Still in 'Vogue' after all these years

Alexandra Shulman took over as editor of the iconic magazine 16 years ago, and still has a point to prove. Yet she doesn't like being a high-flier, she tells Ciar Byrne

Flying is the one thing the editor of Vogue hates most in the world, so two days before she is due to jet off to New York fashion week, Alexandra Shulman is on edge. But, sitting in her office in Vogue House – a mixture of sleek white furniture and homely touches, including a hand-drawn birthday card from her 12-year-old son – Shulman has plenty to celebrate. When ABC reveals twice-yearly magazine circulation data later this week, Vogue will show off a figure to be proud of. Being leader of the fashion pack is not a position Shulman takes for granted though, and the March issue has undergone a revamp to differentiate it from imitators.

"You've got both Elle and Harper's Bazaar brazenly saying that they want to chase the Vogue territory. It makes you think, well, you're not getting any of my pie," she says.

"I don't particularly want to slag off the other magazines, but I don't think they're doing what we do," she adds, with the confidence that comes from editing the UK's leading fashion magazine since 1992.

This is particularly true when it comes to the world's top fashion photographers.

"Mario Testino, Craig McDean, Nick Knight, Bruce Weber, I can go on. The other magazines don't have the access to them. There isn't anybody on any of the other magazines who Mario wants to style with. There are only certain people on this magazine he wants to work with."

Shulman's response is to "man the barricades". The front of the magazine has been divided into three new sections: Focus, purist pages devoted to trends and designers – this month featuring the return of the trophy jacket and a debate on whether spindly or clumpy heels are best; Shops, a more practical buying guide; and Spy – a name from the magazine's archive into which Shulman has breathed new life.

"When I came to the magazine, Spy was all the front pages. Then I shrunk it down to a page and it was just about new designers. Now I've bought the name back again to be a section about how real people wear clothes," says Shulman.

The new back page has also revived a name from the Vogue of the 1960s, "A Certain Style", a feature in which one woman shows off her favourite fashion items and is given suggestions.

"If you've got good names, it's nice to use them, and although these are little things, if you put the wrong tag on something, it just doesn't look like Vogue."

At 50, the editor of Vogue is more relaxed than her US counterpart Anna Wintour is reputed to be. Her dress is fashionable but understated, and her long hair worn loose makes her look younger than her years. "I continue to be surprised at observations people might make about how I look and what I wear, because I really do feel like I'm 50 and I have a really nice life and I do a really good job and I wear the clothes I like to wear and I look very deliberately the way that I look, which is somebody that doesn't have any kind of cosmetic intervention and, as you can see, who has not been to the hairdresser today."

As a woman, Shulman would like people to be judged on other criteria than their appearance, but as editor of Vogue, she accepts the rules of the fashion industry. "I think we have a very unhealthy relationship with how people really look and I have to marry my personal feelings about it, which is that people should relax a bit and concentrate a bit more on other aspects of themselves, with the fact that I edit Vogue, which is a magazine which is all about creating that idealised image for people."

The pressure on young women to look a certain way is a major issue for the fashion industry. When booking models for the magazine, Shulman avoids girls with eating disorders, but it is not always so simple. "I try very hard to make sure that the girls that we use do look healthy, but I'm not out there on the shoot. There have been times when we've booked a girl, it's four months since I last saw her, she's lost a stack load of weight and I've only realised it once the pictures have come in."

She blames designers for "a lot of the rot", because they make such small sample sizes and prefer angular girls who will show off their clothes to best advantage. Vogue is quite strict that if an established model has been booked for a shoot and the samples do not fit her, then the clothes will not get in the magazine – they would never bring in a thinner girl. Last year, Naomi Campbell hit out at British Vogue for not putting her on the cover. In fact, Campbell has appeared on the front of Vogue at least six times. Shulman dismisses the comments as "a PR thing" – "she was just trying to get publicity for the event she was doing".

But she adds: "What I think is an absolutely valid criticism is there aren't enough black people in all areas of successful life."

Putting black models on the cover of Vogue will not in itself make them successful, she insists. "I have to be realistic about these things. If you look at the black population in this country and you look at the amount of black women featured in the magazine throughout, we're absolutely on a par with the whole population, but what we're not doing is overcompensating.

"I happen to think she [Naomi] really likes being one of the few really successful black models, because it gives her a huge advantage and she's had an incredibly long career."

Although she inhabits a world of high fashion, Shulman sees herself first and foremost as a journalist. Both her parents were journalists and, after graduating in social anthropology from Sussex University, she started work on Over 21 magazine, before joining Tatler, where she had impressed the then editor Tina Brown with a freelance article. At Tatler she rose to become features editor, before joining The Sunday Telegraph in 1987.

The following year, she returned to Condé Nast, first as features editor on Vogue and then as editor of the men's magazine GQ, which she oversaw for two years.

I ask her whether there is any job she would rather do, expecting her to answer 'no, this is the best job in the world'. Instead, she replies: "To me it would be hugely exciting to spend some time writing at home and to get up and walk out into the park at three o'clock in the afternoon, having sat at a typewriter all morning. That's a lot of freelancers' everyday lives and for me that seems rather an appealing option."

But she is not ready to throw in the Prada towel just yet. "I ping-pong, some days I think I'm the luckiest person in the world, I have the most amazing job and a wonderful life. And then I'll wake up on a bad day when I've got to get on an airplane, because that's the thing I most hate in the world, and I just wish I was a potato farmer."