It was a departure that one of her colleagues described as “rather stylish”, coming exactly 25 years and a day since Alexandra Shulman’s appointment as editor of British Vogue – and a century after the fashion bible was founded.
With both a style and magazine described as a “very British”, Shulman’s departure also marks the end of a rivalry much-loved by fashion journalists between her and the equally British Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue and said to be the model for the terrifying Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada.
In departing, Shulman indicated that recent ventures beyond the magazine – a behind-the-scenes BBC documentary, Absolutely Fashion, and a well-received book, Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year – had made her realise there was a life beyond a magazine she had edited since the age of 34.
“I realised that I very much wanted to experience a different life and look forward to a future separate to Vogue,” she said.
During Shulman’s tenure at Vogue – circulation has increased 12% to 195,053 in the past 25 years – she has championed both British fashion and London fashion week, now one of the “big four” fashion events.
She has a reputation for supporting British designers without quite fitting the image of a perfectly stylish fashion editor. While other international Vogue editors such as Wintour in the US and Carine Roitfeld in France are considered icy style icons, Shulman laughingly told the Guardian of being presented in one feature as the “chain-smoking 50-year-old Toyota-driving divorcee”.
When she was appointed it was suggested that she “could become better acquainted with a hairbrush”, according to the New York Times. But Shulman used her reputation to define her magazine. “She was never starry in a very conscious way. It was quite British, just like her magazine,” said one senior colleague.
While US Vogue is known for its glossy and expensive US sportswear shoots, the British edition is considered more creative and original, even bohemian. Although the rivalry with Wintour is real, according to magazine insiders, it is entirely professional. In the BBC documentary Shulman is shown scooping a planned Wintour exclusive by putting Rihanna on the cover. “It’s all journalistic pride. They get on fine,” said one senior colleague.
Plum Sykes, contributing editor of US Vogue who started her career as a junior assistant under Shulman in the 1990s, said: “She is very British, very laid-back. I am sure her Manolos are muddy. But she has done a good job, especially for British fashion.”
Shulman has said: “It does amaze me when people say ‘Well, you don’t look like the editor of Vogue’. Because I am the editor of Vogue. So what else does the editor of Vogue look like?”
In an interview with the Observer she also talked openly about using Xanax to deal with panic attacks. Given that her life might appear “sort of lovely and easy” to outsiders, she said: “I think it’s quite good to show you’ve had bad things happen as well.”
Turning 60 later this year, those close to Shulman said she was still to decide what she would do next. A former newspaper columnist who wrote her first novel, Can We Still Be Friends, a few years ago, she is expected to write more.
Names in the frame to replace her include current deputy Emily Sheffield, the sister of Samantha Cameron.
The oldest of three children brought up in Belgravia, she attended St Paul’s school in London. After a degree in social anthropology from the University of Sussex she worked briefly for two recording labels before becoming a secretary at Over 21 magazine. Her first journalistic job was at Tatler, also part of Condé Nast and which had also employed her brother as art director.
Within eight years she was editing men’s magazine GQ, where she increased sales by 30%, and two years after that she was made editor of Vogue.
Her mother, Drusilla Beyfus, was Vogue associate editor in the 70s while her father, Milton Shulman, had been Vogue film critic, prompting Coleridge to say that Vogue was “almost in her blood” when she was appointed.
Despite this, she has always told interviewers that having two parents who were journalists meant she had “wanted to be a hairdresser”, or a musician.
In 2015 she wrote about how glad she was to return to work when her only son, now 21 and a history of art student, was 15 weeks old.
Although she has refused to publish articles lauding diets or cosmetic surgery, Vogue has been no stranger to controversy. In the early 1990s a Kate Moss shoot was criticised for encouraging “heroin chic” and in 1997, the watchmaker Omega pulled an ad campaign because of the issue.
Early on, Shulman appeared to dismiss these complaints by saying “Not many people have actually said to me that they have looked at my magazine and decided to become anorexic.”
But in 2009, she wrote a letter to major international fashion houses complaining that their “minuscule” sample sizes were forcing fashion editors to use models with “jutting bones”. Her January 2017 issue featured a plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover.
On the weight issue, she said: “What is an issue is to try to make young women feel more comfortable with how they look in general and not feel they have to look a cookie-cutter way to be a success in life. That’s really what I’m interested in.”