Alexandra Shulman: Former Vogue boss talks fashion and books

ALEXANDRA Shulman is hugely disappointed not to have been able to visit the Borders Book Festival in person last month.

The former Vogue editor-in-chief, who spent 25 years at the helm of the fashion bible, had been due to visit Melrose for a chat about her latest book, Clothes… And Other Things That Matter, until the coronavirus lockdown forced the physical event’s cancellation.

“I am so sad that I’m not coming this year,” Ms Shulman tells the Border Telegraph. “It would have been great to physically be there.”

It might not be the same as having her with us in the Borders, but viewers of her chat, which will be shown on July 19, will still be able to watch her share her thoughts on the fashion industry, her love of reading and the role of the bra in social history…

Even better, they’ll be able to ask questions of the author herself at the end of the talk – something Ms Shulman is very much looking forward to.

“I always like talking to the audience and hearing what questions they have,” she says.

“It’s not the same as being there. When lockdown first happened and I realised everything was going to be cancelled, it was a depressing moment.

“But you realise you have different ways of talking about [the book] and I hope that next year, when the paperback’s out, I’ll be able to get back and do all these events live.”

The globally renowned journalist might not be able to make it to the Borders but she will be spending more time north of the border as she visits Atterley, the online fashion boutique with whom she has been appointed strategic advisor, at its headquarters in Edinburgh.

She says: “I’ve only just started working with them so my contact has been via Zoom so far but I’m hoping to get up and meet the team in the next month or so.

“Also, my stepson works at the university in Edinburgh, and lives in Edinburgh so I’m keen to get up and see him a bit more, too.”

While Ms Shulman is no longer moving in Vogue circles, it seems she will never cease to be immersed in fashion, whether it’s clothes as statement or as a form of identity.

She spent two years writing Clothes…, a book that is part memoir, part fashion history.

She says of it: “What I wanted was to write a book that wasn’t so much about clothes, per se, but how they relate to the other things that you have strong feelings about in your life.

“How you dress for different phases in your life and how everybody’s wardrobe is a treasure trove of memories.

“You have stuff in there that you’ve had for years, that you probably never wear but you don’t want to get rid of because it reminds you of something, or a part of your life, something of yourself, that it encapsulates.”

This idea of saving and reusing clothes is very popular now – reduce, reuse, recycle.

What does Ms Shulman say of fast fashion – the production of cheap clothing by poorly treated work forces?

“In the book I write about it, the idea of the kind of glamour I always felt was attached to the secondhand clothes I loved as a teenager. It was all rag bags from charity shops and markets.

“And then it stopped throughout the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, and now, in the last 15 years or so, the idea of secondhand and recycling has been growing more traction in terms of fashion.”

She goes on: “But then came in this huge imperative to be more environmentally sound, ecologically sound, and looking at sustainability, so that’s all come together to be a very big movement in fashion.

“I think the most important thing is the production lines. I don’t think that we all necessarily want to wear secondhand clothes – I mean, I love finding a secondhand bargain somewhere; it’s something I spend a lot of time doing – but a lot of people don’t like that idea and the important thing is not that you wear clothes that somebody else has owned before but that the fabrics are recycled and we look at how a circular economy works in fashion.”

Ms Shulman believes very strongly that the drive for more sustainable fashion must come from the brands themselves.

“It has to be driven by the brands, the people making the clothes,” she says.

“There’s a much harsher environment now for people who aren’t watching out for good practice.

“And that will extend to the production of the clothes but it’s not yet at a point where you have to prove that you’ve got a sustainable pipeline.

“And, at the end of the day, a big driver for people is what they can afford.”

But, of course, it’s not only fashion fans but also book lovers who will be drawn to see Ms Shulman speak, and she talks just as passionately of her childhood love of reading as she does her favourite Chanel jackets.

“I loved reading, as a child. Loved it. I used to love Kay Thompson’s Eloise.

“Eloise is a child who is brought up in the Plaza Hotel in New York, and she kind of wreaks havoc, going up and down escalators and letting her pet turtle skedaddle around the corridors. That was one of my favourite books.

“And Emil & The Detectives I loved, as well.

“And all the schoolgirl books, like Mallory Towers… heavenly!”

If you thought the last thing Ms Shulman would have done while running one of the world’s most successful magazines was read books, she insists it’s important to make time for such a pursuit.

“I always used to say to people who said to me, ‘I don’t know how you have time to read, I don’t have any time to read’ – you do have time to read, you just don’t choose to use your time reading.

“If you really wanted to read, that’s what you’d do with your time.”

She adds: “I read a lot – I squeeze it in. This week I’ve only read for a couple of hours but when I have got some time that isn’t allocated to something else, I will read.”

If you choose to make time to read Clothes…, you’ll be rewarded by a nostalgic travel through Ms Shulman’s wardrobe timeline, interspersed with thoughts on the relationship between fashion and identity.

“I went through notebooks, diaries and photograph albums to try to dig up the feelings and the memories about certain clothes,” she says, “but it wasn’t totally nostalgic because I spent quite a lot of time also reading up about the history of various objects and doing research so it wasn’t just about my clothes.

“It’s not a book that dishes about the famous people I met at Vogue. It’s a personal memoir and a book about how clothes make us feel.”

To view the video and live chat on July 19, you can go to this address.

Border Telegraph | News