The secret of her success

Alexandra Shulman has set her debut novel in the 1980s, the decade that shaped her life. Here, the editor of Vogue explains why — and reveals how she made it to the top job in the fashion industry

MY 1980s began in the summer of 1980, when I was dumped by my boyfriend, the same day I learnt my university degree grade, a 2:2. In tears, I walked the streets of London.

I was an agency temp and the offices that hired me must have been put out by my weeping. Nowadays, nobody wants to be called a secretary, but I liked temping. I had done a shorthand/typing course in my gap year and the cash provided me with a nice time — Saturday shopping trips to the clothes stalls of Portobello, bottles of frascati in wine bars, taxis home from parties.

I had permed hair and was proud of a pink-denim jacket from Fiorucci, a floral Kenzo skirt, and a lime-green oversized jacket from second-hand emporium Flip in Covent Garden.

Quite why I was so distraught by the boyfriend split, when I had embarked on a relationship with another man, is not clear to me now, but the new man (who was running three girls at that point) offered me a job as his assistant at the independent record label he was starting up. We agreed to stop the affair in the interests of professionalism, both aspects of which we achieved with only limited success.

Jobs were in short supply at that time and most of my fellow graduates were unemployed, unless they wanted to work in the City, which was hiring straight from university.

That route never occurred to me. I had been keen to work in the music industry, and to be hired by one of the most respected record producers of the time (which he was), and based in the glamorous Island Records offices, was the most wonderful piece of luck.

The job also enabled me to move out of my parents’ flat, which was my main motivation for being employed.

My father, who was a theatre critic, would stay up most of the night, either working or watching TV, and had a ringside view of the front door from his armchair, making comings and goings uncharted by him impossible. The telephones were in the television room or the hallway just off it, which also meant that the family could hear every conversation anyone had. A private life was impossible.

I rented a flat from an older friend who had gone abroad for a couple of months. There was no bed in the room where he wanted me to stay, so, alone, I hauled the double mattress from my parents’ house up the seven flights of stairs to my new home.

In September, I thought I had it all; six weeks later, it was gone. My friend returned to reclaim the flat and I lost my job.

A few months on, after losing a second job in the music industry, this time in the A&R department of Arista Records, I decided to consider a different career.

In those days, it was easy to fire people — you just got rid of them if they didn’t fit in. Being fired that second time was the best thing to happen to me (a point made by the boss terminating my employment), since it led to me getting my first job in journalism, as the editor’s secretary at Over21 magazine.

It was there that I first realised what fun magazine offices could be.

I loved, and still do, the daily soap opera of colleagues. Then, it was mainly our love lives that were discussed, and at great length, since without the constant e-mails, Facebook, Twitter feeds and online red-carpet galleries, there was more time for chatter. There were review copies of books to browse, and new albums by bands such as Ultravox and Culture Club, which would be collected on a monthly basis by Craig Brown, the magazine’s music critic. I shared a desk with the editor, Shirley Lowe, and her deputy, and opened the post, typed the contributors’ payroll (a hated task) and watched them edit pieces by physically cutting and pasting articles. I would then type these out again with a liberal use of Tipp-Ex, listening to stories of their domestic life — dogs, husbands, children.

Journalism was heavily unionised and a secretary was not allowed to write. Shirley, though, ignored this and allowed me to write small paragraphs, until a spotlight shone on this irregularity during one of the many strikes at the magazine. If I was to become a journalist, I would have to move on. The reference Shirley gave me reads “she is not particularly good at shorthand, which doesn’t matter, since she writes excellent letters without dictation. She also writes a fine article when she is given the chance.”

In 1984, I got a job on Tatler by pitching a freelance idea to the editor, Tina Brown, on the evolution of Notting Hill into a trendy area.

It’s hard to imagine now how such a piece could start an editor’s heart racing, but it gained me a £100 fee and an offer of a job on the magazine’s social pages. There, photographer Dafydd Jones chronicled parties with irreverent social snaps, and we worked puns and humour into the captions below images of the aristocracy in pearl chokers and enormous satin gowns, of Oxbridge undergraduates punting in laddered tights and overflowing bustiers, and of the jeunesse dorée in Monty Don earrings and Joseph Tricot. My salary was £3,000 per annum.

Looking back, I realise how childish I was, self-obsessed and unaware of the world outside my own. Although it was an era of tremendous change, with Margaret Thatcher coming to power, the miners’ strike, the Falklands and the discovery of HIV, I don’t remember paying attention to any of it. The closest I came to the miners’ strike was a dinner at Langan’s with David Hart, Margaret Thatcher’s controversial adviser on the miners, whom I had interviewed for the magazine. I viewed the world through the prism of my own experience.

Home was my friend Henrietta’s flat, where I rented a room for £25 a week including bills. There was space for a bed and a creaking wardrobe. We had dinners of shepherd’s pie or spaghetti bolognese. Guests crowded into the small, steamy kitchen and chain-smoked.

Although we earned little, we were always able to go out. There were many all-night clubs in central London, where we would pile in late to drink and dance.

If we were lucky, a man would have bought us dinner first — at restaurants such as San Lorenzo or Monsieur Thompson’s in Notting Hill — but, more often, we would be setting off from a drinks party. A great number of the people I hung out with didn’t have office jobs to get up for the next morning; they were working on their own things — books, painting, film production, ‘projects’. I was always heading home just as they were getting into the evening.

We all went to work with hangovers, but by lunch they would have disappeared, partially through the metabolism of youth, but more often than not by the hair of the dog.

Lunching was a big part of the day, and by the mid-1980s I was a features editor, charged with taking out writers, agents, and celebrities to woo them into the magazine. We would often go to the newly opened Groucho Club or L’Escargot, but even if I had lunch with an office friend, we would have a couple of glasses of cheap red to go with our mozzarella and tomato salad. Often, contributors would drop by the office to sit on our desks or come back with me after lunch, share some gossip with the new editor, Mark Boxer, and chatter through the afternoon, until it was time to open another few bottles of wine, before going on to a private view or book launch.

Although we were aware of the frightening stories about a virus that was killing gay men, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with us — that was, until our gay friends started to die a few years later. My friends and I slept with a lot of different people, with mixed results.

I rarely had a simple love life, shifting from idyllic highs to lonely lows within days, but it was what I spent most of my time thinking and talking about. As for work, my diary entry for Dec 15, 1985, reads: “Have got job as features editor, with more money, people below me, more work, more desk and more worry. The opposite to what I really want with my dream of more independence and domesticity. But perhaps this way lies a flat of my own.”

Estate agents sprung up on every high street and, with the mortgage rate a terrifying 15%, I bought a flat at the far end of Ladbroke Grove for £45,000, which was three times my salary.

The flat had high ceilings and big windows, and the bedroom looked directly out on to the No 52 bus stop, meaning that when I forgot to pull the slats of the Venetian blinds the right way, the bus queue could see in to the room. But it was mine.

I was part of a lucky era for young women in the media. The earlier, strident feminists didn’t seem to have anything to do with me, even though it was thanks to their battles in the workplace that girls like me were now wanted by everybody.

It wasn’t that we were regarded as particularly talented, but, in order to seem in touch, everybody was looking for young women to put in high-profile positions.

I was offered jobs on a near-weekly basis and turned down all of them, until in 1987 I became women’s page editor on The Sunday Telegraph. I didn’t want to leave the cocoon of magazines (and scurried back pretty quickly), but there was a salary increase to £27,000.

I bought myself a navy suit from Joseph — a short skirt with a jacket nipped in at the waist — and arrived in Docklands to encounter a different world. The papers were produced on computer; the windows, overlooking a skyscape of cranes and scaffolding, didn’t open, and the office was a sea of grey suiting. The features I was putting together, such as ‘is he too good-looking for his own good?’, about Charles Dance, or ‘the good wife,’ about Mary Archer, were of minimal interest in the daily conferences. To the old guard of journalists, I was there on sufferance (which I was), but as time went by I made friends with the newsroom, especially after I was transferred to the new colour magazine.

Saturday was the new Sunday. The bigger, multi-sectioned newspapers would be published on Saturday, giving readers the weekend to digest them, and Sundays should be leaner.

The news editor was charged with starting a new kind of colour supplement, and since he had little interest in magazines, he had me as his deputy.

My experience of him, up until this point, was seeing him bouncing out to lunch with a cohort of journos, yelling “Women’s page ghetto” at me and my small, quiet team as he passed by, so this news was not entirely pleasurable to either of us. I decided that one of the quickest ways to prove my worth was to show I could cope with the heavy drinking of the news team.

At our first lunch together, in a Limehouse Chinese restaurant, I downed at least four bottles of red. From that date on, we have remained friends.

The supplement was launched in autumn 1988, but by December I was back in the world of glossies, this time as features editor of Vogue. In my first weeks, I was sure I had made a terrible mistake. I hated being in an office of women and felt as if I’d returned to magazines in the unattractive guise of teacher rather than rakish young rebel. But Liz Tilberis, the editor, gave me control over all the magazine that wasn’t fashion: reviews, interviews, lifestyle, interiors. I had loved Vogue and never thought of it as being a fashion magazine.

I loved the portraits of artists and actors, the writing and the pictures of glamorous women’s lifestyles. In retrospect, my lack of interest in fashion seems extraordinary. I never went into the fashion room, even though it was only across the corridor. I didn’t know those who worked on that side of the magazine and I didn’t even grasp the idea of collections twice a year. Now, at Vogue, all the staff know reams about fashion and it infiltrates every corner of the magazine, but then it was as separate as Church and State.

My 1980s ended when I was appointed editor of the newly launched GQ magazine in 1990. As you might expect, Condé Nast wanted a male editor for its first men’s magazine, but had found it hard to appoint one with journalistic and glossy experience. The job required lunching the Versace PR and commissioning a piece on Formula One. You had to be interested in ‘new man’ touchy—feely stuff, while also running pieces on poker games.

The decade had seen me move from a hippy social anthropology student through the typing pool to the top job. Of course, it didn’t feel like that.

I didn’t have a sense of being on any kind of a deliberate trajectory, and most of my thoughts and emotions were dedicated to my family, my friends and my love life — my career was what filled in the gaps. Had I been that age at a different time — now, for instance, when jobs are so hard to come by and there is so much well-qualified competition — I doubt I would have got past first base.

Can We Still Be Friends by Alexandra Shulman (Fig Tree) is out now.

Picture: Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman attending the Erdem show at London Fashion Week spring/summer 2012 last year. Picture: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images


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