The women of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities came in two flavours: the Social X-rays and the Lemon Tarts. Nobody could imagine these cold-hearted clothes-horses sitting by the bed of a sick child, unless to administer poison. To their dinner parties, Wolfe wrote, “nobody ever invited Mother”. Five years later, Condé Nast rather spoiled Wolfe’s epigram by appointing as editor of British Vogue a woman who was neither cold, nor a clothes-horse. Alexandra Shulman was some years from becoming a mother, but it was easy in 1992 to imagine her as one.
Life dealt Alex Shulman a good hand. Her parents were Fleet Street aristocracy: the distinguished theatre critic Milton Shulman, and Drusilla Beyfus, an effervescent magazine editor who explained the rules of society to the supposedly classless 1970s in Lady Behave. Alexandra grew up knowing both how magazines function, but also how to write a correctly addressed thank-you letter to a Marchioness. It looks, from here, as though her career was set.
But there were two Shulman sisters, and few sisters can avoid secretly comparing themselves with the other. Nicola, the younger, was supremely elegant, gained a first from Oxford, and supplemented her student income by working as a top-class fashion model before becoming a Marchioness. Alexandra was ordinarily pretty, went to the less prestigious University of Sussex, wept when she was awarded a humble 2:2, longed to work in the music business but was sacked from her first two jobs, eventually finding a lowly post as a secretary on a downmarket teen magazine.
Alexandra could have gone through her life feeling overshadowed, frumpy and bitter. But instead, resembling the heroine of a typical chick-lit novel —fresh-faced and upper-middle-class, her inner beauty shining through to entrance the dashing hero — she snared a prize as good as any handsome Earl: the editorship of British Vogue. And through 20 years, masterminding a growing circulation against all odds, she has consistently defined British fashion’s trademark essentials: young at heart, quirky, yet grounded in reality and fun.
Perhaps the strongest mark of her character has been her stance concerning the effect of the fashion industry’s obsession with impossible thinness on young girls. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Yet health professionals and campaigners still struggle to persuade the public to see it as anything but a rich girl’s foolishness. No single factor causes anorexia, not even pictures of thin models in magazines, but for those trying to recover from it, these pictures are a torment; and for young girls who are susceptible to it, they are toxic.
At first, Shulman was dismissive of accusations of “heroin chic”: “Not many people have actually said to me that they have looked at my magazine and decided to become anorexic,” she said in 1998, with crass flippancy shocking to anyone whose family has been touched by this devastating disease.
But when starved models started dying in the 2000s — including one who collapsed on a catwalk — Shulman turned 180 degrees and was one of the first editors to take action. While Anna Wintour lends her authority to the Council of Fashion Designers “Health Initiative” — an exercise in which fashion designers solemnly promised to make sure that their models would be allowed “access to nutritious food during shows” (what happened before?) — it seems probable that without Shulman such an initiative might not have happened. High fashion must be the most dictatorial and woman-hating business in the world, yet in 2009 Shulman wrote to Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Versace and others to tick them off publicly for sending samples in ever-smaller sizes, as though for clothes to look better, women must get thinner.
Launching Vogue‘s June 2012 edition, which contained an internationally agreed statement against size-zero fashion, Shulman took aim at model agents and photographers as well as designers and called for schools to sit up and take note. What gives Shulman more credibility in this endeavour than other fashionistas is not only her own pleasantly feminine size-14 (UK) figure, but her reputation as a hard worker who rose through the ranks by being good at her job, intelligent and likeable, rather than by backstabbing — a real-life Ugly Betty.
She has made misjudgments; but her innate good taste would never have chosen a cover featuring a black athlete and a blonde posing in tribute to the 1933 King Kong movie poster, as the US Vogue notoriously did in 2008. Shulman’s gift is to keep fashion in perspective and never to confuse it with politics. Her best-selling millennium issue, with its mirror cover, made the simple statement that the reader, not the model or the designer, should be the centre of the fashion story.
Can there be a better role model for our daughters: a normal-sized, middle-aged, attractive woman who enjoys elegant clothes, but who above all enjoys hard work and life itself?