A third of the way into the book, and there it is. En route to Stella McCartney’s shop in central London, Alexandra Shulman drops into Jigsaw, which has “really good, well-priced, easy clothes”, she writes in her diary of Vogue’s 100th year. There’s more. “I could do with a few pairs of their trousers,” she continues, “which fit me very well.”
“Oh yes,” Shulman recalls, when the topic comes up at the start of our conversation. “My sister was wearing a pair of trousers about 18 months ago and I asked her where she got them from. She said Jigsaw. A friend of hers, who has very good taste, said Jigsaw trousers are the best trousers. And you do really great coats. I love the knitwear. Nice fabrics. So I thought, I haven’t been there for ages…”
Shulman pauses. How could this possibly get any better? “I went in there again recently but I couldn’t find anything [that day].”
She’s not rude, nor is she trying to be funny. But the plain speaking and deadpan delivery results in just that: laughter.
To those who don’t inhabit it, fashion can seem like a different dimension, a fantasy world. With that surface view, the editor-in-chief of British Vogue may at times appear displaced. There are still comparisons with Anna Wintour, the icy, polished, editor-in-chief of US Vogue. If you believe what you read, some have suggested Shulman wasn’t “fashion enough” to edit British Vogue when she took up the mantle. That was 25 years ago.
But there’s something unreal about Wintour; she’s a character, armed with the perfect bob, the trademark sunglasses. Shulman, by contrast, appears to have no armour, nothing to hide behind. Given how much she has achieved, this makes her all the more remarkable and, as a result, intimidating.
Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year is an open account by Shulman of the events leading up to the magazine’s centenary celebrations. For every top-secret cover shoot with the Duchess of Cambridge there is a broken boiler, a battle with the local refuse collection or her sick cat. There are reflections on motherhood. Shulman writes of being “absolutely terrified”, insomnia featuring regularly in her entries.
“I wanted to get that mixture in,” says Shulman of the fashion-meets-normal approach. “It was completely deliberate. It is odd that one minute you’re doing something ostensibly very glamorous and yet, like everyone else, you have your normal domestic life going on. At the moment, I don’t think people
are interested in people who are living the perfect existence. And so, I was self-aware enough to know that it was better for me as a character to expose more of myself and also the anxiety of things.”
Shulman “as a character”? Maybe her armour is, in fact, to lay herself bare. The anxiety is plain to read, but at no point do you think she will crumble. Instead, she is measured, calm, witty – qualities that will get you the editor’s gig at a fashion magazine for a quarter of a century.
By Ana Santi