The story behind Vogue's iPad app

Going from page to screen has been less than seamless. Vogue's editor, Alexandra Shulman, tells Ian Burrell why it takes time for things to click

After 94 years as one of the most beautiful products on the newsstand, Vogue, the magazine that never misses a chance to remind us of its status as the holy book of the fashion industry, has been reconfigured as an application for Steve Jobs and his iPad.

There will be music, there will be models on the move and, of course, there will be Mario. The biggest name in fashion photography, Mario Testino, has contributed to the app his own video footage of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and other goddesses, to complement the still portraits in the December issue of Vogue, out this week. The Vogue app will also feature a Testino shoot with Emma Watson and a behind-the-scenes video shot by the photographer's team, showing him chatting with the Harry Potter actress in Paris.

And yet, as Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue, rolls her index finger across the screen of an iPad to demonstrate the new app, it's clear this has been a project fraught with difficulties. "It has been much more work and much more complex to build and create it and work out what we were doing than I expected," she admits. The magazine's publisher Conde Nast hatched the plan for a Vogue app last spring at a time when the iPad was expected to become a major source of British media content. "I had thought more people would by this time be buying media products on iPads. The reality is that not that many iPads have been sold in this country," says the editor of a magazine that sells 210,000 copies a month.

The core of the debut £3.99 Vogue app is the star-themed December issue of the magazine, but in a page-swiping digital format and with a raft of delicious video extras. Those that buy it might expect a similar digital purchase of the January issue. Not so. There won't be another Vogue app for four months.

A brand as precious as Vogue's cannot associate itself with a second-rate product and before she embarks on a second venture into what is largely uncharted waters for the publishing sector, Shulman will analyse the response to her first attempt. "It will be interesting to see what people use and enjoy and what they think is a waste of time," she says. "I'd like to get feedback before we start on the next one and work out what's worth putting the energy into."

Surmounting rights issues has been a significant problem. As Shulman flicks across a fashion video shot by Vogue creative director Robin Derrick and featuring a leggy model in stars-and-stripes sportswear she regrets that the chosen soundtrack (St Etienne's version of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart") has not been cleared and she will need to find something else.

And then there are the photographers. The stellar operators commissioned by Vogue "are well aware of the worth of their name", says the editor. Negotiations take place on "whether or not you can use what they create for us and what we are paying for in terms of use of the content in digital formats". Even enthusiastic collaborators face the enemy of the tight deadline when producing video. "They don't have the time to edit but don't want another photographer or crew on their shoot," says Shulman.

Given such hurdles, the Vogue app is quite an achievement. In addition to the experience of reading the 300-plus pages of Vogue on a screen, there are a succession of video features, which serve as both luxurious treats and insights into the workings of the fashion business. Set designer Shona Heath talks about how she created the "star signs" shoot, in which a faux-fur headdress turns a model into a Serengeti lioness for Leo. Elsewhere, the make-up artist Lisa Eldridge discloses some secrets. Both videos are based on features from the magazine.

"We've played with the content made for the magazine and given it a different texture," says Shulman. "What we haven't done is create different content for the iPad, which is not the way to go if you want to keep your sanity."

The app is an opportunity for manufacturers of upscale fashion accessories. A £152,750 star-shaped pendant is shown twirling seductively. But it has been far from straightforward persuading high-end advertisers to submit video content. One exception is Fendi, which has contributed a slick "making of" video of its latest advertising campaign, with shots of Karl Lagerfeld and hair stylist Sam McKnight. In the midst of an economic downturn, such films are a drain on marketing budgets. "Lots of designer brands are talking about how they are marketing in digital but very few have the kind of content they wanted to put on the app," says Shulman. "They wanted something extraordinary but hadn't made it. You don't want to have a luxury brand looking like they have got a wobbly hand-held camera."

The app will need to make money. Shulman says: "There are no vanity exercises on Vogue, we make all the money here." But she is not expecting the new feature to change the business model at a stroke. "The future where that becomes a cash cow is a very long way away," she says. "The big question is does that become the only way you get Vogue 20 years down the line, does it replace the magazine?"

Shulman, who describes herself as a digital "neophyte", clearly hopes the print product will endure. "Call me old-fashioned or simply old but I still find reading my Vogue this way – so I can lie in bed or take it into the bath or put it down on the kitchen table – a much more relaxing experience," she says, toying with the magazine and then pointing to the iPad. "I find this rather exhausting and stressful because that's not the way I want to read it – I don't want to read a newspaper on that either."

A little more than a year from now Alexandra Shulman, 52, will be starting work on her 20th anniversary issue as editor. "I'm more interested in Vogue's 100th anniversary than my 20th," she says, indicating that she intends to remain in situ until at least 2016. She will give the fashion bible another redesign in March to make the format a little less rigid. She will focus on that ahead of producing the second Vogue app.

The iPad product has been produced by the magazine team without additional staff. Vogue's website operates independently and Shulman, while praising the online team for its rapid response to fashion news stories, warns that the brand will need to delineate its various offerings. "There's no point in putting behind-the-scenes videos on the website for free if you are trying to get people to look at them for £3.99 on the app," she says.

Given the trials of producing the Vogue app it is not surprising that the American and Italian editions have elected not to follow suit and to spend their money on their websites. But British media should be glad that Shulman and Derrick have been braver. Their efforts will be anticipated with interest by advertisers and creatives alike. It is, as the editor points out, a "landmark moment", and the December 2010 edition in both print and digital format will be a collector's item. "This iPad is a fantastically exciting radical learning curve," she says. "I'm not even sure that with the next one we will do the same kind of thing."

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