’s history. And she gave an earlier Breed interviewee, Fiona Golfar, her first break.
Since leaving Vogue, Alexandra has been made a CBE for services to fashion journalism, has become a columnist for the Mail on Sunday, and is strategic adviser to online fashion marketplace Atterley.com. She is also a Vice President of the London Library and her most recent book, Clothes… and other things that matter, was published in 2020.
She was kind enough to spend some time answering a few of our questions about her life and career.
Do you ever think you missed your true vocation, in the music industry?
Sometimes I think I would have been brilliant if I had stayed in the music industry, and contemporary music is one of my passions, but in the end, I suspect magazines is where my heart lies.
How did you get your first break in working for magazines?
I was a temp working as secretary to the Editor of Over21 magazine in the early Eighties. Shirley Lowe, the editor, was a wonderful woman and took me on full time and I learnt a huge amount by watching her, which enabled me to eventually leave and start a career as a magazine journalist.
Were you daunted at taking over as Editor-in-chief at Vogue?
I don’t recall being daunted by the job at Vogue when I first arrived. It was such a momentous thing to happen to me that in a way I experienced it more as an out of body thing – something that was happening to someone else. I was quite confident about my ideas for the magazine and my ability to edit as I had the experience from editing GQ. But the whole fashion industry was completely new territory, so it was a steep learning curve.
Are there any photographers or artists you’ve particularly enjoyed working with?
Gosh, I worked with so many great creative people it’s hard to pick individuals out. It was more that there were certain shoots that were my favourites over the years rather than individual photographers. My chief photographers were Mario Testino, Nick Knight, Tim Walker, Patrick Demarchelier and Juergen Teller, who worked a lot on Vogue during my time. But there were many others, like Josh Olins, who shot the Duchess of Cambridge for us, and Tom Craig, who did some great fashion travel shoots, and Snowdon, who shot some incredible portraits, as well. In terms of artists there are countless people I would love to have on my wall but in general they don’t work for magazines. I’d love a Tracey Emin and a Peter Doig.
Do you see yourself as a writer/journalist first and editor second?
I guess I view myself as writer/journalist more than an editor, especially since that is now what I am doing. I love reading and still read a lot of news and features as well as books. Like so many people I am a huge Joan Didion fan and from an early age she was an inspiration. As were Rolling Stone writers like Cameron Crowe and New York magazine writers of the 70’s such as Tom Wolfe. My favourite long read magazines are the London Review of Books and The New Yorker. I am currently in the middle of reading several books – the Booker Prize winner The Promise by Damon Galgut, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told, a collection of Jenny Diski’s writing, and a book yet to be published called The Grove by Ben Dark, which is very original and ostensibly about front gardens, but a lot more besides.
I adored The Lighted Window by Peter Davidson which is a series of ruminations on walks and poetry and art inspired by lighted windows. It has changed the way I look at our streets. I also hugely enjoyed The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz who wrote the book that became the TV thriller The Undoing, and Rupert Thomson’s Barcelona Dreaming.
How has your life changed in recent years?
My life has changed so much since leaving Vogue it’s hard to describe. I was used to a very regular existence, very planned and involving hundreds of other people. Now I am much more free. I have much less idea what is going to come up next and sometimes I can spend a great deal of time working alone. Covid, of course, has limited our opportunities for physically being with other people, so that is perhaps not quite as big a deal as it might have been. One of the best aspects of having changed my life is doing new things. I am enjoying working with Atterley.com and learning about online retail and I am about to start volunteer work at our local library, which I think will be fascinating.
My Mail on Sunday column came about when Ted Verity, who now also edits the Daily Mail, became editor of the Mail on Sunday and approached me. We came up with an idea together for a column which would be several small items rather than a single polemic and which allows me complete freedom of opinion. I hugely admire how he tolerates many of the things I write which might not be standard Mail fare. And, of course, it’s a huge privilege to have a space where you can write about what you think and observe.
Are you planning any further novels to follow Can We Still Be Friends and The Parrots?
At the moment I am trying to figure out what to write next. I have an idea for a novel and also for something non-fiction, but I haven’t managed to really launch either of them. So, watch this space!
To what degree do clothes continue to matter for you?
I love clothes – always have, always will. If anything, I get more pleasure from them now than when I was at Vogue, when, in a way, clothes were part of work. I am always buying this and that. Today a beautiful vintage silk blouse arrived in the post which is my first on-line vintage buy.
How would you describe yourself at this point in your life?
I describe myself as fortunate (fingers crossed) and content. I’ve had a really interesting career so far, but I’m looking forward to working in different areas and with different people for a long time in the future. And I am blessed with wonderful family and friends.