Chapters In My Life: Alexandra Shulman

Chapters In My Life: Alexandra Shulman

Ex editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman CBE is a journalistic legend. With 25 years at its helm, as well as being the longest serving editor in the history of the glossy magazine, she is also a successful author, newspaper columnist and mother. Here, she shares memories and anecdotes from her life and career…

Chapter One: Childhood Years

“I was brought up in an incredibly smart and privileged enclave of London, Belgravia, but as a child you don’t really know that’s what you’re living in – you live where you live and don’t realise your childhood groundings are perhaps not the same as everybody else’s. Around us we had spacious streets, clean roads and beautiful square gardens, but the actual flat was comparatively small. It had two bedrooms for three children, two parents, a nanny and a dog, and we were quite squashed in. My father only wanted to live in Eaton Square, so my parents always rented and my mother, who is 94 now, is still in the same flat.
“I am the eldest of three: I am two years older than my sister, Nicola, who is three years older than my brother, Jason. We had a very safe childhood, maybe quite narrow; certainly, when I read people’s memoirs, I realise that nothing terrible ever happened to me and that I was very lucky.
“My first two schools were local – I remember toddling down to Sloane Square carrying our bags and orange juice – for some reason I remember the orange juice – but when I was seven, we moved to a better school in Kensington. Thinking back, I’m not really sure where my mother was working in those days, she was probably at the Sunday Telegraph, but I didn’t really know what she did until I was about 12, other than that she was a journalist. My father was the theatre critic of the Evening Standard and worked from home – he was definitely the one who was around the most when we came home from school, mainly betting on horses. We’d come back and hear him saying, “M Shulman, M Shulman… three pounds each way on Wet Block”, (or something or other) – he was on the phone to William Hill around the corner.
“I went to St Paul’s Girls’ School at 11. My mother to this day says she was always determined I’d go there, but I didn’t like it; it just wasn’t the right school for me, though I’m not sure which school would have been. I went from being in the top three in my primary school to suddenly being surrounded by very clever, academic girls – and it’s interesting how you react to that. Whether you raise your bar to prove you can do it, or whether – as in my case – you think, well, if they don’t rate me then I’m not going to try. Not that I was thick. I went to St Paul’s with my best friend from primary school, then another really good friend joined a year later, and they are still my friends today. I made friends – but not millions and I don’t remember that many of them.

Chapter Two: Edge Of Seventeen

“Age 17, I’d done my O-levels and there’s that first year of A-levels when you can slightly take your foot off the gas. I think it was the year when I discovered the things that have remained what I’ve loved throughout the rest of my life – like the music I was listening to, mainly American singer songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, but also poetry. I wrote my own poetry, some of which I’ve still got and it’s not that bad; I also read a lot of poetry and it’s something I still do. I also became really interested in photography and used to shoot quite a lot of my own pictures – I actually got an enlarger so I could develop them. I wanted to be a photographer for quite a long time; it isn’t what I did in the end, of course, but when I think about that time and Vogue, a lot of that period informed my tastes which then went into the magazine. Like most girls I had a diary, but I wasn’t trying to write any kind of journalism – I definitely didn’t want to do what my parents did, I wanted to take to the hills, and I tried quite hard not to be a journalist. But, somehow, it trapped me in the end!
“It was also a time, as a London schoolgirl, when I went to lots of concerts and shopped a lot in Kensington Market and Biba. I knew about all the designers of the period, though I didn’t have the money to buy their clothes, but I was aware of them – people like Ossie Clarke, Bill Gibb, Foale & Tuffin.”

Chapter Three: My First Job In Magazines

“After Sussex University, where I read social anthropology, I worked in the music business for a record company for about nine months. Music was what I thought I wanted to do. But my musical tastes were quite rooted in the 70s and it was the 80s and music had changed quite a lot – bands like the Beat and the Specials were big, and they weren’t particularly the look or the sound I so loved, so that didn’t work out.
“I then got a temp job as Shirley Lowe’s secretary on a magazine called Over 21. She was the editor and when I think of people that influenced me – and I don’t have that many – Shirley was one of them. She had hired me temporarily as she was looking for a secretary and didn’t want to take me on as she thought I’d be bored – well that’s what she said to me but probably she didn’t think I’d be very good. We sat at partner desks opposite and sort of fell in love with each other – it was amazing, we really got on well and, in a year and a half, I learnt a huge amount from her about editing and putting together a magazine. She commissioned most of the features and used to edit a lot of the pieces herself cutting up people’s typewritten copy and sticking it back together with Sellotape. The deputy editor, Penny Perrick, was a very good journalist too and I really learnt from her how to think what a story might be and how to pitch a story, so when I realised I didn’t want to be a secretary for ever, I thought I’d see if I could pitch some pieces and actually I was quite successful – I was lucky, as I guess some of the names I was writing to were familiar to me. But my experience on that desk definitely made me think about what kind of story editors wanted for a particular publication and how I was going to sell an article as a young journalist who hadn’t done much. One piece was for Tina Brown on Tatler – she commissioned me and paid me but never ran the article – she did, however, offer me a job.
“So, I moved to Tatler where I was the junior who helped find the names of the people in the party pictures. There were people like Jonathan Meades, Michael Roberts, Vicki Woods, Mary Killen there, as well as Craig Brown who was a contributor but spent a lot of time in our office. It was such a great office! Tina then went to work in the US and for a brief interlude Libby Purves was the editor. Then came Mark Boxer. I knew Mark in a non-professional capacity through a friend and I remember his face fell when he saw me in the office. He definitely did not want me there and he tried endlessly to suggest I wasn’t best suited to the job, but he never actually fired me. Instead, he gave me a commission he thought I was really going to mess up, which was to interview this chap called Luis Basualdo, an Argentinian playboy polo player. I had to find him first and nobody knew where he was, but I succeeded and Mark loved my piece, after which I could do no wrong – that was the moment my career really took off.”

Chapter Four: Going To Work On A Newspaper

“It was the mid 80s and there was an explosion in the media – there was breakfast television, new newspapers and supplements launching, and people were getting in touch all the time offering me jobs. It was so nice on Tatler, I was having such a good time and I didn’t really want to leave. But glossy magazines don’t pay well, and I wanted to buy a flat. At 27, I got offered a great job as women’s editor at the Sunday Telegraph. Under the editorship of Peregrine Worsthorne, it was very much an old boy, old school sort of place and management realised they had to start something more female-friendly, so they launched a weekly magazine called Seven and I moved to be deputy editor of that.
“To be honest, it was a bonkers idea as the editor Graham Paterson was the ex-news editor of the paper and had no interest whatsoever in working on a magazine. Funnily enough, in my previous role he had tortured me – he used to walk down the office calling out ‘women’s ghetto’ when he passed my desk, but at Seven I loved working with him, it was great fun and I learned a lot from him. It was the first time I had really worked with news and got to know what it was like to send somebody off on a story. But it wasn’t really my natural habitat and when I got offered the job of features editor on Vogue, I went back to Condé Nast working for the editor, Liz Tilberis.
“I did this for about 18 months after which I got the job as editor of GQ whose launch editor Paul Keers was fired after the first issue. Editing a men’s magazine didn’t faze me and it stood me in good stead for Vogue when I didn’t know much about fashion, because I knew even less about Formula One, poker and all those staples of men’s magazines. I think I found it less odd than one would think because I knew what I wanted to do with it. I’ve always thought that editing magazines is to do with the people you hire – if you have good people around you, you don’t have to know everything. I was at GQ for a couple of years, then Liz left Vogue to edit Harper’s Bazaar in the US and after trying to lure Sally Brampton (ex-Elle), Suzy Menkes (from the Herald Tribune) and a few others, they offered the editorship to me. I had applied for the job, but getting it was terrifying and I thought, aargh…what have I done?” 

Chapter Five: Starting As Editor Of Vogue

“The Vogue office was very demarcated – there was fashion and then the rest – and physically, too, with fashion on one side of the corridor and the other departments on the other. The staff had loved Liz and they were pretty horrified that their new editor was me, someone who had been the features editor who they hadn’t paid much attention to two years before. There were probably a couple of people who were thrilled, but I can’t say I was a popular choice. I wasn’t allowed to fire anyone but many of them left and I was then able to bring in my own people. It took me quite a long time to be able to do that, so I had quite a difficult first year with some staff who just didn’t want to work with me.
“It was 1992 and Vogue was a narrow, demarcated high fashion title, but the problem was there were a lot of new magazines out there. Marie Claire, for instance, was a real success story and was selling incredibly well; it had shown that the big advertisers were going to advertise in the higher circulation titles, whereas Vogue had never thought they would necessarily do this. There were also a lot of new supplements and newspapers who were starting to get their share of Estée Lauder and Chanel ads. I knew what I had to do to change the magazine, and even now, when I look back, I was always very aware of having to change the balance in the magazine over the 25 years I was editor – sometimes it had to be more fashion because that was what was going to give it the edge, and sometimes we had to pull it back a bit and make the magazine more commercial.”

Chapter Six: Marriage And A Baby

“I was 36 when I got married and became pregnant. I was getting worried that neither was going to happen, and there was this conflict – up until then people would ask why I wasn’t married with children, and then say ‘oh but you’re a career woman’ which of course wasn’t what it was like. I just hadn’t met the person, but I was concerned that the position I had wasn’t very helpful…I worked with a lot of women, there are a lot of gay men in the fashion industry, and I worked pretty hard.
“I had had an on-and-off relationship with Paul Spike who in the end I did marry and have a child with, but it was quite a tumultuous relationship. I was with him for about six years before we got married which we did secretly with a couple days’ notice. We had bought a flat together but had split up, but we were both unhappy apart. Paul booked Chelsea Registry Office, bought an engagement ring and came round to see me and said: ‘Will you marry me, I’ve booked a date on Thursday?’ This was the Monday prior. I thought: I’m going to do that because if I don’t then it’s over and I was deeply attached to Paul and very unhappy not being with him. So, I said yes and a month later I was pregnant. The main thing is that we were both very pleased and very happy, even though Paul already had two children and had been worried about another child, but he was adorable when he found out I was pregnant. We had Sam, who is now 26. Paul and I did split up when Sam was three but didn’t get divorced for years.
“It's really interesting how times have changed – I had 16 weeks’ maternity leave which was normal at the time. By the time Sam was born, we had moved from a flat into a house. I had been used to being this single person living in Ladbroke Grove in a very nice flat in Oxford Gardens, and suddenly I was living in what to me seemed like deep suburbia in Queen’s Park in a terraced street with a pram and a baby. I wasn’t happy – I loved Sam but I didn’t find it easy. I didn’t have many friends with babies, as most had had their children, and I was in a blind panic about how I was going to go back to work and find someone to look after my child. I spent most of my maternity leave interviewing nannies.”

Chapter Seven: Editing Vogue And Being A Mother

“It was wonderful having Sam. I’ve always said I was so lucky to have both him and Vogue, but I couldn’t let either impinge on the other. My job was a huge priority but, when I got home, I was able to switch off and be completely with Sam. The fashion shows were the difficult bit, being away for more or less a month twice a year, but I had great nannies.  It was a stressful time, particularly when he was very young – I felt terrible leaving him and going to New York for instance. But I do think that the ability to have part of my life dedicated to Sam and part of it dedicated to Vogue made me able to do both of them in a way which I would have found harder if I hadn’t had the other. In some ways, it’s easier, as being around at home with a young child and trying to do some work would have been very hard; at least I was out of the house.
“I stayed at Vogue for 25 years. Why did I stay for so long, that is the question, as opposed to why did I decide to leave? After about 20 years, I started to think about leaving but I had also thought about it when Sam was smaller, and I’d have liked to be around for him a bit more. But then the centenary of Vogue, in 2016, was coming and I thought if I leave now someone else will get the centenary and I’ve been here for this long and I don’t want Vogue’s big moment to be in someone else’s hands, so I am going to see it through. That kept me going for about two or three years longer.
“The centenary issue of the magazine had the Duchess of Cambridge on the cover and it was a huge success. It was difficult to get her, I had asked her quite a few times and she didn’t want to do it. But she is patron of the National Portrait Gallery and they were going to host our centenary exhibition, so I thought maybe there'd be a way in there. I had of course done the Princess of Wales on the cover, and Vogue has always done the royals, so it was unusual that we weren’t able to get her.
“The magazine was selling really well, the centenary was a great year, we did a television programme and we had a wonderful time, and it would have made sense that I’d want to leave after that. But I then thought why would I leave, Sam’s grown up, I’m earning a good salary and what else am I going to do now?  It’s interesting that at 58 or 59 I just couldn’t see or imagine what the next stage was going to be. It made it difficult to make a decision. So, I decided to stay but I knew I wanted something different. My partner David and I rented this little flat in Aldeburgh to go to at weekends – it was really lovely, just off the sea, and very basic with white walls and rented furniture. We didn’t have any responsibility and I was really happy there and it made me realise that I could be happy somewhere else. I woke up one morning and thought this is actually crazy, I should just leave – it was like one of those epiphany moments, the shining light.
“I resigned but couldn’t announce it for a couple of months and was then asked to stay on for another six months. I left in June 2017.”

Chapter Eight: My Life As A Freelance

“After leaving Vogue, I didn’t think I would write, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I didn’t think writing would be a big part of it. Being at home for the first time during my adult life – apart from maternity leave – has been strange. I remember that first summer Sam coming down the stairs and him saying ‘I can’t get used to you being here’. But it was really special getting time together with him.
“I thought about writing the book [Clothes… and other things that matter] so that was a big preoccupation for about 18 months. Then I got a column for the Mail on Sunday and that became the main pillar of my week. 
“I did imagine that I’d do more advisory work than I have ended up doing, though I am working with a marketplace company called Atterley. That’s really nice because it’s working across bricks and mortar boutiques and online, and I’m also learning about retail and e-commerce. But being freelance is a very different way of existing – I was used to having a pay cheque going into my account every month and then not having that is quite scary.” 

The Next Chapter

“Coronavirus has obviously blown everyone’s plans into smithereens. I’m not really thinking about the next steps because, if I do, I get nervous, so one step at a time, but I definitely hope to write another book. I would also like to try and live somewhere else for a few months and have the experience of living in a place away from home for more than just a two-week holiday. I’m working towards that…maybe that’s the next stage.”

Follow Alexandra @AlexandraShulman

Clothes… and other things that matter by Alexandra Shulman is published by Cassell and will be available in paperback, £9.99, on 10th June.

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