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'I doubt that many of us are interested in trends right now, but that doesn't mean I spend the day lolling around in my trackies and pyjamas either'

The former editor-in-chief of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, talks to Hannah Stephenson about a lifetime spent in fashion, body image and how she copes with panic attacks

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Style memoir: Alexandra Shulman

Style memoir: Alexandra Shulman

PA

The former Vogue editor with a special recognition award at The Fashion Awards

The former Vogue editor with a special recognition award at The Fashion Awards

PA

Clothes ... And Other Things That Matter by Alexandra Shulman is published by Cassell, priced £16.99

Clothes ... And Other Things That Matter by Alexandra Shulman is published by Cassell, priced £16.99

PA

Style memoir: Alexandra Shulman

It may seem bad timing to bring out a book about fashion, given the current lockdown situation and the fact many of us are working from home in leggings, old T-shirts, or even PJs.

 

But that is what former Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman has done, with her aptly titled new book, Clothes ... And Other Things That Matter - a part-memoir, part fashion history, exploring all manner of attire, from the bra to the bikini, the trainer to the trench coat.

And she isn't dressing down too much at home with her partner, Tatler journalist David Jenkins, and her son, Sam (25): "I like to be comfortable in my clothes, but I don't tend to loll around in trackies and pyjamas."

In the book, Shulman (62) delves into her own life and work to look at how clothes intersect with the larger world and explores what she wore with each phase of her life and what she still holds dear.

"Right now, I doubt that many of us are interested in trends, or feel the need to have something that is 'on trend', but that doesn't mean we don't want to have clothes that make us feel good."

The book begins with her doing a count of the clothes in her wardrobe in 2018: 556 pieces, including 34 jackets, 22 coats and five full-length evening gowns.

"It's impossible to say which is my favourite," she muses. "Favourites change. Sometimes it's something new and sometimes something that I have had for years. I have a pink satin coat by the Italian fashion house Marni that I love, because every time I wear it, I enjoy myself. It's not an everyday piece. It's special."

When Shulman was appointed British Vogue editor-in-chief in 1992, after stints at Tatler and GQ, there was some speculation that she might not be experienced enough for the job and didn't really look the part.

When the Vogue company chairman asked how much she spent on clothes a year, she said she thought it was about £4,000, which she admits was around triple what she normally spent.

Shulman later found out from an associate that the chairman had wondered if he'd hired the right person to edit the country's leading fashion magazine.

She was also a size 14 - something interviewers would continually reference over the years - and she points out that her successor, Edward Enninful, doesn't attract the same observations about his appearance, or weight.

In the 1990s, the magazine was criticised for photos of a waifish Kate Moss that were dubbed "heroin chic", part of a larger ongoing debate over whether fashion magazines contributed to eating disorders.

How does she feel she tackled body image during her tenure at the magazine?

"Vogue was always being called out as promoting eating disorders among young women, but the fact is that eating disorders come about through a huge number of factors," she says now.

"People vulnerable to them might have felt they couldn't measure up to images they could see in the magazine, which is why I always wanted to show many, many women and men who were celebrated for their talent and professionalism outside the spheres of how they looked."

While the anecdotes flow about how, during her career, she has mixed with artists, actors, poets, royalty and designers, along with her memories about what she wore for the occasion and what particular items of clothing mean to her, she also reveals that from the age of 20 she suffered panic attacks.

"I began to suffer panic attacks when I was 21 at university," Shulman recalls. "I didn't know what they were and neither did those around me, but eventually my doctor suggested this was what was causing heart palpitations, dizziness, etc."

She experienced the first one shortly after missing her flight when returning from holiday in Greece and ended up marooned in Athens for days, because of an air traffic controllers' strike.

Two weeks after returning home, she was staying at her family's rented holiday home in Herefordshire when she suddenly couldn't breathe.

"I couldn't swallow. I thought I was going to die. It was the first of the panic attacks that have beleaguered me on and off throughout my life.

"There have been periods when I have had them more frequently and others when for years they have gone underground."

Going into the cut-throat world of fashion must have surely put more pressure on her, but she dismisses the notion that she may have been entering a Devil Wears Prada environment.

"All big industries are very competitive and fashion is just the same as many others when there is a lot of money at stake and when people care about what they are doing. I loved The Devil Wears Prada, but I didn't recognise my own office in it.

"I still keep in touch with many of the people I worked with, which is lovely, and, of course, I still read the magazine. I don't miss the feeling that it is mine. It's not like a baby. Magazines can thrive with different parents."

Working at Vogue didn't make her lose her love of clothes, but the way she felt about how she dressed was different while she was there, she reflects.

"As with all jobs, there were certain demands on how one should appear and now it's rather lovely to always be able to wear what I feel like wearing, rather than what I should wear."

With more freedom since she left in 2017, she now wears trainers more often, although says she still wears heels because she likes how they make her feel.

"I have bought a lot of clothes since I left, but slightly more casual. I spend quite a lot of time surfing clothing sites and then have made a rule not to press buy at the first sight of something."

Since leaving Vogue, she says life has been interesting, as she has taken up collaborations with Boots and has been enjoying writing.

"But I have also enjoyed the fact I could be in my home more. Perhaps not ideally as much as I am right at the moment."

Shulman believes the fashion industry will survive in the wake of Covid-19, but maybe more responsibly.

"There will no doubt be changes in the way that some people operate. Some of the massive travel and expenditure on promotional events might get cut back and I think most people would regard that as good.

"But we need clothes, we need the creativity of fashion. The industry was already taking huge steps to consider their sustainability and this crisis will feed into that."

Clothes ... And Other Things That Matter by Alexandra Shulman is published by Cassell, priced £16.99

Belfast Telegraph