On January 24, Alexandra Shulman, the longest-serving editor of British Vogue, announced that she would be stepping down, a shock to the system after her quarter of a century at the publication.
Appointed on January 23, 1992—twenty five years and one day prior to her departure—Shulman seems to have an almost Shakespearean knack for precociously timed exits in addition to her already well-known, candid approach to fashion.
Shulman set a steady pace for changing the face of the industry.
Throughout her tenure, Shulman both restyled the image of British Vogue and the image of a typical fashion editor. The magazine she conceptualised and led was known for its creativity, as opposed to its glossiness. Her editions thrived on critical, well-executed controversy and a push for new imagining of an often-insular industry. Always the champion of the era-defining model, Shulman has said that her primary goal has been “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.” This remains true: for the January 2017 cover, the start of a new year, in a new political atmosphere, she featured Ashley Graham, a plus-sized model on the cover. Where the rest of the fashion industry has picked up on feminist dialogue and terminology but only “talked the talk” (as it were), Shulman set a steady pace for changing the face of the industry (pun obviously intended).
In addition to this broadening of the definition of “fashion,” Shulman has been known for her championing of British fashion and identity as well as for giving respect where respect hasn’t always been given. Alison Lloyd, the founder of accessories brand Ally Capellino, told the BBC, “The British fashion industry has become a bit more respected for being viable and less thought of as ‘the crazy place’, and actually acknowledged that it is a very creative place. She supported both sides of it.” She crucially championed London Fashion Week (taking place 17th-21st February, this year) which has now, seamlessly become one of the “Big Four” fashion events, right alongside Paris, Milan, and New York.
A “chain-smoking 50-year-old Toyota-driving divorcee”.
As for her own image, Shulman told The Guardian in an interview that she was a “chain-smoking 50-year-old Toyota-driving divorcee,” a far cry from the polished Chanel suit-wearing, Federer-accompanying, not-a-hair-out-of-place Anna Wintour or the similarly icy Carine Roitfeld editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris. She was as honest in her personal life as she was in her sartorial opinions and her unfussy self-presentation. She has spoken openly about using medication, such as Xanax, to deal with her panic attacks, even her decision to return to work when her son was 15 weeks old. She has normalised the decisions she made, empowering those whose likeminded decisions don’t always make headlines.
All of this—the frankness, the personality, the opinions—highlights the difficulty of Shulman’s departure, even amongst the persisting turbulence of the industry. As big names break off and scatter, as lesser-knowns join the heights, the shock of shifts in the industry has started to wear off.
Even just this week, the fashion industry looks significantly different. On January 30, Chloé confirmed Clare Waight Keller’s departure. She, like Shulman, now joins the ranks of Raf Simons (Dior), Hedi Slimane (Saint Laurent), Alber Elbaz (Lanvin), who left their posts in the past year. This is, of course, not to mention those who have sidled into new roles—the likes of Demna Gvasalia (Balenciaga), Alessandra Sartori (Ermenegildo Zegna), and Maria Grazia Chiuri (Dior).
Those who were fixtures at their respective fashion houses, those who seemed to live and breathe and define their brands have moved on. As such, Shulman’s acknowledgment that she “very much wanted to experience a different life and look forward to a future separate to Vogue” resonates even more profoundly.
The empowerment of her time at Vogue and the un-fillable shoes she has left will find their endurance not only in what she accomplished, but in how well her changes and ideas were received. Under Shulman, circulation increased 195,053, a 12% rise—no small feat, given that more and more people are coming to terms with how problematic the fashion industry is (and the fact that the media is supposedly “dying”). For twenty-five years (and one day), Shulman has not only reconfigured perceptions of fashion, but she has shown that more honest, more accessible fashion doesn’t just get by—it works.