Warm and approachable, Alexandra Shulman is the antithesis of a hard-boiled fashion queen. Elizabeth Day visits the long-serving British Vogue editor to talk about panic attacks, her first novel, and why she'd hate to be a young woman today.
Alexandra Shulman, as befits a woman who has been editor of British Vogue for 20 years, lives in an impeccably stylish house overlooking Queen's Park in northwest London. The floorboards are painted white and there is pretty wallpaper featuring birds in cages. Various mid-century chairs, upholstered in bright turquoise, are nonchalantly placed hither and thither. Even the black-and-white cat is called Coco (as in Chanel, one presumes).
In the midst of this paean to good taste stands 54-year-old Shulman, brewing strong coffee in the expansive kitchen (sand-coloured flagstone tiles; floor-to-ceiling glass). But despite the lightly worn sophistication of her house, Shulman herself is not what you might expect. Most of us imagine Vogue editors as groomed and terrifying, like the icy Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada who never had a hair out of place, but Shulman has already cracked a smile at least once this morning and her hair - well, how can I put this kindly? - her hair is an untamed mishmash of outgrown highlights. Her clothes are discreetly fashionable but unintimidating: a navy-blue cardigan, a knee-length patterned skirt and comfortable-looking Anya Hindmarch heels. And - shock, horror! - she eats. Actual, real, fattening stuff. "Would you like a croissant or something?" she asks, casually gesturing to a plate of pastries.
We are here to talk about Shulman's hotly anticipated first novel, Can We Still Be Friends, which charts the lives and loves of three female 20-somethings in 1980s London, but it proves impossible, after the croissants, not to get waylaid into a discussion about the culture of extreme thinness in the fashion industry. Shulman, by her own admission, is not model skinny - in ballet classes as a child, she was always cast as "the thunderstorm" while her friends were raindrops. Does she worry about her part in perpetuating a culture where skinniness is equated with beauty?
"I think it's one of the real blinkered aspects of the fashion industry," she admits, "and I find it very frustrating and I don't know quite where it comes from, but I think if I had to absolutely nail it, [it's] probably the designers, because they're the ones who are cutting the clothes so small. And if the girl can't fit into the clothes, then they won't get booked. So then you've got the model agent saying: 'You've got to lose weight.' And then, when it comes down the wire, the photographers - and to some extent the fashion editors - want to use the girls they think are the cool girls, and the cool girls are the ones who have got to be working with the designers, so it kind of feeds itself."
In June 2009, Shulman wrote a letter to major international fashion houses including Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Prada and Versace, complaining that their "minuscule" sample sizes were forcing fashion editors to use models with "jutting bones" and "no breasts or hips". And yet, Shulman concedes, not much seems to have changed in the three years since.
"I'm pleased I wrote it. Did it make any difference? I don't think so. But at least I tried to do something. I mean, there's no doubt that clothes to our kind of Western eye look better on a thinner frame, but there is a difference between a thin frame and an emaciated young girl and I do talk to designers about it all the time and I just think they can't see it, a lot of them."
Female as well as male designers? She looks dispirited. "Yeah, probably."
Interestingly, although Shulman's novel features three female protagonists, two of whom work in the media, none of them is ever shown worrying about their weight. Is she sick of talking about body image? She smiles. "No. I know I have to."
Writing the novel was something Shulman had always wanted to do, but for years she put it off. "I didn't have the time or an idea or think I could do it," she says. In the end, an agent approached her and she rattled off the manuscript for Can We Still Be Friends over 18 months, writing it in early mornings, over weekends and during holidays. The process was not without its upsets - she wrote 30,000 words of an earlier story only to be told by her agent "how rubbish it was. So I dumped it".
Can We Still Be Friends is definitely not rubbish. It's enjoyable and Shulman has a terrific eye for the small, yet telling detail - the newspaper journalist who gets into work early and hides her bag of shopping under her desk, for instance, or the posh, country-house mother with "plastic hair" who patronises her domestic staff. But for someone who has been a journalist since her 20s and at the top of her profession for more than two decades, Shulman displays a remarkable lack of self-confidence about her writing. "I find plot and dialogue extremely difficult," she says. "Hopefully one improves at it."
The book is dedicated to Shulman's mother, the former journalist and author of a book on etiquette, Drusilla Beyfus. "I don't think she particularly likes it," says Shulman baldly. "I mean nobody says to you: 'I don't like your book,' but I think you can kind of tell the people who do and the people who don't and it's not really her thing. I'm sure she thinks bits of it are fine. But she's always been very judgmental of all of our work so it doesn't come as any surprise."
It doesn't seem to bother her; in fact there seems to be an expectation on Shulman's part that anything she does will never be quite good enough. According to some of her friends, she has always been insecure. "She's never had the greatest self-esteem," says one acquaintance. Another, who knows her in a professional capacity, adds: "She's guarded and very private. There are people who've worked with her for years who had no clue how she felt about them until they left and she'd thrown them lavish parties. I think she's driven by the need to succeed.
"Writing a book, when you're the editor of Vogue and you know everyone's going to read it so you're sticking your head above the parapet - that's a pretty ballsy thing to do."
Does she feel successful?
Shulman hesitates. "Um, I'm very happy. Yes, I'm sure I'm a success." Pause. "But it doesn't feel that way to me."
Shulman is the eldest of three children who grew up in the exclusive London area of Belgravia in a household filled with the sound of clacking typewriters. Her father, Milton Shulman, arrived in London from Canada during the war and became theatre critic for the Evening Standard. Her mother contributed to Vogue, among other publications. Having two parents who were journalists meant becoming a writer "was my idea of a nightmare. I wanted to be a hairdresser".
At London's elite St Paul's Girls' School, Shulman was resolutely unacademic (her sister, Nicola, was deemed the bright one and recently published a highly acclaimed biography of the Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt - a copy of which lies on Shulman's coffee table alongside a dog-eared final edition of the News of the World). She studied social anthropology at Sussex University and then "really more by accident than design" found herself falling into journalism when she got a temporary job as an editorial secretary on Over 21 magazine. "I loved being in a magazine office and I think from that point I knew what I was going to do," she says. Hairdressing's loss was journalism's gain: Shulman went to work for Tatler before editing the women's pages for the Sunday Telegraph and becoming features editor of Vogue. She was made editor of British GQ in 1990. Two years later, at the precocious age of 34, she took the helm at Vogue.
At the time, her appointment raised some eyebrows within the industry. "She wasn't very 'fashion,"' remembers one editor. "She looked like a rock chick - and not in a good way. She didn't have much experience in that world. But then you look at what she's done ... "
Circulation rose considerably under her tenure - no doubt aided by the brouhaha surrounding an early Kate Moss shoot which was criticised for encouraging "heroin chic" - and now hovers consistently around the 200,000 mark; no mean feat for a glossy, high-end product that can cost over $15 in a time of economic austerity.
But it wasn't all plain sailing. Along the way, Shulman married and divorced the American writer Paul Spike, with whom she had a son, Sam, in 1995. For a while, she experienced panic attacks after the break-up of her relationship - a recurring problem ever since she fell ill with glandular fever in her second year at Sussex university. "When I first got them, I thought I was going to die. I literally thought I was dying. And then you've got this odd thing where half of your brain is going: 'This is a panic attack, it's fine, keep calm, it'll pass,' and half of you is saying: 'I am going to die'. And it's so frightening that your body and your brain are out of sync with each other."
Does she still get them? "Well I don't have them at the moment. But I think if you have a susceptibility to it, it isn't something that you can eradicate completely so I'm sort of aware of a vulnerability to it. I have a certain amount of coping mechanisms - for lack of a better word. I know about trying to breathe properly and I have Xanax which I take everywhere with me in case it happens - it's like my lucky charm."
None of this dented her formidable work ethic: she has always worked a five-day week and when Sam was younger he was looked after by a nanny. "When he was really little, my mother remembers him saying: 'I hate, hate, hate that "magzarine", I wish it would die."' She laughs, guiltily. "Umm, I've somehow blanked that out." Sam is now nearly 17 and in his final years at the prestigious Westminster School - he lives at home with Shulman and her partner, the journalist David Jenkins. These days, she says: "I think Sam probably rather dreads me not being at work."
Her own experiences have, by her own admission, left her with a rather "brutal" attitude to women in the workplace. "The reality is, if you take time out and have children, it does damage your trajectory in some way. I know it shouldn't, I know there should be a way round it, but I think it's really hard. We have a lot of people [at Vogue] who have been fantastic all through their pregnancy, then gone off, had the baby, not known how long they were going to be away, decided to take the full year and either come back pregnant or come back and been pregnant again very quickly. So effectively, you're sort of out, really, for two or three years and that does make a difference. You can't pretend it doesn't."
So does she think that the chasm between male and female salaries is justified? "I'm kind of interested that in my own company - which is a company that sells mainly women's magazines to women - the men still run the company by quite a large factor ... We ought to get paid absolutely equally for the work that we do, absolutely no question about it - I don't think women are so good at fighting their corner as men."
In fact, the most pronounced change she has noticed during her time at Vogue is not in pay equality - or lack of - but in the increased control exerted by PRs and celebrities. "Somebody like Jennifer Aniston will only do an interview with copy approval and picture approval," she says. "I've never had anybody on the cover, ever, who's had copy approval and picture approval. I just don't think it's a proper thing if you do. It's this thing of people just basically treating you as if you're bound to be doing something that is in some way going to be insulting to their client. I just find that so offensive."
Perhaps because she knows how hard it can be, Shulman proves a delight to interview - open, warm, interesting and insistent that I should have enough time to cover whatever I want. Of the three main characters in her novel, she thinks she is most like Annie - "a real girls' girl" - and she is so seemingly relaxed about being asked almost anything, that, just before our time comes to an end, I blurt out an entirely unexpected question.
You describe yourself as a feminist, I say. Would you ever have a vajazzle?
Shulman doesn't flinch. "Definitely not," she says. "I'm just so pleased I'm not a young woman now. I feel very grateful that, at the time I started having sex with men, I didn't even have a bikini wax and men were lovely. Now I just think: how terrifying to be a 20-year-old and feel that you've got to be perfect and hairless and immaculate and that it's really awful. I just - eurgh - I would never have got undressed."
And with that, she clip-clops down the white-painted corridor in her heels and her sensible cardigan to have her picture taken - untamed hair and all.