In this “How I Made It in Fashion” series, BuzzFeed Fashion asks the industry’s most successful members how they got to where they are. Ahead, longtime editor of British “Vogue,” Alexandra Shulman, discusses her journey from the secretarial pool to the editor’s office, her advice for today’s fashion interns, and that future Duchess of Cambridge cover: “In my dreams,” she says. Ours too.
After graduating from university, I first worked [as an assistant at a record label] in the music business for about a year. But I had learned shorthand and typing skills during my gap year, so I then got a job as a temp in the office of Over21 magazine — they were looking for a secretary for their editor. When I went for the job the editor said to me “I don’t think you’re going to be the right person for this job, but I like you. Why don’t you come in and help out until I find the person that I actually want to give the job to?” In the end, she just stuck with me.
It wasn’t disheartening to me because I knew what she was thinking. She thought I just wouldn’t be interested in doing the dogsbody work — but I knew that I could and would do that. I never minded photocopying or making coffee; I had to keep track of the magazine’s payments — this was a long time ago, mind you — so I had a big ledger book and I had to write in every single invoice. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do but I never minded because it was part of the job. Admittedly, though, I was being paid to do it. That did help.
Maybe now people think that they don’t have to do that entry-level grunt work. I think everybody does, and certainly everyone at Vogue who is at the top of the editorial tree now has had to do several years of that kind of stuff. That’s how you get to know how everybody at a magazine works; how you get to know the structure.
While working as a secretary I wrote little pieces for the magazine — 50-word pieces here and there, or even just the captions for stories. At the same time I was pitching ideas for other publications. One of the key things I learned as an editor’s secretary — because I opened all of her mail and got to read all her letters — was how people pitched ideas and what pitches got accepted. So actually I had a pretty good strike rate for someone without much of a track record as a writer. I got pieces in The Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, and one of the big pieces I pitched was to Tina Brown at Tatler magazine. It was about the evolution of Notting Hill. Tatler commissioned me to write it and accepted the piece, although when I had finished they didn’t actually publish it. But they did offer me a job instead.
Nowadays, in pitches I look for somebody writing something interesting. It’s that simple. Of course, they need to make it very clear they’ve thought about why it would interest Vogue and not some other magazine. They need to have a clear view, and it needs to be something original. What I don’t need, ever, is people suggesting they do an interview I could have thought of myself. At Vogue we’re never going to ask a fledgling journalist to interview with Christopher Kane, for instance. We’re never going to ask someone to do a trend piece on, I don’t know, monochrome this season — we’ve got staff here who can do that. I want someone to add something to the conversation. And I’m always interested in people who can make smart social observations, or put ideas together. I want someone to tell me, “This is happening in London now. I can give you seven illustrations of it and work them together into a piece.”
I still like pitches in letters — but then I’ve got an assistant, so that helps. I think you can argue email either way. In lots of ways it’s a fantastic facility to have but realistically what happens is people send me email and I literally don’t have the time to read them all. So either they fall off my screen and I forget all about them or I’m forwarding them to my assistant and saying, “You look at this and decide whether it’s something I should engage with.”
I should say that, really, I don’t want people emailing me cold. That’s almost never going to make an impression. Most of the ideas that come to Vogue are pitched to one of my department heads and that’s what I encourage – pitch my features director or my fashion features director.
Now, I went from Tatler, where I had become features editor, to The Sunday Telegraph. I left glossy magazines behind for a while, and stayed working in a newsroom for eighteen months, something like that. Obviously, working on a newspaper it’s all about news, and therefore the speed of reaction is important. Now I’m editing Vogue the speed of reaction is no longer my main criteria. But I don’t want us to appear slow — yes, Vogue is a monthly magazine but I learned at the Telegraph, and this is crucial, that sometimes it’s worth getting the story no matter what shape it takes. Just get the story, it’s not about waiting to get the very best photographer or the best long piece because if you wait the moment will pass.
It was good for me to go and work in a different environment, one which was outside my comfort zone. That’s another thing I would suggest to people — at some point you’ve got to leave where you think you’re happy in order to get back to where you’re going to be really happy in a more senior position. You can’t just stay moving up the career ladder in one place these days. So then while I was [at The Sunday Telegraph] I was offered the job at Vogue as features editor. I came back to Condé Nast and I’ve been here since.
I would be lying if I said I have the same feeling of familiarity and confidence with digital media as I do with print. I’m really still learning about it and I’m very excited about a lot of the opportunities that [digital media] offers but I don’t yet think my judgment is as sound when it comes to what works, or doesn’t work, online. It’s such a different form of media, the way people gain their information and how they process it. That much I do know — what people take away from what they read or see digitally is very different from what they take away when they read or see it in print.
I read the newspapers every morning before I come to the office – The Guardian and The Daily Mail. Then during the day I’ll look at our daily news on Vogue.com but I don’t look at any other sites. I don’t look at much news during the day at all; I don’t surf the Internet. Quite literally, I don’t have the time.
I get in to the office around 9:30 a.m. normally and I try not to engage with emails until then. I like to leave it, unless there’s something urgent, so that I can sit down and get onto my computer and reply to any emails alongside my regular mail and then I’ve normally got a day scheduled ahead of me — meeting designers or PRs or one-on-one with members of my team. I’ve got about 50 people in [the Vogue] office and we find the only way that everybody knows what’s happening is if you get them in a room together. Not obviously all 50 at the same time but with their respective teams, every day there’s the meeting – it’ll either be the fashion meeting or the features meeting or the visuals meeting or the budget meeting. Suddenly that’s the week structured with meetings. Sometimes I’ll go and have lunch with a colleague, maybe but that’s not normal — I’ll usually work straight through until the late afternoon and then quite often I’ll go to a work dinner or an event or I’ll be hosting something.
There are 19 international editions of Vogue and we are, after American Vogue, the most successful edition. And we have a specific slot in the Vogue world, because we’re not as commercial as American Vogue, say, but we’re certainly more commercial than something like Italian Vogue. We’re in a pretty unique position because we’re trying to balance selling really quite a lot of copies with being a high-fashion magazine. There are very few magazines engaging in the kind of fashion we do that sell the number of copies that we do. In Europe I can’t think of another one actually. And we’ve had a fantastically profitable year. Our print circulation is down, yes but our digital circulation is growing and our subscriptions have held up — we’re not having the same dips as a lot of newspapers and magazines are. A lot of the magazines in this country are suffering pretty badly and we’re not having a bad time of this.
I’m very good at hiring people; I’m really good at spotting talent and quite good at working with people — a lot of [my Vogue staff] have stayed with me a long time. As a magazine editor you’re like an orchestra’s conductor. Your role is to bring everything together — it may be that you can play the cello but you can’t play the flute. That doesn’t mean to say you can’t work with the flautist. I don’t claim to be able to do everything myself; you have to play to your strengths. I read every word in the magazine: every caption, headline, pull quote, stanza. I write the cover lines, I do all of that — but no, I don’t ever style a fashion shoot.
So I approach fashion shows very differently than [other fashion editors]. I think to some extent that’s my strength. As a fashion editor you look at fashion and runway shows and you’re working out how to turn them into the shoots you’re going to work on. I’m looking at the shows and I’m thinking, well, what are people going to wear? [As an editor], that’s quite a helpful perspective to have.
Within the fashion industry, I don’t think we’re trying to portray a real world either on the catwalk or in shoots. I love fashion imagery and the creativity it allows. I’m all for slim models, you know, but I do think that people who aren’t in the industry don’t understand or particularly like this predilection for really, really thin girls — and I just don’t get why it has to be that way. I don’t think it’s helpful and I don’t think it’s healthy and I’m going to carry on saying so as long as anybody will listen to me. It certainly wouldn’t be a sustained campaign [on my part] if something were just done about it.
Retouching, though, I think is slightly different — there’s always been image manipulation, even in the earliest fashion photography. Look at what Cecil Beaton did with lenses, for example. Think of Penn’s models in his black and white pictures and their absolutely perfect skin, the hairlines that were absolutely clean and crisp, as if someone had drawn a black line along it. That’s all been done through retouching. We’ve got fantastic images here in the Vogue archive where you can see, literally, where someone’s taken a scalpel to an image of a model’s body and cut inches away afterward. The idea that digital retouching is doing something radically different to what was already done is just wrong. I think it’s part of an artistic creation of imagery, and I don’t have a problem with that. The problem is if people who look at that think it’s representational of reality.
Models are thin. They always have been and I reckon they’re going to go on being thin for some time still. Given that it’s aimed at relatively young women, it was very important to me when we started work on Miss Vogue, that we weren’t showing off models who looked unhealthy. But it wasn’t a particular driving force in creating the magazine altogether. I don’t think anyone would launch a new print magazine like Miss Vogue in this country right now — the economy is in no kind of shape to sustain it. But we’re intending to carry on producing it [as a regular supplement] to the main magazine. It’s worked out very well for us, it’s engaged people who haven’t looked at Vogue and we’ve all loved working on it.
I’ve often hired people to do things they’ve never done before —when I was at Tatler I was one of the first people who encouraged Issie Blow to work on portrait sittings. At the time she was just working as a fashion assistant, not doing any shoots; I suggested she try out as a sort of “fashion portraitist.” Nigella Lawson, for example, had never written a cookery column before I hired her. I’ve even had fashion editors here who’ve never done shoots before. Tiina Laakonen is one — she’d never done a fashion shoot before I took her on and she’s doing fantastically well now.
I look for, I suppose, an interesting frame of mind really. [In an interview] I’m not necessarily just looking for their proficiency in just doing exactly what I thought I needed them to do. I do like people to be articulate and I need them them to explain to me what it is they are doing — and want to do for Vogue. But you don’t want everybody to be some kind of wacky original. Sometimes you just need someone who is a fantastically organized pair of hands who you can rely on 24 hours a day. They’re just as valuable.
If you’re starting out in the industry, the first thing to do is just take any opportunity you get given — even if it’s not to do something you think you want to do. The foot in the door is just so valuable. Then you have to be really helpful and sort of engage with the people in the office, just not in an irritating, in-your-face sort of way. Be tactful, but alert — if you see someone and you’re not doing anything, go up to them and say, “Is there anything I can help you with?” That way they’re at least going to get to know your name, which they might not have. The very basic things remain terribly important: accuracy, spelling, taking down a phone number correctly and passing on messages. These are the things our interns at Vogue do, and they are the things that get noticed. We have lots of interns coming through the office and, you know, if you’re good everybody remembers you; if you’re not good you get forgotten. A lot of people who get hired here have come through the intern program so it’s definitely worth putting some effort into it.
There’s a very real debate to be had about the intern business. I completely understand that it’s unfair if people whose family or friends can financially support them doing unpaid internships get ahead whereas people who don’t have that support miss out. But then part of me just thinks, well, life isn’t fair — and so why would it be better that nobody should benefit from internships at all? To me doesn’t seem right either.
Also, now [the current law in England] that you can only keep people for three weeks is ridiculous. I don’t think it’s a constructive piece of legislation at all. At Condé Nast now, for example, once you’ve been here at Vogue for three weeks you can’t even move to another magazine within the company, like GQ or Glamour, for example. It’s much harder to make an impression in such a short period of time, and you’re going to learn so much less — if you spend six weeks or two months at a magazine you’re going to gain much more in terms of experience.
—As told to Alex Rees.
Full disclosure: In 2008 I went through Vogue’s internship program, as described above, after placing second in the 2007 British Vogue Talent Contest. (It was a great experience, though I once accidentally returned an editor’s Burberry trenchcoat to the label’s PR showroom after mistaking it for a sample.)