Alexandra Shulman: her contribution to fashion

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Last month us fashionistas were left heartbroken, shocked and surprised over the fact that the legendary Alexandra Shulman will be stepping down from her position as Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue this summer.

The decision came after Shulman announced that she now seeks “a different life” to what she has known during her time at the fashion magazine, for one-quarter of its existence, a very honourable 25 years. It’s clear that she will be one of the most memorable editors in magazine history, including organising the Duchess of Cambridge’s first ever cover shoot, bearing all for a BBC documentary on the workings of Vogue and publishing a book just in the last year in celebration of 100 years of Vogue.

She was born into a family of journalists in the wealthy London neighbourhood of Belgravia, but Shulman was adamant she wouldn’t follow her parents’ career path. With initial ambitions to become a hairdresser, she studied anthropology at the University of Sussex. It wasn’t until 1982 that she began her fashion journalism career and joined the Condé Nast-owned Tatler magazine, and subsequently The Sunday TelegraphAmerican Vogue and GQ, where she became Editor-in-Chief in 1990.

In the early 1990s,  British Vogue drew criticism for photos of Kate Moss that were termed ‘heroin chic,’ a look that was popularised by the success of young models such as Moss and Jaime King and their alleged drug use. This was worlds away from the vibrant, healthy look of supermodels in the decade before, such as Cindy Crawford and Giselle Bündchen. Shulman denied any connection between Vogue and eating disorders. In 2005, she explained to The Scotsman: “I really wish that models were a bit bigger. There is pressure on them to stay thin, and I’m always talking to the designers about it, but they’re not going to do it.”

Shulman has made her mark in the industry by openly criticising fashion designers by asking them to take responsibility for clothes sizes. She called out the world’s biggest fashion houses like Prada, Chanel, Dior and Versace in 2009, by writing them letters discussing their use of minuscule clothing samples, limiting magazines to book smaller models and consequently promote an unhealthy body image as they tended to use models with ‘jutting bones’ and ‘no breasts or hips’. She’s also stuck to her guns and never published anything to do with diets or promoted the use of plastic surgery, as she refused to instruct women on how to live their lives and continually talks about the importance of a healthy body image.

But it hasn’t always been positive and rosy for Shulman. When she took on her role at Vogue, she faced harsh criticism from the press on her appearance, highlighting that she wasn’t a size zero and didn’t have a ‘fashion’ haircut, some comments are still made today. However, she shrugged it off and showed them all completely wrong.

She has made magazine history throughout her career, as in a first for British Vogue the November issue last year was model free. Called “the real issue” Vogue showcased the many styles and talents of women using normal people in editorials alongside celebrities under Shulman’s watch. She selected a number of professionals, from academics to executives, to model the latest trends. This was a big deal, grabbing fashion back from its perceived superficiality and placing it in reality.

Through her time at Vogue, she and her team constantly brought a breath of fresh air into the magazine. Back in December 1999, Shulman bravely chose to run Vogue‘s millennium issue without a celebrity or model in sight, instead, the cover was a reflective surface allowing each reader who looked into it became the cover start themselves.

She is known to take a risk and be a bit controversial as when Elton John was particularly vocal about gay rights, Shulman made an important move to give him more publicity by putting him on the cover with Liz Hurley in a party-centric scene. With this, Elton became the first openly gay cover-star to grace British Vogue.

Since her editorship, British Vogue’s circulation has risen to over a million readers. She fostered the careers of Mario Testino and Tim Walker and has been named on countless lists of influencers and power-holders. She was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to the magazine industry. Her successor will have a sizeable legacy to uphold and a mighty job of walking in her designer shoes.

Words by Jessica Davis 


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