Alexandra Shulman: 'It's not like I'm going to disappear, I just won't be editing Vogue'
Alexandra Shulman has bowed out after 25 years as chief of the British version of the fashion bible. She tells Katie Law about broadening the magazine's appeal, her devotion to heels and the pain of leaving office life
Alexandra Shulman ushers me into her empty office at Vogue House, apologising that its pale pink and white walls are completely bare apart from a display of Vogue magazines in one corner. Yesterday was her last day as British Vogue's editor-in-chief, after 25 years at the helm. "Sometimes it feels strangely nothing, sometimes terrifying and at other times sad. I just have to get through this bit. Leaving is never nice, so you just have to have tunnel vision," says Shulman, who resigned last December.
Downstairs, 40 boxes of books, files, notebooks and diaries are packed and waiting for her, so she's keen to cut the interview short to get it back to her Queen's Park home as soon as possible "which is really daunting as I probably don't need to keep it all, but can't bring myself to go through it all now", she says matter-of-factly.
Her final issue of the magazine comes out in September, while the October and November issues will be edited by her deputy Emily Sheffield, before Edward Enninful, the new editor, arrives in August.
Since his surprise appointment was announced in April, the fashion world has been buzzing with rumours about his lack of editing experience, his huge salary and even bigger relocation costs from New York (where he is currently fashion and style director of W Magazine), his alleged plans to purge Vogue of its 'posh girl' staff and make the magazine content much more diverse.
In the past few weeks news of high-level resignations by some of Shulman's longest-serving old guard - with doubtless more to come - has caused alarm in some quarters, and "now it's like a snowball. But it wasn't my ambition to dismantle Vogue at all", she says.
"I don't know Edward and I don't know what he's going to do," she adds, tapping her white-patent, Manolo-clad foot impatiently. "But I can safely assume that he will want to do something very different. I do think he's a really brilliant stylist."
As she talks, her eyes dart from one side of the room to the other with palpable nervous energy. "When I came to Vogue back in the dark ages I changed it a lot. I think you have to expect that from editors. I have my Vogue. I'm sure he's going to change things radically to make it his," although understandably she won't be drawn on how he might achieve this. "But I will say that I have a fantastic staff and I'm not happy at the idea of anyone losing their jobs."
She bridles at the suggestion that Vogue could do with being a bit more diverse. "I don't think we've been un-diverse, actually. When you look back at what my Vogue had, I do think I've broadened out its appeal, whether it's to do with different ages of women or men, different body types and professions.
"I don't know whether the new regime will continue to do articles about female engineers building Crossrail, for example. And I'm very proud of the (July) Ageless Style issue. You would never have seen that in Vogue before I came."
Coincidentally, the issue includes a naked selfie of incoming fashion director, photographer Venetia Scott.
At 59, is there anything that Shulman feels she is too old to wear? She looks impeccable today in a sleeveless top and tight white-lace skirt. "It's by Erdem - E-R-D-E-M," she adds, when I ask who designed it. "No there isn't, but I could never wear mini-skirts because I've always had terrible legs and I can't wear all these wonderful flouncy floral dresses with ruffles because I just look tragic in them," she says in the same self-deprecating tone she occasionally used to describe how she looked in her diary, Inside Vogue (just out in paperback). One thing she is not, is vain.
Having defended the fashion industry's ongoing love affair with using size-zero models on the catwalk, she also turns out to be an ambivalent champion of feminism and glass ceilings. "I don't feel terribly, you know, God, 'men in suits ruling our lives' at all, at all. It's not been my experience here but I'm probably somewhat backward in that way."
Why wasn't she on the board of Conde Nast? "I was, but I resigned a long time ago when I realised they didn't do anything," she says, sounding a bit huffy. "I only went to be involved in things and thought they were being kind by asking."
Is she a nice boss? "I'm not sure that I'm a particularly good, mentoring, kind person, actually." Don't her staff adore her? "No, I don't think so," she answers briskly, as if she finds the idea ridiculous. "Although I think most of them quite like me." According to one insider, everyone adores her.
As the elder daughter of former Evening Standard theatre critic Milton Shulman and etiquette expert Drusilla Beyfus, Shulman grew up in a London household where equality between girls and boys was the norm. Her sister Nicola, now Marchioness of Normanby, has written several biographies, her brother Jason is an artist.
She brought up her only son, Sam - whose father is US writer Paul Spike - largely on her own. Sam is 22 now and just got a First, she tells me proudly, her voice softening. He studied history of art at UCL and is doing an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"People make subliminal judgments about how women look that doesn't happen with men. It's still not a level playing field. If you're a man you can get away with being far less physically well put together. How much time are men expected to spend on getting their hair right? Nobody expects Prince William to take a hairdresser on a royal tour, but they wouldn't be happy if the Duchess of Cambridge didn't." But he hasn't got much hair? "Well that's true, it's probably not a fair comparison, I agree," says Shulman, visibly relaxing and breaking into a smile for the first time.
"Listen, women are very demanding of themselves, but men make those judgments too." Like men preferring women in high heels? "Well, I don't really mind that. It's like me saying I like a man in a polo shirt. I always wear high heels - actually I find them far more comfortable than flats."
She looks faintly appalled at my suggestion that she might slip into something sloppy at home: "unless I'm on my own sorting bin bags, although what's going to be really interesting is how I'm going to look in my new life. I've got no idea what I'll need to buy."
Life will change "in ways I can't imagine. I've never not worked in an office from practically the day I left university, with a monthly pay cheque and somewhere to report to at 9.30 every morning. I'm sure it'll sometimes feel like a bereavement, even though I chose it."
Shulman's long-term partner, journalist David Jenkins, is "horrified", she says, at the prospect of having her at home. In her diary he comes across as the chilled if slightly long-suffering antithesis to her neurotic, grumpy, work-driven character. "He's been used to having the house to himself and suddenly I'm going to be there."
A friend advised her not to commit to anything for six months. "I don't think I can go that long. If you leave an incredibly nice job you've done for 25 years, you have to work out why. I wasn't unhappy. I wanted to change my life and have more flexibility. After I resigned I was wandering around the streets in this 'hello sunshine, lovely blue sky, I feel so free' way, but now it's approaching I realise I don't want to be that free, I need to be tethered to something; otherwise it's just a huge gap."
Plans include journalism "definitely", a book "probably", brand retail work and pro bono arts work "possibly".
In terms of her legacy, Shulman insists there has been no single defining thing, although she'll surely be remembered as the editor who persuaded the Duchess of Cambridge to pose for the cover of Vogue's centenary issue. "I did feel after that whole year, what with the BBC documentary, the duchess on the cover, the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, the gala festival and my book about it all. How would I get to go on and do more of the same?"
She's phlegmatic about the possibility that doors may slam shut, as so often happens when people quit influential jobs.
"I've always been very clear about what's a job and what isn't," she says.
Some people have been incredibly kind. George (Northwood) who cuts my hair and Josh (Wood) who colours it have said they'd carry on giving me complimentary hair, which was amazing, because I'd thought I'd be going round to the local hairdresser and (using) bottle dye.
"It's not like I'm going to disappear. I just won't be editing Vogue. People might be seeing more of me," she says, standing up. "That's a worrying thought."