Alexandra Shulman: editor of 'Vogue'

Alexandra Shulman, editor of 'Vogue', is concerned that current fashion models are not developing into magazine cover stars. She talks to Ian Burrell about her 14 years at the helm of a fashion bible
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The Independent Online

Right next to the sumptuous entrance to Vogue House, in central London, is a clothes shop that purveys such finery as maid's outfits (the real thing, not the Ann Summers variety), stiff white uniforms for caterers and fluorescent ones for grafters in the construction industry.

The store is named Alexandra and there is a certain irony in that, for every morning Alexandra Shulman, the long-standing editor of Vogue magazine, must walk right past it to enter her working world. The sober workwear garments on sale in Alexandra bear little resemblance to the shiny, glitzy couture hanging from the racks in the corridors outside Shulman's office.

To be editor of Vogue means to be surrounded by the finest and newest creations of Prada, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, to be invited to exclusive book launch parties and the openings of the latest art exhibitions, and to commission stellar photographers such as Mario Testino and supermodels such as Kate Moss. Indeed, Moss will grace the cover of Vogue next month, hair tousled and dressed in white for the new season. After her cocaine capers of last year, the supermodel could hardly have a better vehicle for furthering her rehabilitation than a title frequently referred to as 'the Bible' of the London fashion industry.

Shulman says the shoot pre-dated the Daily Mirror-inspired scandal and certainly she makes no apology for it. "There's not a huge amount of difference between the Charles Kennedy story and the Kate Moss story. It's not like everybody who needed to know didn't know. Nobody minded because they were doing their jobs fine," she observes. "Then there's a kind of exposé and everybody has to make some kind of reaction to it. I think it's a kind of hypocritical way to behave."

Aware that impressionable young women devour her magazine, she adds: "Having said that, Kate Moss is a role model to young women and I definitely feel that people should not be taking cocaine."

The appeal of a Moss cover is clear. The supermodel has helped create some of the most memorable images of Shulman's 14-year Vogue editorship and her appearance on the front of September's issue inspired the second-highest sale in the magazine's history.

Vogue has never sold better than at present (2005's combined circulation was the best annual sale ever) but you can't put Kate or Sienna (Miller, the cover girl of the current, February, edition) on the front every month. In Shulman's view, there is a distinct problem in this regard, in that the new supermodels simply aren't getting through.

"I would really like to find some new cover personalities," she says, when asked her future intentions for Vogue. "When I took over Vogue, models were on the cover. They were highly publicised, they were famous, they were successful. The main models now of the catwalk shows coming out in February, you would not recognise a single name of, and possibly in a year's time they would not be the same girls. Because there's no recognition factor it's much harder to sell magazines with models, so one's using, in the main, actresses. But the amount of actresses, well, it's the same people rolling over on all the main covers and I think it's very tedious."

Shulman says that, even as editor of British Vogue, she can do little to rectify the problem. "It's an industry problem and I think the industry is shooting itself in the foot. I feel quite strongly about this," she says. "I think one of the reasons why Kate Moss has made such a quick re-entry is because people need her. There aren't many models out there who people recognise."

She cites names such as Elise Crombez and Daria Werbowy as the current catwalk stars, names that are familiar to every fashion editor but "mean diddlypoop to the girl on the street".

For young models to grow to a level whereby their names will drive newsstand sales of magazines they need to be around for four or five seasons "to gain a sense of self", says Shulman. This is currently not happening.

The supermodel phenomenon emerged because actresses of a previous generation - the Meryl Streeps and the Jane Fondas - had no desire to be "glamorous clothes horses" and "wanted to be taken more seriously", creating a vacuum for Naomi, Cindy, Linda and the rest.

Shulman recognises that the fashion industry has recoiled from supermodels so powerful that they could call the shots. "When the model at a fashion show becomes more important than the clothes, then that is not healthy," she says. "I think the fashion industry, for some reason, is addicted to the new face."

Not that this dearth of star models has undermined Vogue's circulation. Combined sales in 2005 amounted to the magazine's most successful year ever, with the last ABC coming in at 210,000. This in spite of the emergence of a new competitor, Grazia, launched by Emap with a £16m budget, coming out every week and intended to attract upscale fashion advertising. Shulman is not dismissive of a title that is seen across the magazine industry as a success, but her initial fears of fierce competition have not materialised because sales figures show that "people who were buying Vogue are not buying Grazia instead".

"Before it came on the market, I was concerned about it," she concedes. "Now I see it's a completely different beast and is merely a very polished, celebrity and high street rehash magazine. I think probably they've had to change. Probably what they wanted to do they haven't been able to do. They haven't been able to be the high-end fashion magazine they wanted to be and they've had to fit into a different slot in the market place."

Next month, Shulman will have to contend with the relaunch of Harpers & Queen as Harper's Bazaar. She anticipates that the National Magazine Company will attempt to take some of Vogue's market share but believes the change will be mainly in the name. Not that she is complacent. "Every time there's a new launch, I take it very seriously," she says. "I don't sit at the top of my ivory tower and say: 'We don't have to worry about anyone else.' "

Shulman, 47, is the daughter of the former London Evening Standard theatre critic Milton Shulman and Drusilla Beyfus, the writer and former editor of Brides magazine. She was first published in Vogue while still a student in Brighton, filing a piece on "Sussex style" from a university then still thought of as radical. Her dream, though, was to work in the music business and she went to work in A&R for Arista before being fired five months later.

"I don't think as a personality I was completely ideal for the music business. It was the product I liked," says Shulman, still a regular gig-goer ("Moby at Brixton Academy, John Prine at the Bush").

She entered the world of magazines as a secretary for Shirley Lowe, editor of Over 21. "I really got a sense of what the job was about and the immense pleasure she got. I didn't want to work for magazines particularly, but seeing her I thought: 'Maybe I do.' "

She began to write more and landed a job on Tatler, where she worked with the likes of Craig Brown, Jonathan Meades, Libby Purves and Tina Brown. Her biggest inspiration was the editor Mark Boxer, who at first she didn't get on with. "It was personal reasons. I had known him in another context," she says. "When Mark came to the magazine, his main objective was to make me resign."

Thus Boxer was much pleased with the suggestion in one editorial meeting that Shulman should be assigned to go on a date with one Luis Basualdo, a man-about-town known in Tatler circles simply as "the Bounder". Shulman recalls that it was "literally a piece that changed my life". The pair met at The Ritz, where Basualdo was staying, and then, at the Bounder's suggestion, headed on to Wiltons, the Jermyn Street game restaurant. "It was a good Tatler piece," says Shulman of her article. "No, I don't think I did agree that he was a bounder."

Apart from winning Boxer's admiration, the piece gave Shulman a new confidence which helped her into the world of newspapers, becoming woman's page editor of Peregrine Worsthorne's Sunday Telegraph in 1987.

She was seduced back to magazines by the lure of the features editor's job on Vogue and the glamour of the West End. "I wanted to get away from Canary Wharf, I really hated it," she says of her commute. "Someone took me out to lunch round the corner from here and I had forgotten there was such a thing as a really nice West End restaurant."

She does regret not having lingered in Fleet Street. "I would have liked to have done it for longer. I didn't feel I had done everything I could have done," she says.

But the experience did sharpen her news antennae. "My journalist background has made me aware of the powers of the press and the desire to be part of the dialogue that goes on and to extend it outside the fashion industry," she says. "I think publicity helps us a lot. We don't really have a big marketing judgement and you can see a direct correlation between publicity in the newspapers and sales trajectory. Last year when we photographed [Wayne Rooney's girlfriend] Coleen McLoughlin, it was a good story and I was pleased with it, but if we hadn't had the intense newspaper coverage we did, not many people would have known it was there."

Her rise at Vogue was interrupted by the opportunity to edit another Condé Nast title, GQ. Shulman, who takes her young son to QPR matches, had no problem running a men's magazine and was much liked by her staff. She may have had "no idea" whether a piece about Formula 1 was accurate, but she knew if it was interesting.

"My GQ didn't have women on the cover, it was much more steeped in the traditions of the old Esquire," she says. "It's much more racy now and more commercial, but the tone isn't different, there's still a quite humorous, intelligent tone."

Shulman's Vogue, she hopes, is "a magazine of record of contemporary culture and style". But just as she is frustrated by the lack of new cover stars, she complains that there are "too few good writers".

She is an instinctive editor ("I will make decisions very much on the hoof") and has held the competition at bay for more than a decade. It's not a bad life. "You can't possibly do it all. Are you going to the big exhibition at the Tate, or the book launch or the launch of the new Armani fragrance? Every night there is all of that happening. Sometimes I love it, you get to dip into all those worlds and by the end of the night you think: 'God, I've met so many people,' " she says.

Even the long-running arguments over her magazine's use of skinny teenage models or fur coats give her a thrill from being at the centre of debate.

"Vogue gets a lot of publicity and what we do people pay attention to, so consequently we are a sitting duck when someone wants to fill a column with a quick paragraph. I would prefer it that way," she says. "It's the thing that has kept me here this long, the fact that people do pay attention and it does have a power. That's a fantastic thing to have."