The former editor of Vogue took a recent trip to Sainsbury’s at 3pm. “And to me that was so interesting. I’ve not been in a supermarket on a weekday afternoon for 35, 40 years or something. I was just interested in who was in there, what people are buying, what the parking was like. I’m interested in all this stuff.”
Since standing down in June from the magazine she edited for 25 years, Alexandra Shulman has been having the loveliest time. She has taken holidays, attended cultural events and, she says: “I have that sort of slightly horrible sort of happy-clappy feeling about me, you know, smiling everywhere as if I’d found God. It’s not like I was longing to be free from Vogue,” she adds hastily. “I just thought, 25 years is such a huge amount of your life to spend sitting in the same building.”
She greets me with a demob-happy glow of contentment. The 57-year-old pads around her north London home making coffee, and laughs that even something as mundane as replacing her faulty doorbell feels exotic. She looks surprised when I ask if she misses the power of her former position. “No, I’m not really interested in power. I am interested in having a voice.” By the time I leave, though, she is looking increasingly uneasy about how what she has to say will be received.
Shulman’s voice has been landing her in hot water lately. Last month, in a column musing on what makes a great editor, she wrote: “It’s certainly not a job for someone who doesn’t wish to put in the hours, and thinks that the main part of their job is being photographed in a series of designer clothes with a roster of famous friends.”
“Miaow!” was the general consensus within the fashion world, who took the line for a thinly veiled swipe at her successor, Edward Enninful. Shulman says she was amazed. “No! It was intended to be a comment on what the future of magazine journalism could be. Not about Edward, no. Why would I slag off somebody who’s taking over Vogue?”
That’s not how Naomi Campbell saw it. She told the Guardian this week: “I’m not pleased at how [Enninful] has been treated. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I find it racist. It’s like a vendetta and it should stop. I take it as racial abuse.” How did Shulman feel when she read that? “Well, upset. It was weird.” Does she understand what the supermodel meant? “No, I don’t. I mean, listen, Naomi is very vocal, and she’s chosen to take that view, and there’s nothing I can say about it.” But after a brief pause she goes on: “I don’t think it’s very becoming of somebody who is contributing editor of a magazine to slag off the previous editors. Naomi had more covers than any other model, other than Kate Moss, during the time that I was on Vogue.”
Is Shulman sure? “I can’t think of another model who had more. Something like eight.” I tell her Natalia Vodianova appeared on eight of Shulman’s covers, and Gisele Bündchen 11. “Really? British Vogue? I can only remember two. I’ve got a terrible memory.” Campbell made the cover just five times. Shulman looks puzzled. “Maybe those were single ones. Maybe it wasn’t where she was also in groups.” Campbell did appear beside Puff Daddy, but that cover is included in the five. “Well, anyway. I’m not going to get into the thing. If she wants to feel that aggression, who am I to stop it, you know?”
Shulman says she liked Enninful very much on the one occasion they met. “The only thing I don’t feel happy about is that I worked with an incredibly talented team of people who were hired not on the basis of their sex, their age or their race, and they worked bloody hard.” Her successor was reportedly keen to clear out the old regime’s “Sloanie club”, and there have been several high-profile departures, most notably Lucinda Chambers, who was fired as fashion director after 35 years’ service.
“I do find it offensive, this idea that there was this kind of posh cabal who weren’t doing anything. The idea that we were having a kind of tea party when we made literally hundreds of millions of pounds as profit, I find offensive.”
The Ghana-born former stylist’s appointment did not surprise her, but when I ask if she thought him a good choice, she says: “That’s an impossible question to ask me. Because if I say yes I was pleased, and then a lot of my staff lost their jobs, it sounds very disloyal. If I say no I wasn’t pleased, then it sounds very rude. The answer is that I think Edward was a good idea.” She pauses. “But when you leave a job, it’s a bit like abandoning your child to someone else. It’s almost impossible to think that anybody, if you’re completely honest – well, everybody’s going to be flawed as the new mother, or the father in this case. So I’m just being completely honest. It’s hard to feel completely, ‘I’ll love everything he does,’ because I won’t.”
On the morning we meet, Enninful’s first cover has just been published, which Shulman has seen. “I think it’s lovely,” she smiles. “Absolutely lovely.” After a brief pause: “It’s funny because, of course, I’m old enough to remember those covers when they were live – you know, 70s covers, with the headscarf and blue eye shadow.” Did she find anything on the cover surprising? “It’s exactly what I would have expected. Adwoa [Aboah, the model] is very much, you know, the girl of the moment. We’d actually offered her the cover and she turned us down when I was there. I don’t know why. Maybe she knew she was going to get this cover.”
Did Shulman offer it that recently? She thinks. “No, it was before Edward would have been there. Anyway, I’m a great admirer of Adwoa. I think her Gurls Talk thing is really interesting, and she’s perfect. She’s the perfect mixture of mixed race, sort of posh Notting Hill royalty. So she’s the perfect cover star, absolutely.” On her phone we scroll through some other images of Aboah. Shulman points out one showing the model bare-headed. “It’s funny, because Adwoa is actually much more, kind of, ginger in reality.”
Shulman is still smarting from the uproar provoked by a photograph in her final edition of the outgoing editor surrounded by 54 of her staff. Did she anticipate that many readers would be shocked to see that every single one of them was white? “No,” she mutters dryly. “Clearly not. Had I known that this was going to happen, I would not have put that picture in it. But it never entered my head. Over the years there have been people of all kinds of ethnicities in the magazine. On that particular day there was nobody there and, you know, it’s frustrating.”
Whenever non-white candidates applied to work for her, she says: “I’d say they almost always did in fact get the job. But relatively few came up through the pipeline, for whatever reason, so that might account for why there weren’t more.”
Many employers go to some lengths to attract more diverse applicants. “Well, I guess I have to hold my hand up and say I don’t encourage positive discrimination in any area.” Shulman flatly refuses to accept the critique that under her editorship Vogue had a diversity problem. “I have never been somebody who’s box-ticked. I’m against quotas. I feel like my Vogue had the people in who I wanted it to. I didn’t look at what race they were. I didn’t look at what sex they were. I didn’t look at what age they were. I included the people I thought interesting. So no, I don’t, absolutely not.
“But if you’re going to say to me, ‘Well, how many white models as opposed to how many black models were in there?’, I’m sure you can make the numbers stack up to argue that there was an issue. But as far as I’m concerned, there wasn’t, and it never entered my head.”
She begins to look unhappy. “In terms of the idea that in any way I’m seen as insensitive or racist, one of the reasons why I do find it upsetting is because actually my son’s grandfather, Robert Spike, was one of the civil rights leaders. So it’s very offensive to me and my family, the idea that I’m racist. I do mind about that. I can’t pretend I don’t.”
Readers may then wonder why she put black faces on the cover only 12 times in 25 years. “Well, I don’t know. Who would I put on? Who would you have suggested that was a really well known black model who wasn’t on the cover?” One answer would be Thandie Newton, who lives just two doors up from Shulman and complained bitterly last year about being overlooked. “Why have I not got the cover?” she told the Guardian. “And I resisted race. I resisted it … And then I had to accept it.” Shulman sighs.
“There are lots of actresses who weren’t on the cover. It didn’t enter my head that I should put Thandie on the cover.” But moments earlier she had said, “I would have loved to have more really famous black models that we could have put on the cover.” “Well, Thandie’s not a black model.” Nor were two of her black cover stars, Beyoncé and Rihanna. “But they’re very, very world-famous names.” Was Newton not famous enough? “You’re leading me down a path where I don’t really want to talk about who sells and who doesn’t sell. Why didn’t I put Thandie on the cover? I don’t know. There’s a million other actresses who I didn’t put on the cover.”
The problem, she says, is that there weren’t enough established black models. In her 25 years, only one apart from Campbell – Jourdan Dunn – ever appeared alone. Would she not have helped make others known by featuring them? “Well, no. Vogue always sold on the newsstand, and people have to recognise the person who you’re putting on the cover. I was judged by my sales. That was my remit. My chief remit was not to show ethnic diversity as a policy.” If she put a black face on the cover who was not instantly recognisable, “You would sell fewer copies. It’s as simple as that.”
Does she think Enninful’s Vogue will struggle to match her circulation average of roughly 200,000? “Well, I’m sure this issue will sell. But it’s not my job to predict what it’s going to do. I’m absolutely sure Edward will do really well. He’s the right guy at the right time. I’m sure that Condé Nast will be delighted, I really am.” She gets to her feet. “I’m just getting more coffee because it’s so stressful, that whole thing about models – black – the whole thing.”
She worries that what she has said will land her in even hotter water. “But you can lie and say everything’s lovely. Or you can be honest, and then reap the consequences of that.” I’m curious about why she wanted to give the interview. “Several people have asked me that,” she grins. “I suppose because I wanted to be able to put the record straight about that column I wrote. And because I am upset by accusations of racism. I haven’t got a racist bone in my body, and it does infuriate me, so I suppose that. Also, I guess because I haven’t left Vogue to go and hide under a stone somewhere. I suppose, you know, you like the publicity at the end of the day. You want to carry on having a voice.”
Later in the week, after she has seen Enninful’s first full issue, she offers her verdict. “I think it looks great. That is meant genuinely. I would really like it on record that I do not have any axe to grind with Edward. I really wish him well. Vogue’s a hugely important part of my life, and I want it to flourish.” After another of her signature pauses, she adds: “Obviously, you don’t want people to do things a great deal better than you did them.” So if he doubled Vogue’s sales overnight? She smiles.
“Well, that would very frustrating. Unquestionably frustrating.”