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In Conversation With The Editor-in-Chief Of British Vogue

Picture of Culture Trip
Updated: 25 January 2017
Alexandra Shulman: Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, stalwart of the fashion industry, one of London’s most renowned creatives. In conversation with Hossein Amirsadeghi Shulman, British Vogue’s longest-serving editor discusses the evolution of the British fashion industry, the predictability of Vogue and subliminal messaging. This interview is taken from Thames & Hudson’s upcoming release London Burning: Portraits From A Creative City, a celebration of Britain’s capital and creative hub.
Alex Shulman in her office. Photograph by Kate Martin © Transglobe Publishing
Alex Shulman in her office. Photograph by Kate Martin | © Transglobe Publishing

Do you think of yourself as the country’s most important cultural trendsetter?

Definitely not. As the country’s most important fashion-magazine editor, but not as its most important cultural trendsetter.

But whatever Vogue says determines the direction that is followed by others, no? How does it feel to have been at the top of that operation for more than twenty years?

I think of Vogue as something that has a life of its own; I am somebody who’s nurturing it. I am passing through and it will remain. The period of my passing through is a great privilege, and it’s a lot of work, too. It’s a privilege to have the power of Vogue to enable you to say what you think is interesting, what you think is good, what you think is relevant. I see it as the power of Vogue, not the power of me.

How involved are you editorially?

I’m pretty involved, for instance with things like the page furniture, things like the headlines, and the introductions to the pieces, and the quotes that we pull out, and quite often the captions. I come from a features-editor background, so when I look at a page, probably the first thing I’ll see is the pull-quote, and at least 50 per cent of the time I’ll change that pull-quote. I’m far more likely to do that than I am likely to say, ‘I think that’s the wrong picture.’ I’m very involved in the choice of the photographer, and pretty involved in what goes into making up a shoot. But what actually happens on the day is quite often entirely different from what I thought was going to happen. And mostly it’s great. Sometimes it’s veered off in a direction that I didn’t want.

What happens then?

Sometimes I’ll cut out the pictures. Our shoots are very expensive; it’s quite hard to just dump a shoot.

It seems that you’re very hands-on in every facet of the operation.

There are aspects that I’m not involved with. Through the day I just say, ‘No, you make the decision; you do it.’ I try and pick good people. It’s my real talent: I’m brilliant at picking people. Once I‘ve got good people, I do try and let them get on with it. But I need to be aware of everything.

And this brilliant aptitude that you have, whether developed or natural, is based on what?

Gut instinct.

So you like to mix it up?

Yeah. I’m always a bit disappointed if I hire the predictable choice.

But the magazine is pretty predictable.

It has a sort of agreed content, as it were.

Who agrees to that content overall? Is it an historical pattern, or?

It’s historical, I think.

In other words, it’s money-making, so why tamper with it?

It’s money-making, it’s admired. It’s distinctive. People buy Vogue expecting it to be certain things, and although they like to see a surprise in it, they don’t want it to suddenly all be shook up.

Given that sort of expectation, how do you do the unexpected?

Well, every now and again you can think of an idea, but you’ve got a kind of canopy of what Vogue is, and that’s contemporary style, fashion, celebrity. Within those predictable categories, you might have somebody unusual doing something. Lots of times it’s other people suggesting things. Or occasionally I’ll read a writer and I’ll think, They’ve never written about fashion, but it would be interesting to hear what they have to say.

You’ve said in the past that you wanted to be a hairdresser or a musician …

I never wanted be a musician; I wanted to work in the music industry. I came to be in magazine journalism by default. Both of my parents were journalists, so I was quite determined not to do what they did. And then I ended up doing the same thing.

You have a dominant presence. Where does that come from?

I am quite clear. I am quite certain about things. What people who work for me would say is that I’m quite good at making decisions, and they appreciate that. Often it’s the process of making the decision that’s the important thing. It may be the wrong decision, but at least you’ve let something happen.

Shulman watching designer Mary Katrantzou’s Spring/Summer 2015 show. Photograph by Kate Martin © Transglobe Publishing
Shulman watching designer Mary Katrantzou’s Spring/Summer 2015 show. Photograph by Kate Martin | © Transglobe Publishing

If you make the wrong decision, does anybody dare challenge that?

Oh God, all the time!

Your mother also wrote for Vogue, I believe.

She was Features Editor here in the ’70s, I think.

So this is sort of your birthright?

Yeah, it’s quite embarrassing. I’ve been in and out of this building since I was about twelve. I’ve hardly gone anywhere else. I started working here on Tatler. So really this is as much my home as my mum’s flat in Eaton Square.

So Hanover Square to Eaton Square?

It’s not a very long journey, is it?

Do you travel outside this dominion?

Sure. When I leave London, I tend to be more interested in being in the countryside than I am in seeing a lot of other cultural activities, although, if opportunity allows, I do.

You’ve been quoted as saying that the fashion business ‘is very much to do with smoke and mirrors; what designers sell is in part a fantasy’.

At its most basic level, you only really need two pairs of trousers, two T-shirts and a jacket, say. Everything else that you’re buying is for desire or something. Designers have to make you want something that you don’t need. The industry is very much to do with enabling that to happen. My fashion imagery in the magazine has a lot to do with two things. One is to inspire people to actually buy the clothes, but I would say it’s more to inspire people to want to look a certain way. It’s commerce, but it’s also a dream.

Trying to sell the clothes, what relevance does that have?

Quite a lot, because the magazine is financed by advertising. The percentage of revenue that we make from selling the magazine is nothing compared to the amount that we make from advertising, and we wouldn’t get that money from the advertisers if they didn’t feel that they were making money out of it. They place advertising in an environment that encourages people to be interested in their brands, which is why they come to Vogue and don’t go to some other magazines. People reading a different magazine might not be in the same frame of mind, might not be going to take in the subliminal message that the advertisers are putting out. You’ve got to be in the mood, you’ve got to be receptive, and you’re looking at Vogue at a certain point for a certain reason.

So you’re a facilitator for the creative fashion industry?

Yes. It’s a collaboration. We all need each other.

When you were young, looking at and visiting Vogue, did you follow any of the fashions that were represented?

Definitely. I still remember so many images of Vogues I saw as a teenager. When you’re a teenager, you remember the way a girl’s scarf was tied and the colour of the eye shadow … I remember a girl in black lace, on a horse in a forest. She was a young blonde actress. That was such a memorable image for me.

In your years at the top here, have you noticed marked differences in the creative output of the British fashion industry, for one thing, and then in other parts of the creative world in London?

The British fashion industry has changed out of all recognition. There’ve always been some wonderful creative designers. Vivienne Westwood has been around for years; Mary Katrantzou is fantastic; you had people like Ossie Clark and Bill Gibb, and before that Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. So it’s not like there weren’t great designers. But now the actual business side works. People come to London to see British designers, to buy, to sell around the world. There are a lot of talented designers who’ve grown up in the last decade who now have real businesses. They’re not a brand like Ralph Lauren or Armani, say, but there are no new Ralph Laurens or Armanis. It hasn’t happened anywhere in the world that an individual has kept hold of and grown their eponymous brands to the same extent. It’s now much more likely that you will be a talented designer who designs for a house that’s owned by somebody else.

If you were offered the choice of heading Vogue Paris or Vogue New York, I suspect that you would stick with London.

Absolutely, no question.

Why is that?

Vogue Paris is a very different kind of magazine for a very different kind of city. It’s a much smaller, more finely honed magazine, with one kind of Parisian aesthetic. It’s concentrated and stylish and lovely, but it’s not the culture I’m part of. I wouldn’t know how to operate like that. New York’s actually in some ways the opposite because it’s massive. Because it’s so big, it doesn’t allow the same kind of creativity that we do. It has to appeal to a more middle-brow taste than we do.

As far as creativity is concerned, what is its main wellspring in London?

Is it because we are an island? All these people who come to London, who aren’t British and who have homes here, or people who live here or are passing through, they love London because of the diversity and the range. The mix of cultures has helped London to be what it is nowadays. And yet at the same time, you’ve got everybody worrying about immigration …

London Burning Cover | Courtesy of © Transglobe Publishing
London Burning Cover | Courtesy of © Transglobe Publishing

London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City by author & editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson on 19 October 2015, £58.00 hardback,

All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.