In light of London Fashion Week, and BBC’s new documentary on British Vogue – Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue (think September issue sans Anna), we thought we’d throw back to our extensive interview with the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman. Take a peek behind the curtains of one of our favorite publications…
It’s no secret that when you peruse British Vogue, there’s as much of a dedication to the story as there is to the imagery. It’s the same reason why the legendary Editor-in-Chief at its helm, Alexandra Shulman, has always proclaimed herself first and foremost a journalist.
Visiting Shulman at the British Vogue offices was a very special part of our trip, partly because we’re avid British Vogue readers but also because we weren’t expecting to get such a studied point of view on matters like health crazes, body image issues, and the history of the London food-scape. Moreover, as we walked out of the Conde Nast offices in Hanover Square, we felt like escapees leaving with treasured secrets of the fashion, publishing and digital world.
It’s not that we were surprised at being utterly inspired by Shulman; after all she’s been the longest serving editor in British Vogue history. We merely loved that a conversation about one thing, turned into a retrospective on everything, the sign no doubt of a truly great editor. Now we’ll let the interview speak for itself…
From start to finish what would be your ideal food day? You can eat anything, go anywhere, no calorie counting…
That’s not a problem. For breakfast I like rye toast with honey and coffee. I don’t have anything exotic for breakfast. I can’t bear juices and stuff.
It’s a difficult question. I think lunch would be a glass of champagne, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Then for dinner I’d go out and ideally eat some kind of pasta. I’d go to The River Café and eat pasta – or practically anything there. Then some great pudding, like their Chocolate Nemesis, which is really good. I’d also have a double espresso, because in my ideal day it wouldn’t be a problem having a double espresso in the evening.
How does food and health play into what you do at Vogue every day?
Historically Vogue has had a lot of food writing. We’ve had cookery writers; we had Elizabeth David for years, and Tessa Traeger is a wonderful photographer who did amazing food pictures for her. I was the first person who hired Nigella Lawson to be a cookery writer. She was with us for a long time.
When Nigella left, I didn’t take anybody else on in that permanent role, partially because I didn’t feel I’d found the person that was absolutely right for us, and also because there is a huge amount of food publishing. Every weekend package has really great recipes. So in a way, what’s the point of putting that in Vogue once a month? But I’m interested in food, so every now and again we’ll do something with food that’s more of a generic piece, like somebody writing about their passion for jams or bread, or a social observation piece. Like, ‘How do people eat and dine now, together?’ That’s what I’m really interested in – social observation in almost everything. And health, ditto. We don’t have a designated health writer but we cover it. If someone comes up with an interesting idea that I think would be a good read, we do it.
What do you think of health crazes?
I’m really, horribly uninterested in it. I’m quite anti-crazes, full stop. Particularly where it has to do with food. It’s become a bit of an obsession of mine, people being faddy about their eating. I don’t think it’s healthy and I don’t think it’s sociable. I think it’s relatively bad manners, all of the excuses people make for not eating. I sat next to somebody at a dinner the other day and she’d already only gotten a salad rather than the food, and she was barely eating the salad. I said ‘Well, you’re not eating,’ and she said ‘Oh I ate the children’s tea.’ That’s always the excuse: ‘I’ve eaten the children’s tea.’ Don’t eat the children’s tea; you’re going out to dinner! Or somebody comes to dinner and they go ‘I can’t eat this, I can’t eat gluten, I can’t eat wheat, I can’t have caffeine, I can’t have dairy.’ I get quite tired of it.
Would people in the office here agree?
No, I’m sure they’re all obsessed with it too. In the last issue we had something on juicing – ‘Juicing: Fad or Fiction.’ We’ve also just done something on if super foods are actually good for you. We had a nutritionist in and she was saying that things like chia seeds are really not good for you because they just make you feel full – that’s why people have them – but they have no nutritional value. I think it’s good to be healthy. I don’t think you should sit there stuffing croissants into your mouth. I just wish people could take a bit more pleasure – real pleasure – in food, without eating and then self-flagellating about it immediately afterwards.
I also think it’s a really bad example. I’ve watched contemporaries of mine and the way they behave around food. They’ve got teenage girls; are they then surprised if their children have eating disorders?
Do you think health crazes are more of an American thing?
No. It’s just as much here. I mean, I don’t know about America. All I know is it’s here.
How is the food landscape in London different now from when you were growing up?
Oh, it’s so different. When I was growing up I never used to eat out. I was brought up in Central London but my Dad was a theater critic for The Evening Standard. We always ate together after the theater at home; we never went out to dinner. I don’t think I went to a restaurant until I was fifteen. I really remember the first hamburger bars coming to London, the Great American Disaster, and the Hard Rock Cafe. Everybody was like ‘There’s this new thing. It’s called a hamburger, and now you can get them in London!’
Ditto pizza. I mean that was new. I remember I went on holiday with a friend when I was ten and I had my first pizza. It was in Italy and it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. You could never get them in London.
Then in the late sixties, King’s Road had what were called Trattorias, and everyone had the chianti bottles with the candles dripping wax and the tiled floors. In the seventies too, there were mainly Italian restaurants opening up in London. But in general people didn’t eat out. Oddly enough, very posh people didn’t eat out. It was kind of like, you had staff at home, you ate at home. You didn’t go to restaurants. It was a youngish thing – well-off young people. And when I say young I mean in their twenties or something, not teenagers.
Now, everybody eats out all the time. The process of eating out has become part of the fabric of urban life, and it just wasn’t at all. And the food’s gotten unquestionably better. As a child, I couldn’t really judge what the food was like. I don’t really remember thinking the food was terrible, but everyone tells me the food was terrible. By the time I was eating out, the food had gotten better. We knew what garlic was.
And moving into publishing, what is your personal definition of good content?
Something that you don’t expect to see. I think the best stories are unexpected, and often contain unusual pairings. That might be a photographer shooting a story you wouldn’t expect them to, or a writer covering a subject you wouldn’t expect them to. I like clever little ideas. I think one of the best things as an editor you can do is to either take something very substantial and make something quite light out of it, or take a tiny idea and blow it up and really micro-examine it.
You’ve said before that you think of yourself as more of a journalist than a fashion editor. What do you think the huge differences are between the two?
I came from a non-fashion background, so I’ve always worked with words and ideas and tied images into them, but I’ve never thought that the image was the only ingredient. I think fashion editors (who are a kind of stylist) are used to working entirely through a visual medium.
Do you think certain fashion magazines are too image-focused, and could use more true ‘journalists?’
I guess it depends what you want to do. But no (to your question), because those magazines, that’s what they do. I mean, they’re not my favorite magazines. I always want to read in a magazine. But some magazines just aren’t interested in the words. I’m only interested in words if they are entertaining, amusing, informative, or I can learn something. They’re not just there to be decoration.
When you look at other fashion magazines and mastheads, what are common pitfalls you see?
Too many people (laughs). I don’t know; I can’t say I really look at that. Every magazine has their own sense of what they’re trying to do, so it’s very difficult to judge what it is from the outside. It may not be my taste, but it’s not my magazine.
What do you think some of the primary differences are between British Vogue and American Vogue?
I think American Vogue is more prescribed. It has a very definite aesthetic that permeates everything in the magazine, whether that’s a food picture or a fashion picture. You particularly see it with the fashion photography; the magazine’s aesthetic overrides the whole thing. Whereas I think in British Vogue there are lots of different, very loud voices. They’re all crammed in there together.
The other thing is that American Vogue is more of a commercial magazine. It sells to more people, so I guess it has to appeal to a broader demographic. We’re a weird Vogue because we’re a hybrid. We don’t have to be as mass as American Vogue, but we’re not a niche magazine like some of the other Vogues are. We have to sell quite a lot of copies. Outside of American Vogue, we probably sell the most copies. So we’re different from something like an Italian Vogue or even a French Vogue. We have to leave an element of the mainstream in there along with a kind of glamour.