'Working In Fashion Is The Perfect Mix of Creativity And Business' - An Interview With Alexandra Shulman, Vogue's Former Editor-in-Chief
The editor-in-chief for British Vogue from 1992 to 2017, Alexandra Shulman is the longest-serving editor in British Vogue history. On the speaking circuit, she shares her rich and personal account of leading the iconic fashion and lifestyle magazine for 25 years. We interviewed her to find out more about her life as a businesswoman, entrepreneur, cultural figurehead, and mother in 21st-century Britain:
Hi Alexandra. You led Vogue for 25 years. Tell us - what professional skills and aptitudes did you find essential in your role as editor-in-chief?
Over the years I have begun to see what skills have been the most helpful to me, something that was not particularly clear at the beginning. There are many – here are a few:
- If you are straight-forward in your dealing with people, that is both appreciated and helpful to all. However, there is a line between honesty and brutality/inconsideration that needs to be navigated.
- The ability to listen is key – you never know all the answers.
- People who work for you need to feel they can trust you and that your professional judgement will take priority over emotional or social.
- You have to be prepared to make a decision. Working for someone who changes their mind constantly is one of the things a workforce finds most frustrating.
- Financial rewards are very important but so too is a feeling of pride and interest in the work that people do. You can give someone a large salary increase but unless they have a feeling of satisfaction in their work and feel appreciated they won’t stay.
"Anyone speaking needs to consider their audience and what they are interested in"
How would you describe your experience working in fashion?
The fashion industry has changed hugely over 25 years as have many businesses. One of the key changes is the size of the industry which is now huge and global. This has had both positive and negative effects. The potential markets are larger and the general interest and relationship with the industry, the key players, the trends etc. are vast - but the amount of competition is also enormous. For smaller players, it has become essential to work out what your USP is going to be and to demarcate the areas that are achievable.
I have enjoyed working in fashion a great deal. You are working with the perfect mix of creativity and business, and it is that which particularly intrigues me. The most successful companies are those who can find a way to marry innovative ideas with business strategy. The market is very fragmented in terms of huge conglomerates, mass chains, boutiques, independent designers, and everyone has to find their own way.
Today’s unpredictable economic climate is affecting businesses from all sectors. How do you think the fashion industry will be affected?
Obviously, the arrival of e-commerce has completely changed the retail landscape and the role of bricks and mortar stores is an interesting question at the moment. They are now seen more as marketing vehicles than in terms of footfall but are very important to brands.
Nobody knows exactly how Brexit will affect the industry in the UK but, certainly, the economy is causing problems in fashion. It is not primarily about how much money customers have to spend but what they are choosing to spend money on.
"Working in fashion is the perfect mix of creativity and business"
How has the magazine industry changed over time, and where is it headed?
There is so much to discuss here and this is a pivotal moment for magazines. The migration to the digital is complicated and at the moment is expensive and still relatively experimental. However, the fall away from the print audience is growing and nobody expects the print audience to remain at the level it is currently.
Different kinds of publications will need to address the issue of what magazines are in their own ways. Some brands will survive others won’t. It is worth noting that the industry has grown enormously over the past thirty years - and there are TOO MANY magazines for the marketplace.
As well your fascinating Vogue story, you discuss important social issues like body image. Can you share your views on this?
I have had a lot of experience discussing social issues including body image, eating disorders, women in the workplace, and diversity of all kinds. My views are varied on each but share a desire to look intelligently at the issues rather than spout a knee-jerk view. The key is to be able to discuss nuances without getting too bogged down in detail. Fashion is often used as a vehicle to discuss these subjects as it is glamorous, decorative and looks good visually to pull in audiences.
In your speaking, what are the key takeaways that you want an audience to leave with?
I think that anyone speaking needs to consider their audience and what they are interested in. They should feel that what the speaker says has been specially targeted to them and not simply a rolled out speech. I believe it’s important to share some personal stories and observations. Ideally, the audience should feel positive after hearing what one has to say and learn things that they didn’t previously know.
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