'I don't know why women have created such impossible standards for themselves'

By Celia Walden ( China Daily ) Updated: 2017-06-24 07:14:09

Alexandra Shulman on life after Vogue

Alexandra Shulman and I are discussing what she's going to steal from the stationery cupboard on her last day at Vogue later this month. You can never have enough Post-its, I tell her. Then again Tipp-Ex, paper clips: those Rymans bills can really add up. She nods - worried, all of a sudden. "Gosh, I haven't given nearly enough thought to what I'm going to steal. Pens, probably?"

We're in a Cond�� Nast meeting room because Shulman's 5th floor office is "so full of packing boxes you can hardly get in there" and beneath the jocularity there's a poignancy. Twenty-five years is a long time in a job, and when the 59 year-old steps down from her position as the second longest serving Vogue Editor-in-Chief in the world (Anna Wintour is the first), it'll be like a long-caged animal being forced to relearn how to live in the wild. "I had to go and get my first mobile phone in twenty-five years the other day," she laughs, "and actually I was quite proud of myself for negotiating a good deal."

She is realistic enough to accept that "it will feel wildly exciting on a good day but more like a bereavement on a bad one," yet Shulman is adamant that she has made the right decision. "I want a richer mix of life and a bit more control over my existence. I have worked very hard at editing Vogue, so right now I do not want another job. I'm going to take quite a bit of time doing nothing. Actually I'm rather excited about being able to walk around the streets of London at 3 pm."

I expect she'll find the midafternoon street world as humdrum as it was a quarter of a century ago, but the Vogue she hands over to new editor, Edward Enninful OBE and the current creative and fashion director for W magazine in New York, will be a very different publication to the one she took over in 1992.

Her appointment, at 34, may have raised eyebrows in the industry (much more seemed to be made of her untamed hair and non-emaciated figure than any lack of experience) but with her journalistic background (her father, Milton Shulman, was the Evening Standard's theater critic for over 40 years and her mother, Drusilla Beyfus, used to edit Cond�� Nast's Brides magazine) her patriotism (she has criticized British designers for not showing at London Fashion Week), and her levelheadedness Shulman has made British Vogue accessible whilst keeping it aspirational - and built up the magazine's circulation, which has consistently hovered around the 200,000 point in her tenure.

"I hope I've made Vogue a much broader magazine both in terms of the characters that are featured in it and the world that it's about," she muses. "I remember when I first did a high street issue some people were horrified, because Vogue wasn't meant to address that. But I always wanted to make it a magazine for every person rather than for the industry."

That meant putting Crossrail engineers in the features pages and Victoria Beckham - before her reinvention was deemed credible - on the cover. "Nobody else would have done that then because they didn't think Victoria was 'Vogue', whereas I just thought that she was really interesting to a lot of people."

Unlike US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Shulman never bought into a Vogue-style private life. Ask Shulman whether she's ever had Beckham or any of the world's top designers and models over for supper to the Queen's Park home she shares with her journalist partner, David Jenkins, and she flings back: "No. Victoria's not a friend, but I like her and she likes me and I can pick up the phone to her if I need to."

Because there are now so few models "who really register in a commercial way" Shulman has developed different concerns to those she had in the 90s. "Back then you could be sure that if someone was famous and you had a reasonable picture of them, they would sell magazines. That's not necessarily true now."

When I ask how she feels about the likes of Kardashian and model Emily Ratajkowski stripping off on Instagram in the name of feminism, she grimaces. "Feminism has become one of those tricky concepts, because I think we all want to feel that women should have equal respect and absolutely equal rights. But just as I don't want to see a naked man on Instagram with the # 'alpha male', I don't want to see naked women with the # feminism. That's not what feminism is about. Feminism is about being proud of and happy with your body - particularly if you're leaving it absolutely as nature gave it to you.

She shakes her head: "I can't bear the whole 'empowering women' thing. It has become this catchphrase, but it doesn't actually mean anything. I particularly hate it when it is attached to anything commercial."

To remain as sensible and non-faddy as Shulman in an often whimsical, fad-peddling industry is impressive. And anyone mistaking either these comments or those made two years ago when she warned women not to expect their jobs to be reserved for them "in aspic" whilst they are off on maternity leave as unsisterly has got her wrong. A lot of the women at Vogue are the chief breadwinners, she tells me. As a single mother raising her now 22 year-old son, Sam - whom she had with her ex-husband, US citizen writer Paul Spike - "I didn't really feel that I could have a big job and not work full time," she admits. "My generation didn't, but I've noticed that many more women are prepared to sacrifice the full time aspect now and if you can sit down with your boss and have a civilized conversation about how to make that work, great."

One thing she will caution against is the notion that women "can have it all. Because of course men can't have it all either - but maybe they're not trying to," she sighs. "I don't know why women have created such impossible standards for themselves. Not just in their looks but in their whole lives. Maybe it's overcompensating: if you've come from being judged basically on your marriageability and emerged from that through a lot of fighting, maybe you think you can do everything. Well I'm a full believer that you can't. And I find it particularly depressing how perfectionist and judgmental so many women are about their own appearances. Because on the whole men aren't saying 'you're too fat and your legs are too hairy and you've got a double chin'. Women are doing that to themselves."

Although Shulman hasn't seen any evidence that women are worse at asking for raises than men in her tenure, she will point out one niggling Cond�� Nast discrepancy: "If you look at this company you'll see that the people at the top are almost all men. So that's not about asking for raises but something to do with the culture, whereby the highest paid people are all men - even though the company is basically aimed at women." Could this be, I wonder, her way of addressing rumors that Enninful - who will be Vogue's first male editor - has negotiated a substantial salary?

Whatever that figure may be, however, Shulman, does sound utterly confident that her successor will do a good job, adding that as a former GQ editor herself "it would be very hard for me to say that a man couldn't edit Vogue: I absolutely believe that a man can."

Shulman needs to get back to the September issue - her last. But I have one last question: will she manage to keep it together on her last day, as she and her packing cases exit the building? "I'm not a terribly weepy person but this is like leaving your family, so I'll almost definitely cry. But then I'll remember that lovely empty diary..."

And of course all that stolen stationery.

 'I don't know why women have created such impossible standards for themselves'

Alexandra Shulman poses in the winners room at the Fashion Awards 2016 in London.Neil Hall / Reuters

(China Daily 06/24/2017 page24)

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