Alexandra Shulman: 'Some might not think it's justified, but an OBE recognises you can do the job'

The newly honoured editor of 'Vogue' talks coverlines and hemlines to Hermione Eyre
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The editor of Vogue is staring gravely out of the window of her fifth-floor office. Her PA is sitting motionless outside the door. Models in the corridor have downed portfolios and all the phones are silent. When the three minutes' silence for the victims of the tsunami concludes, and we resume the interview, I ask Alexandra Shulman how her magazine responds to immediate world events.

"It has to be subtle. It doesn't work if it's overt." Not only is there the magazine production time-lag - she is currently closing the March issue - but she also finds that widening Vogue's remit (to include pieces about Islamic feminism, say) is more effective than a grand gesture.

"In January 2002, the first issue after 11 September, we dressed models in Union Flags as a reactive cover to what was going on. And it sold fantastically badly."

This kind of frank pragmatism is typical Shulman. Unlike her international counterparts, she has no fashionista flightiness. Carine Roitfeld, editor of French Vogue was "stylist and muse" to Tom Ford at Gucci, Franca Sozzani steers Italian Vogue towards art-house fashion, and Anna Wintour of American Vogue, who is made up professionally every morning, is a living fashion plate. Shulman, by contrast, is much more rooted in journalism than high fashion.

The child of magazine journalist Drusilla Beyfus and theatre critic Milton Shulman, she grew up with "tons of magazines around the house. Good for paper darts." She had her first piece in Vogue while she was still at Sussex University, then served under Tina Brown and Mark Boxer at Tatler, before working on the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, and as editor of GQ. She was appointed editor of Vogue in 1992, and gradually made it more accessible than it had been under her predecessor Liz Tilberis.

"I don't see the magazine as a purely beautiful, inspirational thing," she says. "I like giving people information about how to put a look together."

And the readers like it too. Vogue's circulation during her 13-year tenure has gone up by 20,000 to 200,000, and while Glamour may sell three times as many copies, Vogue "remains pre-eminent amongst women's magazines". That is how Downing Street described the magazine in creating Shulman an OBE in the New Year's Honours.

Some complained that a high-end glossy editor was not a deserving recipient. Janet Street- Porter said in this paper that it made "an embarrassment" of the honours system. "I can see why people might think it's not justified," concedes Shulman, wryly. "Many people do more important things than me." But then she adds a proud caveat: "But I certainly think it is justified if an OBE is a recognition that you can do the job."

She is able to "do the job" so well partly because of her ambassadorial ability with advertisers. "We're simply not going to do a big investigative piece on one of our major advertisers, that's for newspapers to do." But diplomatic incidents can happen: what about the Versace debacle in October last year? "Oh, that," sighs Shulman. "That was very difficult." Shulman was quoted in The Guardian saying that the Versace label had "slipped"; then, after, we imagine, a weeping Donatella asked for Shulman's head on a (rhinestone) platter, Shulman asked The Guardian to print a retraction: "Alexandra Shulman ... is, and always has been, a staunch supporter of Donatella Versace." Thus advertising continued uninterrupted. But Shulman talks about the contretemps in surprisingly emotional terms: "They were upset," she says "And I was upset that they were upset, because I thought they knew me well enough to know I had been misquoted." The personal touch seems crucial to Shulman's business method.

As for editorial: "I read every pullquote, every intro, I try and read every caption ..." Has she a gift for headlines? "No. I'm terrible at headlines. I can spot good ones, though. But we don't have fun with them like we did at Tatler.

"Our readers don't want puns. They like straightforward coverlines. 'Buy a Summer Skirt Now', that kind of thing."

So much about Shulman seems straightforward that it is easy to forget that under her, Vogue is arguably more brainy than ever before. "I like stories about why people wear things; why I decided to wear red this morning ..."

There speaks the one-time social anthropology student. And she likes to widen Vogue beyond "models and actresses". Could she yet emulate this month's American Vogue and its Oval Office photoshoot? "No chance," Shulman chuckles. "We'd love to. But it's hard to find anyone here willing to give you the time." Perhaps, given her (new) establishment credentials, that might change.

Shulman does not conform to the fearsome fashion editor caricature. Aged 47 and separated, she values quiet domestic time in Queen's Park, north London, with her 10-year-old son Sam. She is friends with many of her staff - and firmly denies that heads rolled at Vogue last summer when cover star Keira Knightley's name was misspelt. "The thing I hate is when people won't say sorry," she says with almost motherly patience. "All you're trying to do is find out why it happened so it doesn't happen again."

Not very Condé Nast-y. But Shulman still gets a kick out of wielding influence. "What we do filters down into what people want on the high street. That's the lovely thing about editing Vogue." The prospect of attending an investiture at Buckingham Palace is quite appealing too.