“It’s difficult because you’re aware there are people who will think, ‘Who is this complete tosser who thinks lipstick’s important?’” But, having spent a lot of time looking at what Vogue did during the war — over two wars — you realise that those things do matter, and don’t look completely out of whack with what’s going on. People really care about making themselves feel presentable.”
I am discussing the stockpiling of hair dye with Alexandra Shulman, CBE, former editor-in-chief of British Vogue for some quarter of a century, and a not-unrelated 62. Both of us are aware of sounding Marie Antoinettish at a time when people are dying. However, as her new book Clothes … and Other Things That Matter makes clear, how we rig ourselves out does matter, not least in a time of crisis. Clothes is the perfect isolation read — clever, emotionally intelligent, revelling in style without making us yearn to shop. Shulman will narrate the audiobook, so we can have her as a glamorous Covid companion.
Shulman is doing lockdown in her west London Victorian terrace with her partner, the Tatler journalist David Jenkins, 72, and her 25-year-old son, Sam. Her mother, the nonagenarian writer Drusilla Beyfus, is across town in Belgravia. For Mother’s Day, Shulman made a pudding, then drove some to her mother’s doorstep, so that the family could eat the same thing over Skype. So how is her corona?
“There are people who will think, ‘Who is this complete tosser who thinks lipstick’s important?’”
“I’m not going to think about what’s going to be happening in June,” she tells me. “I’m not naturally an optimist, but, over this, I have come to be. I was actually quite grateful for Boris Johnson’s ‘We’re going to beat it in 12 weeks’, or whatever. We know the vaccine isn’t going to come in 12 weeks, but I’d rather hear that than someone say, ‘The vaccine is not going to come.’”
She writes about anxiety in the book. Is it right that she was taking anti-anxiety medication the whole time she was at Vogue? “Yeah. I don’t really want to go into what sort. When I first started having panic attacks, nobody knew what was the matter. Now the first thing people would say is, ‘I think you’re probably having a panic attack,’ whereas everyone’s go-to was, ‘I wonder if she’s got something the matter with her heart?’ I don’t think there was any real knowledge. [Diagnosis] took about three months, during which time I constantly thought I was going to die.”
Has leaving such a high-profile job made her less fretful? “Oddly, I never had any anxiety about work. I recently told a former colleague, ‘I find it really odd, but I’m not anxious about coronavirus.’ And she said, ‘That’s absolutely typical: you were anxious about the tiny things, never about the big ones.’”
It’s been interesting to find herself not far off the most vulnerable age group. “Covid-19 has meant it’s not possible to deny you are the age you are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re healthy, or slim, if you’re in the 70-plus group you’re in it. Whatever I think, it’s a case of: ‘You’re 62, you’re in an older demographic.’”
“I recently told a former colleague, ‘I find it really odd, but I’m not anxious about coronavirus.’ And she said, ‘That’s absolutely typical: you were anxious about the tiny things, never about the big ones.’”
And boomers told themselves they’d be for ever young? “Yeah, it’s the baby boomers who are whammo-ed on this one. And I’m fascinated how the wealthy cannot deal with it because they have been able to spend their way out of everything, and, suddenly, they can’t spend their way out of this. People are behaving in such a mad way because they’ve lost the control that their money has bought them.”
Is she worried about Jenkins’s health? “I’m heartless!” I remind her of the Joan Collins line about her husband: “If he dies, he dies!” “Yeah,” she notes, “but she is older than Percy and I’m not older than David. We are so privileged. We’ve got rooms to work in, and the garden, there’s enough space.” A wry pause: “I mean we’re bickering all the time.” About? “Logistics.” Ironing is looming large, which feels suitably fashion.
“People are behaving in such a mad way because they’ve lost the control that their money has bought them.”
What of the industry — all the clever little British brands that will inevitably be a casualty? “But they will rise up again afterwards and there’ll be even more of an appetite. Creativity thrives in times of adversity.”
Will she carry on buying clothes during lockdown? “Yes, I will, because buying clothes makes me feel happy. I’m not going to buy tons, but there will come a point where I’ll see something and I’ll think, ‘I really know that’s going to make me feel happy,’ and I will buy it.”
In the book, she deals very elegantly with the unhappiness that spiralled out of her departure from Vogue, and the acrimonious crossover that occurred when her successor, Edward Enninful, was appointed while she was still in situ. He fired its fashion director of 25 years, while models who were close to him pulled out of jobs pending his arrival. As Shulman writes: “A narrative was growing up around British Vogue being a place that was filled with ‘posh white girls’ that he [Enninful, who is black] would be getting rid of.” Naomi Campbell backed Enninful, accusing critics of a racist vendetta.
Does she still read the magazine? “Yeah, I do.” And? “I don’t think it’s really for me to critique it, or compliment it. I think Vogue is bigger than any one editor. And, you know, Edward has his passions and his talents and his mission that he wants to do with it. They’re not the same as mine, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong to have them, or that it’s a worse magazine. It is different. But, I still think that Vogue is the thing that counts. I mean, you can ruin Vogue, but it would take a lot to do that. And I don’t think in any shape, size, or form, that’s what he’s doing. I mean, he’s very good on fashion.
“I mean, you can ruin Vogue, but it would take a lot to do that.”
“But, I think, you know, since you’re going to be asking me anyway, there’s no, you know … I am … I’m sad that I worked there for 25 years and that when I left that kind of bitterness emerged. When I took over Vogue I really promoted the legacy of what my predecessor had done, so to be made a sort of persona non grata I think was unnecessary and really surprising.”
What about the argument that Enninful’s Vogue reflects a celebrity and industry elite? “I certainly don’t want to comment on that. What I will add to that is that it’s much more now what it was before I went in: more internalised about the fashion industry. The reason why I was given the job was because I was outside the industry, and was brought in to broaden it. I think now it’s reverted more to how it was prior to my being there.”
It must be a relief to no longer be held personally responsible for every anorexic in the country? “That whole question of body image was something that I did a lot of work on, so it’s one of the things that I slightly miss; being able to sort of get involved in issues like that.” Still, it must be good to have the focus taken off her own body? As she remarks in the book: “‘size 14 — and happy’ loomed loudly”. On holiday, shortly after she left the magazine, she instagrammed an image of herself in a bikini, then went for a swim. She returned to find it global news. Her successor’s weight is never discussed, despite his not being beanpoleish.
Leaving Vogue has restored her love of dressing. “Clothes! I have fallen back in love with clothes. I have much more fun with them and I’ve bought quite a lot since I left; things that were more like the person that would’ve bought them when I was 18 — patterns and denim.”
She certainly looks fantastic in a vintage Balenciaga skirt, adorned with plush pink threads, teamed with faux snakeskin cowboy boots. Despite the two Chanel jackets she was presented with on taking up her post, and the bespoke 90mm white Manolos that became her trademark, she wasn’t in it for the freebies. She begins the book by counting up the contents of her wardrobe: 529 items. Given that it includes not only bags, shoes and scarves, but every pair of knickers, socks and tights, for a hardcore fashion maven said stash seems relatively modest.
“I have fallen back in love with clothes.”
Was there an invisibility that came of leaving the magazine, in addition to the invisibility of middle age? “I don’t feel invisible at all,” she counters. “I’ve always heard this thing people say about middle-age invisibility, and it’s something I don’t feel, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe I never felt visible? When you’re used to people looking at you and thinking you’re so sexy or beautiful, then you probably are going to miss it. I feel very lucky that that’s not how I feel, but I’m also aware there’s something slightly weird about it.”
It’s suspicious, I inform her. “Yeah, I know, it sounds like you can’t possibly be telling the truth.” So do you feel more or less confident as you get older? “The same. People have body dysmorphia, and my body dysmorphia is probably that I’m more confident than I ought to be.” I tell her that, rather than worry about the size of my backside, I have simply never looked at it. “No,” she agrees. “Why would you?” It’s an attitude some of us miss.