Alexandra Shulman has obviously managed that balance. Last week, the Periodical Publishers Association gave her its prestigious Editor of the Year award for making the title more "accessible and approachable". But, in truth, the circulation rise has been gentle. Vogue sells just over 200,000 copies a month, up 20,000 or so since Shulman took over five years ago.
"It just has to be steady slow progress," says Shulman. "We're not going to sell 400,000 copies because we wouldn't be able to charge the premium to advertisers for the environment and readership. But at the same time, we don't have the luxury of selling just to the fashion cognoscenti."
It is a dilemma particular to Vogue's publisher Conde Nast. The company is above all about the publishing of upmarket, luxury magazines and cannot go hell for leather after sales for any of its titles. James Brown, the former editor of Loaded who was appointed last month to take over GQ, is likely to find himself on the cusp of this dilemma. There are rumours that Conde Nast boss Nicholas Coleridge wants him to "sexy up" GQ, but "sexy up" probably means a very different thing for Coleridge and Conde Nast than it did at Loaded.
An important aspect of GQ and Vogue is that they are international brands. There is only so far you can depart from their core values before the Conde Nast home office in Manhattan gets on the phone. As it happens, Vogue in the UK far outsells its sister titles in equivalent countries; French Vogue sells only 30,000 copies and Italian Vogue 60,000.
But the fact remains that in the current consumer boom Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan are fully booked with advertising until the end of the year and are having to turn money away. The large circulations of the mid-market titles must be tempting even for the elite at Vogue House. Because of a massive hand-on factor, Vogue is read by 1.8 million people, "most of whom cannot afford pounds 1,200 for a Chanel suit," as Shulman says.
A further balance had to be struck last year by Shulman when an advertiser threatened to pull advertising because he objected to the thin models used in the magazine's fashion shoots. The publicity that followed implied that Vogue was responsible for Britain's epidemic of eating disorders.
To her credit, Shulman did not duck the subject. In Vogue's April issue, she devoted an article to the discussion of whether thin models create an unhealthy image. "Personally, I think we can have an influence on people who are already susceptible to eating disorders. But I know we are not the primary cause."
She defends the portrayal of beautiful, thin women in the magazine because it is what readers want - something other than dull reality - and is not something that the magazine imposes on them. And she does not accept responsibility for imposing an unrealistic image of beauty on women. "It is not our problem. It is bigger than Vogue; body types have changed throughout the centuries and it is to do with social and economic factors."
As to the magazine's power to influence how women dress and look, "it is the most interesting thing about the job," says Shulman. "Yet when we say big breasts are out, I don't expect our readers to take that seriously. They are grown up enough to filter what we say."
Georgina Howell, former features editor of Vogue and author of In Vogue, a history of the magazine, believes the magazine no longer tells its readers how to look. "Individual style now eclipses fashion and style and has been personalised since the Eighties," says Howell. "And if style is personalised, how can a magazine tell people what to wear? Instead you give readers pointers by setting a mood or feeling about a look. That is why you can get fashion shots where you never see the clothes."
But surely even Vogue cannot have it both ways: the "image, influence and authority" that is its defining characteristic and its appeal to advertisers must remain strong, and therefore it must accept some responsibility for making people think that skeletal is fashionable and for taking fashion designers and the rest of society into the gym, the diet club and the psychologist's couch. Looking divine doesn't happen by accident n
Other winners at the PPA awards were:
Men's magazine FHM won Magazine of the Year. Independent columnist Polly Toynbee won Writer of the Year for her column in the Radio Times. For longstanding quality and consistent excellence New Scientist won the chairman of the judges' special prize. Marie Claire's publisher since inception Heather Love won Publisher of the Year. Horse and Pony magazine won the Editorial Campaign of the Year for its Ponies in Need campaign.