The Drapers Award for Outstanding Contribution to Fashion recognises Shulman’s influence as a champion of British fashion, and her ability to think commercially and understand the changing habits of her readers and, by extension, the British consumer.
After 25 years at the helm of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman is a household name. Under her leadership, Vogue’s influence on the British fashion industry has grown exponentially, as it expanded to cover the high street as well as the catwalks.
Shulman did not set out to be a journalist. She fell into the career after taking a job as a secretary at fashion and lifestyle magazine Over 21 in the early 1980s. She quickly realised she had a passion an talent for journalism. Stints as features editor at Tatler and Vogue, and as editor at GQ followed, before she rejoined Vogue as editor-in-chief in 1992.
Since then, Shulman has been a tireless advocate of British fashion, supporting homegrown designers such as Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane, as well as countless photographers, stylists, make-up artists, writers and models. Having overseen 306 issues, she handed over the reins to Edward Enninful in June, and is now embracing new opportunities. Here, she tells Drapers how it all began and why she strove to make Vogue more accessible.
How did you get started in magazine publishing?
My first job was as a secretary at Over 21, a magazine for intelligent woman with a mixture of lifestyle, fashion and fiction. I was initially given the job on a temporary basis – I think the editor assumed I wouldn’t be much good. She said: “While I’m looking for my perfect secretary, why don’t you come in for a couple of weeks?” However, we fell in love with working with each other, and I ended up staying for a year and a half.
At the time, magazines were very unionised. I couldn’t progress within the business, so I had to leave. After that I started attempting to freelance. One of the freelance pieces was for Tatler, which at the time was run by editor Tina Brown. It was 1983 and I pitched an idea about how Notting Hill was becoming a new fashionable area – the piece was never published but they did offer me a job.
What influence do you think Vogue had on the fashion industry under your leadership?
I was very much hired to come and broaden Vogue from purely fashion to a more general magazine, while keeping fashion centre stage. We wanted to increase the amount of clothes in it that people could afford to buy. There was very little of the high street featured before I joined. As the high street expanded, we increased the amount of merchandise in a more affordable price bracket.
My magazine always reflected the times. People became more interested in fashion, particularly in early 2000s. Initiatives like Designers at Debenhams introduced those names and their culture to a much wider audience. At Vogue, we reflected that move and the message that every woman can enjoy fashion.
What was one of your biggest challenges while at Vogue?
Digital was – and still is – a huge change for the retail and publishing industries alike. Vogue had one of the very first magazine websites. Everyone talks about the future being digital but the real success stories are where businesses have merged channels successfully. Look at Matchesfashion – they are very much about their London boutiques, and are still investing in bricks and mortar, however, they’ve managed to find a way to enhance their luxury shopping by offering a digital proposition, too.
What were some of your favourite moments at Vogue?
The centenary year. For me to be the master of ceremonies as we celebrated 100 years of Vogue was incredible. When I first saw the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, I realised the legacy I was a part of – it was incredible.
Another favourite moment was a fundraising event for Macmillan Cancer Relief in 2001. Held at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, it had a medieval theme and we had 10 designers, including Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford, Valentino and Burberry, pitching tents in the grounds, where they showcased their collections. It was followed by a gala dinner attended by Prince Charles, Kylie Minogue and Madonna, among others.
kate moss vogue
Favourite front cover?
Ironically, my favourite front cover sold incredibly badly. It was of Kate Moss in the style of David Bowie’s persona Aladdin Sane, shot by Nick Knight. It was the first issue that fused fashion and music – after that every magazine did it.
Do you think fashion magazines still have the same hold over consumers, given the rise of bloggers and influencers?
Some do, some don’t – there is definitely a smaller pool that have influence. But look at Edward [Enninful]’s first issue of Vogue and the interest that has generated – you can see people are still interested in magazines.
What does the future bring?
For me, it’s the opportunity to do something different and I’m incredibly excited. I have been the caretaker of incredible brand, but it is a very dedicated role. I now get to be an individual outside of Vogue. I am enjoying speaking engagements, freelance journalism, writing projects and working with fashion houses and retailers to use the knowledge that I’ve gained from my experience.