NE1’s hotly anticipated Fashion Futures event began with an amazing celebration of local design talent in the form of a Graduate Fashion Show. Northumbria University Fashion Department, now in its 60th year, as seen its alumni go on to achieve great things in the world of fashion. This time we got to see some of the amazing work undertaken by the current cohort and it was mind-blowing.
With the two day event well underway, the eyes of the North East’s Fash Pack were on the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art as Alexandra Shulman, Editor of British Vogue, took to the podium to deliver her segment of Fashion Futures Presents: Fashion Talks. Shulman cuts a fine figure; smart and business like, with a distinct fashion edge, she gives off an air of authority. Wearing nothing outlandish; a simple Erdem appliquéd pencil skirt and heels, she looks like she means business.
As she takes to the stage, Shulman recounts a time when she was on a plane from NYC to London which was diverted to Newcastle during Fashion Month but didn’t manage to spend any time at all in the City and I nod fondly as I too was on this plane on my way to London Fashion Week.
She begins by telling the audience about her childhood, born into a typical London media family, her love for print media began early as she discovered comics and magazines. Despite this, she was absolutely certain that she didn’t want to progress into a journalism career. She tells us that she had no desire to go to university as she wanted to get out into the world and make her own money, but was made to enrol by her parents. Rather surprisingly, she tells us that she had a poor academic career and was glad to be out of it at the end, she went on to complete a shorthand and typing course and immediately started temping which she says she loved.
Shulman is engaging and funny, she’s a great story-teller and let’s remember, she’s up there on her own with a lectern and a projector facing a room full of people who want to know all about her time at Vogue and the steps she took to cement herself at the top of her trade. She proceeds to tell us that she was fired from her first two jobs, one after six weeks and the other after four months so for any of you budding magazine editors out there, take note, there’s not just one route to the top!
Shulman talks only about her time at now defunct Over 21 magazine where she was the Editors Secretary, she puts up a picture of a front cover on which she is the featured model. She tells us that this was one of the most pivotal times of her life, she learned everything she could about running a magazine in this role, from running errands to running photoshoots and it was here that she decided that this was her world.
From here, one of her pitches was picked up by Tina Brown, the Editor of Tatler magazine at the time. The piece was about girls who look like they are from other periods in time and as part of the feature which ran, Shulman discovered a young Helena Bonham-Carter.
She recounts with passion that she hated her time at Tatler and that she spent a lot of time crying in the restrooms. It’s hard to imagine this strong woman being reduced to tears but as she tells us, by then she hadn’t become the woman she is today. She was given the seemingly impossible assignment of tracking down the infamous Bounder and succeeded where others thought she would fail, following this assignment, her life changed. She moved to The Telegraph aged 27 to take up post as Features Editor and worked there for eighteen months before she was offered a job at Vogue as Features Editor under Liz Tilberis’ Editorship.
Shulman laughs as she tells us that she was given carte blanche on everything that wasn’t fashion in the magazine and how she ran some crazy pieces, pieces which she would never allow in Vogue today. She tells us of a very different Vogue at that time, a very divided Vogue where the Fashion Department was very closed off to everything else in the magazine both in print and physically in the office space.
She tells us about her short stint at GQ Magazine shortly after its unsuccessful UK launch and how she was drafted in to pick the magazine back up. Then how in 1992, when Liz Tilberis announced she would be leaving Vogue to move to Harpers Bazaar, she applied for the Editorship. Shulman is very clear in stating that she had no hope of landing the job, and that it was offered to three people who turned it down before being offered to her. She paints a bleak picture of the time, “It was 1992 and the country was in an unpleasant recession, luxury brand advertising was going to new monthly and weekly magazines as well as newspapers. Vogue had to change.”
She tells the audience that at that time, fashion began to change and move more towards what it is today. At that time designer brands weren’t present in London and it was then that the movement to the city began, and London began shifting and morphing into the fashion epicentre that it is now. Shulman remembers how this was an exciting time for fashion, homegrown talent was emerging in the form of Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Kate Moss, and the beginning of the grunge movement shifted things up a gear.
Having been at the helm of Vogue for twenty three years, Shulman knows her stuff, she knows that with a product like Vogue there is a need to remain creative, she discusses the quandary of enticing a new readership whilst also remaining faithful to the needs of the existing readers. She tells the audience “it’s not just fashion, it’s the whole business of clothes and everything else.” She’s keen to express that she feels it’s important to feature beautiful clothes, but to also feature merchandise that people can afford. Something that vogue wouldn’t have done in the 1980’s.
I’m particularly interested when she takes a question from the audience about Bloggers and the digital age. She accepts that there is a place in the industry for Bloggers and agrees that it’s a good outlet because it’s “real and immediate”, when she broaches the subject of payment and sponsored posts she’s diplomatic “Blogs are meant to be independent and real and most of them aren’t now, it’s becoming more like a job in the industry and the guidelines on it should be much clearer.” From a personal point of view I think she’s right.
Shulman goes on to say that ‘Fashion is a touchstone” she refers back to 1993 when Vogue ran a picture of Kate Moss in underwear draped with a string of fairy lights and recounts how it was compared to paedophilia. There are countless stories about the ethics of fashion, Shulman references the fur trade, body image, slave labour and child eroticism and how it’s very easy to blame fashion for all of this. She talks about things that she doesn’t necessarily agree with, but can’t influence in the world of fashion, for instance she’s irritated that designers produce samples in the smallest possible sizes forcing the magazine to shoot the smallest possible models.
On the issue of body image, Shulman produced a short film called “It’s A Look” detailing how an image can be deconstructed and to highlight that what we see in the magazine isn’t reality. The intention was that the film would be distributed to schools to be shown to thirteen year old girls.
She’s true to her early roots in journalism and outside of fashion she tells us that she uses the magazine to showcase extraordinary people doing wonderful things, she loves being able to “take these seemingly ordinary, very inspiring women and be able to dress them” and present them in the pages of Vogue.
When asked about access to the fashion industry for young people, Shulman says “There is no magic bullet”. Her advice is simple: “Be prepared to start at the bottom, attitude is incredibly important. Be interested in the world around you, read; books, papers, magazines and read really good people”. She’s clear to point out that you have to approach it willing to put the work in and to make yourself indispensable. “Make the letter count” she says “Never have spelling mistakes!”
It’s interesting to hear that despite having 2.3 million unique users in traffic to Vogue online and a monthly print circulation of 200,000, the business is still primarily in print through revenue, cover price and of course advertising. “It’s difficult to convert online traffic into sales” she tells us, “reading a (physical) magazine is a treat, it’s precious time in print” and that’s one statement that I can get on board with, it looks like everyone in the room agrees as there’s a Mexican wave of nods around the room when she says this.
Outside of Vogue, Schulman has a book launch in June for her first literary project and with that final shameless plug, she thanks the audience, smiles and leaves.
Shulman is interesting; she recounts every story from her past with detail and fondness and it’s clear to see that from her early childhood, each of these experiences have been important to her and have helped to carve her into the successful, influential woman she is today. She talks about the future resolutely: “Vogue isn’t Me, although it’s been a part of me. I will leave and have a different life and Vogue will undoubtedly continue.” I particularly love the photo she shows us of her in her younger years wearing an embroidered skirt (her own handiwork) and standing under a Vogue poster. “Ironic isn’t it?” she says.
With the magazine celebrating its Centenary next year it will be interesting to see what Schulman and the team at Vogue have in store for us…