Posted on February 1, 2013
You’d think editing the UK’s biggest fashion magazine would be quite enough of a challenge for Alexandra Shulman. But the head honcho at Vogue found herself craving to put pen to paper in a very different way and two years ago started writing her first fictional novel, Can We Still Be Friends. To celebrate the visionary editor’s latest achievement which is out this month, Alexandra came to Topshop Oxford Circus for one of our first Topshop Talks. Our Chief Marketing Officer, the imitable Justin Cooke, took to Topshop’s EDITED space with Shulman amongst a flurry of budding fashion students, aspiring journalists and other Vogue lovers to ask some questions about the mysteries of the fashion world, the challenges of writing a novel and what item of clothing every girl just has to have.
You are best known as Editor of Vogue but you’ve just written your debut novel, Can We Still Be Friends. Can you tell us a little bit about the book first?
It’s a story of three young women who’ve left university, it’s about them going out into the world to work out, figuring out what they want to do with their lives, what their relationship with their parents is and what jobs they want to do. It’s about how growing up changes the relationships between the friends. I just thought of it one day! I had gone back home from work to change for an event and it was pouring with rain and I was in this black cab coming into town. I suddenly had this vision. Nowadays you have Instagram, but in my day we had photo booth pictures where there’s three of you smiling in a row of pictures. I saw these three faces. And I suddenly though, I really want to write about these three faces! A big part is also their love lives. It was a big part of my life in my early twenties so that’s a big part of the book.
How long did it take from the idea to seeing the book in front of you now?
It took about two years. But I have another job as well!
What made you decide that now was the time to write the book?
I thought about writing the books the way a lot of you I imagine had thought about writing a book. But then I never wrote a book! It’s bit like I’ve never been to India. And I was thinking the time was passing and if I didn’t start to try and write a book I’d never know whether I could. So I made a decision to try and I started writing it and I found an agent and my lovely agent found the lovely Penguin publisher and it went from there. But it wasn’t a moment of – wow, I have a story to tell- it took a little more thinking for that.
Tell us a little about the characters in the book for those who haven’t yet had the chance to read it.
Well there’s three girls; Sal, Annie and Kendra. Sal is the journalist and I guess the only thing we have in common is that she works on a Sunday paper. It’s set in 1983 and Sal is a completely wild girl, she’s bright and ambitious but her life is a bit of a mess. Kendra is the daughter of very rich parents and wants to do something very different from them and discover herself. So, she goes on a bit of an emotional journey. The one who I’m most like is Annie who goes to work for a PR company – although that I’ve never done – but all she wants to do is have a boyfriend and get married and at that age, that was much more my motivation than have a career. A career sort of came upon me more than being my main ambition.
The book was set in the ‘80s. Did you go look back at old films to be inspired?
Well I did tones of research! I was incredibly lucky because at Vogue we have this incredible library downstairs so I went and read all of the magazines from the ’80s like Vogue, Tatler, House & Gardens, American Vogue to steep myself in the period. I joined the London library at St James’ and they have a fantastic microfilm of newspapers. As I wrote the book I become more and more obsessed with what was happening in the ‘80s, from Thatcherism to the Miner’s Strike to the advent of Pret a Manger, mobile phones. It because a big part of the story, what life was like back then. And it was fascinating to see how different it was to now but I hadn’t even really realised.
Who were your role models when you were growing up?
I had different role models at different times. My parents were both journalists but far from inspiring me to do what I did I was determined not to do the same thing as them. But it was only after trying various other things that I found myself by accident as a temp in a magazine and then I discovered I of course did like magazines and I was quite good at it. But mainly it would be musicians, my heroines were people Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde.
I heard that you studied social anthropology at Uni?
I refused to do it for a long time and the my father bought me a book called The Golden Bough and on the back it talked about myth and magic and the way society worked together. And I thought this sounds like something I did, in myths and magic. So I did this subject not really knowing what it was! But it’s nothing like that at all. It’s quite a serious subject on the study of cross-cultural sociology really. Finding the ways that people are different and the similarities between societies. So I learned a little bit about a lot of subjects – politics, economics. And the thing I most liked was the idea of a tribe and that’s something I’m always referring to in the magazine, an idea that in fashion there’s a tribal attitude to dress. People identify themselves as part of a tribe in some extent by how they dress. We’re always doing articles and features about these tribes mainly because of my degree coming out.
Your first few jobs were all working in the music industry and that didn’t work out. What happened?
I was fired from both my music jobs, one after six weeks, one after four months. I don’t know why. They didn’t like me! And then I was jobless but I had done short course in typing in my summer and in those days you could get temping jobs really easy, just go to a temp agency and if you could do shorthand well they would send you somewhere. I’d go anywhere! And one of the places was this temp agency sent me was a magazine.
Ten years later, you were at Vogue?
It was about thirteen years and then I was at Vogue.
What qualities did you have to succeed at such a young age?
Well I wasn’t that young. I was 34 when I went to Vogue. I think it was much easier back then. I wasn’t unusual. There were lots of people who’s career path was the same as mine. I was very lucky and one of the things that comes up in the book is that time in the ‘80s I was a very lucky recipient of the fact that everybody wanted a young woman in the office. There was lots of new media starting like the Independent launched then, breakfast television launched then, a lot of the colour supplements that now exist and the Sunday newspapers. Everybody thought that if they were going to look young and modern, they needed young women. So I actually had lots of jobs because I was lucky. It’s not like that now!
Was it easier then?
It’s different. There’s different areas now and with digital there’s a whole new world of jobs. There’s a much more international world and its more parochial and refined to where you were and I was of course, was in London.
As an editor over the last three or four years how has that impacted you?
Well we have a brilliant website called Vogue.co.uk which until this year I didn’t edit but I am now the Editor in Chief of. So, although I can’t take any credit for how great the content is up there but now I’m much more involved and I’m learning a lot about it. The Vogue app too is great so you can read it on an iPad with extra content too and I edit that too. But I used to have a job that was putting out a magazine once a month and that was my job and now that’s about 1/5th of the job I do because there are so many other things involved.
Do you think as it goes forward, do you feel like you have to see around the corner?
Well you’ve always got to be looking ahead. It is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine and I will say it to everyone here but you have to spend money and buy things! If everything you experience you want to get for free, in the end the content wont be produced. For us the magazine is the money making tool that allows us to put Vogue.co.uk up. If we didn’t have a magazine that people spent £4 a month on we wouldn’t be able to put our website up. And it’s the same with newspapers. We’re at a very difficult stage at the moment because you can get a lot of entertainment and content without having to spend any money but ultimately that content won’t exist if people don’t start paying for it. I’m sure there’ll be a time when £20 a year can get you access to the website but at the moment everyone’s too scared to do it. It’s the dilemma we’re all battling with. But the magazine pays all our salaries and I love it. I absolutely love it as a physical object, it’s a very special magazine and I like my books too. I haven’t totally gone over to the e-book either.
How do you always manage to judge a cover and know what people are after?
You don’t! You make some terrible mistakes. All you can do in everything is trust your own judgement. As an editor that’s what you do. I don’t really create anything for the magazine. My fashion editors create the shoots, my feature editors create the articles with the writers and the beauty editors do the beauty stories. My job is just to make a call and I guess you have to have the confidence that what you’re doing is right. And sometimes it’s not right but hopefully it’s more often right, than not. But the wonderful thing about Vogue is that you can experiment a bit. We’re given the license to do that. It’s not a very formulaic magazine.
You described your life as “work dominated and not particularly glamorous” can you expand?
Well I think that was when someone was asking me about my working day – do you just go to nice parties and nice restaurants, getting free clothes? And I was like, not really! I’m sitting at my desk practically all day everyday. Sitting on a computer, chatting to people. By most peoples’ standards it is pretty glamorous but it is hard work too.
Would you ever let anyone film you behind the scenes?
We are often approached to do this. About five years ago I changed my mind and decided, yes we’ll do it. So a production company sent in this really lovely girl to film us to make a documentary on Vogue but they found us all so nice and well behaved and boring that they gave up. They wanted ‘trouble at the top’ or some sort of drama and there weren’t any! And if there were, they weren’t getting anywhere near it.
New government regulations have put pressure on internship policies. How do you feel about that? Within journalism it’s a massive part of their career?
The intern question is a really complicated one. At Vogue we do a 3 week work experience programme which anyone can apply for and we interview before and we spend three weeks and it’s very structured and you get to work in every department and I have my managing editor that has been doing this for years and she’s brilliant with it. She has an exit interview too where she finds what you thought about it and talks you through what you’ve done right or wrong so it’s an educative thing. And I think that’s fine and I know people who come often wish they could stay longer. But I don’t think it’s right for people to come and be unpaid for open periods of time. But I do think a lot of people would prefer to be in an office, picking stuff up and making contacts than not be. And I think the government legislation is wrong on this and making it so hard for people to intern long enough for anyone to actually learn anything that’s helpful for them.
Tell us a little bit about the new Conde Nast College.
It’s not to do with me but it’s a college opening in April and it’s set up to provide an education at the moment ten week courses to learn… almost a foundation course in the fashion business. It’s not about design or journalism, it’s a little bit about everything. Susie Forbes who’s running it, she came to see me today and we were talking about lecturers and whether they could come into the office and intern here. In October they’re starting a year long one too. It’s more for people who’ve graduated and think they want to work in fashion but don’t know what area or it could be someone who doesn’t know what they want to go and who’s parents are very kindly going to pay for the course and they might find what they want to do.
Does this diversification strengthen the brand?
Yes, it’s what we call brand extensions. I think everyone is realising if you have a strong name or identity then you should find different things, like the school is using the Vogue name and the festival I’m in the middle of organising. We did one last year and this year it’s the same, we’re getting fantastic speakers in where you can buy tickets to the talk but once you’re in the space you can watch Vogue cover shoots and there’s cafes and make up demonstrations. So it’s a bit of a fashion fair with fashion talks, it’s a great way of reaching another audience. You don’t make an enormous amount of money doing those things but you make more and more people interested in what you’re doing which is fun
You’ve been a huge champion of British design, is this something you’re passionate about?
Yeah, I think if we don’t support British designers then we can’t expect anyone else to! Basically magazines are financed through advertising, mos British designers can’t afford to advertise so to some extent, we don’t cover people who advertise but to give a lot of space to people who don’t advertise I guess is philanthropic. But I totally support British designers. I think we have some of the greatest designers in the world and always have done. But I have to say that Topshop has been amazing. The NEWGEN which has supported all these guys throughout – at the crucial stage I think has made an enormous difference. Being able to have shows and things at the Topshop showspace has brought them to the attention of an international audience. So, yes we have supported then but you guys have too!
And you’re launching Miss Vogue, can you tell us a bit more about that?
It’s a one off, a magazine but we’re selling it with the June issue of Vogue. It’s not a supplement, it’s a proper magazine. We’re doing it because we were doing some research on the magazine and one thing that came up again and again that they fell in love with Vogue at a young age – under twenty – and I thought it would be great if we created magazine that was specifically speaking for that age range who perhaps don’t have the budget. And I suggested it to my office and everybody was just so excited about doing it so it’s turning into the most exciting projects we’ve done. And if it works well, then we might think about doing it on a more regular basis
If there was one part of the book that you’d say – this is my favourite part, what would it be?
Yes, there’s one bit that happened to me. One of the girls in the story Annie she’s discovered the man she’s passionately in love with is having an affair with someone else and makes a date to break up with him. So they sit in this park and she’s got a completely broken heart and she starts to cry and he says to her, “don’t worry, tears don’t stain.” And somebody said that to me when I was broken-hearted over them and it was so great to write those words – what a ridiculous thing to say when someone’s crying over you!
A pair of knickers!?
What’s your favourite item you’ve ever bought from Topshop?
I do shop at Topshop. Probably a Mary Katrantzou digital print t-shirt – I really love that.
Which young designer are you most excited about?
I can’t say that, It wouldn’t be fair! But Erdem and Christopher Kane and Jonathan Saunders have done an amazing job at making the eyes of the world look at London. And now there’s a whole new generation of designers – Peter Pilotto, Nicholas Kirkwood, Meadham Kirschoff, Mary Katrantzou… I really can go on and on!
How was your career path to where you are now?
I started off in magazine called Over 21 where I was a secretary and I got a job on the back of an article I wrote. I then went into newspapers and came back as a features editor at Vogue at 28 I never in a million years thought that I would ever go back to work as editor. People don’t believe me but when I first when to Vogue I knew so little about fashion I didn’t even know the collections happened twice a year, it does seem strange!
How did you manage editing the magazine and writing the novel?
Good question! I’m very good at compartmentalizing. I have a child and ever since he was little I’ve been able to go to work and forget I have a child and then come home and forget I have a job. With the book I would get up very early at 5am make a huge jug of coffee and not think about work. And also do that on the weekend and then switch off. I think it is a lucky skill to have. I’m not terribly disciplined to be honest.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
Well I think any work experience you can get is good. But you shouldn’t stay in the same place for very long. Work experience is totally invaluable. Journalism is still a very contact based, networking profession – the more people you meet the more likely you are to find something. Also, read! It’s so important to read magazines, newspapers and books, you need to learn how to write. A lot of people now don’t do that. Come up with idea but don’t just pitch the same idea to everybody, really think about who you’re pitching to and what their readership is. Sometimes people pitch me things that I can see in the Sunday Times or Glamour magazine so why would I commission that? You need something very specific but it does work.
What are the mistakes you think you’ve made in covers?
A couple of years ago we did an issue dedicated to music, fashion and art and had Kate Moss on the front styled up as David Bowie and I love it! I am still incredibly proud of it but it sold half as many issues! Another one I particularly liked that also did very badly was a big gate fold cover that Mario Testino shot with all the British models all dressed in Union Jack flags that designers had made into dresses but it was just as we went into Iraq, just after 9/11. Those are my two big failures!
What authors inspire you?
I like a lot of American writers: Joan Didion, I love Phillip Roth. I have to say the most brilliant book I read recently is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and it’s a thriller and when I was judging the Orange prize two years ago and I remember thinking that was very good. I read an enormous amount of fiction and I have quite Catholic tastes so I could go on and on about favourite writers.
You said you originally worked in music, would you ever want to go into that industry now?
I think the music industry is incredibly inspiring. I still buy tons of music and listen to masses of music. I’m too old to be in the music industry now but I think I’m still good at finding things early on.
Do you think fashion can have a say in politics?
Well it’s interesting because I spent a lot of today trying to put together a panel for the Vogue Festival on the subject of Can Fashion Be a Force for Good and I’ve been thinking about the question and where or how fashion should get involved and basically I think it’s great for people to be part of a debate. And I always think fashion designers should be more engaged in political debate, I think people should be able to make statements. Sometimes it’s difficult because if you’re selling something and what you say may alienate some people, so I guess that’s why people are scared of doing it.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Somebody said to me, you can always change your mind and that’s been quite useful. If you make a decision you don’t have to be too scared you realise whatever you decide is not irreversible. But my own advice is if you think something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing. Don’t think just because you can’t do something as well or better than somebody else you shouldn’t do it. You just have to try things.
What’s your most valued piece of clothing?
I have a skirt I bought in ’93, a black pencil skirt by Australian designer Collette Dinigan with little flowers in red, green and white. It’s satin. And I’ve never had a bad time when I’ve worn that skirt.
What’s your recipe for success?
You can’t really say how you succeed because you never feel like you have succeeded. I’ve been helped by being true to myself and not trying to be something that I wasn’t and always being very honest. Especially coming to fashion so late, I didn’t pretend I knew everything when lots of the people who were working for me knew a great deal more. Be completely honest.
We hope you enjoyed hearing what Alexandra said as much as we did! Make sure you keep checking back to find out when our next Topshop Talks will be.