Alexandra Shulman: ‘The story of my life in clothes’

Which outfits mean the most to a Vogue editor? You’d be surprised, says Alexandra Shulman. In this exclusive extract from her hotly anticipated memoir, she reveals the highs, lows and comfy jumpers that marked her 25 years in fashion’s hottest seat.

Alexandra Shulman
Alexandra Shulman at home with some of her favourite pieces. Image: Chris Floyd

In the winter of 2018 – six months after leaving Vogue – I counted the clothes in my wardrobe. This is what I found:

  • 22 coats
  • 35 dresses
  • 5 full-length evening gowns
  • 34 jackets
  • 37 skirts
  • 17 pairs of trousers
  • 16 shirts
  • 7 not immediately categorisable tops
  • 12 cardigans
  • 18 sweaters
  • 35 T-shirts
  • 4 sweatshirts
  • 3 swimming costumes
  • 6 bikinis
  • 8 sarongs
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 3 tracksuit tops
  • 4 tracksuit bottoms
  • 31 knickers
  • 32 bras
  • 5 slips
  • 5 vests
  • 4 pyjamas
  • 2 nightdresses
  • 24 pairs of tights
  • 7 leggings
  • 4 dressing gowns
  • 21 pairs of socks
  • 16 scarves and shawls
  • 4 hats
  • 5 pairs of gloves
  • 4 fur tippets
  • 6 sneakers or trainers
  • 8 pairs of long boots
  • 3 pairs of ankle boots
  • 34 pairs of heeled shoes
  • 24 pairs of flats
  • 6 pairs of slippers
  • 37 handbags

I didn’t really know what to do with this information once I had it. That winter was the first since I was a student when I would be spending more time at home and already there was a huge change in how I felt about clothes. For more than 25 years, fashion had been an integral part of my professional life. But being surrounded by all those clothes had made them the stuff of work, not of my personal pleasure.

Alexandra at her 2017 leaving party with Victoria Beckham
Alexandra at her 2017 leaving party with Victoria Beckham. Image: Getty Images/David M. Benett

What I found when I went through my cupboards made me think about what those clothes – all clothes – had meant to me. Why we wear the things we wear. Why we keep some and get rid of others. Which we attach an emotional value to and why. The more I thought about it, the more I understood how intricately clothes are bound up with our roles – not just our jobs but as mothers, wives, lovers, friends, sisters, daughters – and realised that this was the story I wanted to tell.

Alexandra Shulman vogue
Alexandra Shulman edited Vogue for 25 years. Image: David Sandison/The Independent/REX/Shutters​tock

The pieces I write about have all been chosen because they meant something to me. A few are utterly idiosyncratic, others part of many women’s collections. Ultimately, though, these clothes are the story of my life and my preoccupations; like everyone’s, they are unique…

The Sloppy Joe

Better than sex

Today I am wearing a loose-knit sweater in a disrupted rainbow of faded colours. The sleeves are over-long, reaching to my fingertips and the whole baggy jumper hangs to mid-hip.

Oversized, swampy sweaters – of a type that used to be called Sloppy Joes – should be worn curled up by the fire with a cup of something soothing. They are deliberately asexual because they disguise the body and are therefore comforting to wear at times when sex is not something you want to have to deal with. Not just when you don’t want to have it, but when you don’t even want the notion of it to be part of your life.

Alexandra Shulman as a teenager
Alexandra wearing her army surplus store Aran sweater on her first solo trip to Paris, 1975

When I was a teenager I had a much-treasured cream Aran sweater bought from an army surplus store off the Euston Road. It reached my thighs and I wore it most weekends.

The first trip I was allowed to take abroad without adults was to Paris, and I have a photograph of myself, wearing the sweater and a Biba silk scarf, staring over the Seine from the Pont Neuf with my great friend Caroline.

The previous week in London, Caroline (and it was she, not us, because believe me, she was nymph-style gorgeous) had been picked up when we were hanging around on the King’s Road, by some much older guy who had said, over the cup of tea he bought us, that funnily enough he and his friend Alan were going to be in Paris that weekend too. Why didn’t they take us out? And we had said, sure.

John, as we learned was his name, telephoned me the evening before we left to say that he and this friend would be taking us to a restaurant called the Tour d’Argent and since it was smart we should take something smart to wear. Not jeans.

I took the call standing in the hall at home and I remember telling my parents about his message and them saying that yes, it was a very smart restaurant. It was famous for its fraises du bois – wild strawberries. They did not say, why on earth is some wealthy guy you haven’t even met taking you two 17-year-olds out to a wildly expensive restaurant in Paris?

Alexandra Shulman
Wearing her trusty loose-knit jumper. ‘Oversized, swampy sweaters – of a type that used to be called Sloppy Joes – should be worn curled up by the fire with a cup of something soothing,’ she says. Image: Chris Floyd

Anyway the Aran was ditched in our budget hotel and we headed out for dinner. Caroline wore a satin 40s-type dress and I wore something stitched together from vintage scarves. At the Tour d’Argent, in a dining room high above the river with vast sparkling chandeliers and rococo-style mirrors, we were served their trademark pressed duck – the first duck I had ever tasted – and had the fraises du bois for pudding.

It emerged that the guy we hadn’t met, the one who was paying, was a member of a wealthy retail family in London and the other, who was by far the chattier, was, it later turned out, a kind of procurer for the former, regularly patrolling the King’s Road in search of fresh young flesh.

They had a chauffeur-driven car and after dinner suggested we go to Regine’s nightclub. I am now and I was then the kind of girl who wears Sloppy Joes and not the kind of girl who feels at all at home in a famously hedonistic Parisian nightclub. Let alone in the company of strangers who were at least a decade older and clearly wanting only one thing.

I tried to say no, that it was very kind of them but it was time we headed back to the hotel. But Caroline was having none of it. So we went – speeding along the riverside Quai to the club, with its disco lights and dancefloor and a table that had been set aside for us. Caroline was straight on to the floor. She was a brilliant dancer. Tall and slender with a liquid-gold bob, her large mouth painted crimson, singing as she undulated.

But I was miserable. Unwilling to dance near this vision of loveliness, I was left with the option of sitting with the two guys, arms snaking closer to me across the back of the banquette as they ogled Caroline, knowing that at some point, sure as eggs were eggs, the payback moment would come.

I was a virgin and this was not the way I intended to change that condition, indulging in some creepy sex with unattractive older guys we were never going to have anything to do with again. When there was a short break in the disco relay, I dragged an objecting Caroline off, shouting to our hosts that we were leaving. John was furious, as I recall. Did they let us use the chauffeur? Don’t remember that.

Alexandra Shulman 2012 Mulberry
Front row at a 2012 Mulberry show with Condé Nast boss Jonathan Newhouse, his wife Ronnie and Anna Wintour. Image: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Many years later, I was going to the couture shows in Paris and as the Eurostar pulled up at the Gare du Nord a man approached me and introduced himself. It was John. He offered to help with my cases, and when we were on the platform I asked him how he could have behaved the way he did all those years back? He gave a strange noncommittal smile, didn’t reply and walked away with a light shrug.

This was all so many years before the explosion of women’s outrage that created #MeToo and Time’s Up, when women in every profession came forward with tales of sexual harassment, of casting couch negotiations, of inappropriate abuse of power. When men in all walks of life were accused of making unwanted sexual approaches. When, if you are a woman of my generation, you can find yourself conflicted in your reactions to all of this.

So many of us have been felt up or propositioned or had to navigate clumsy, not-safe-in-taxi passes which we accepted as part and parcel of our existence. Should we retrospectively be analysing our reactions to that? Were we wrong to think that usually they were an embarrassing bore, although occasionally they could veer into the much more difficult dark territory of being wanted and desirable?

The friend of a friend’s parent who fondled my breasts late at night on a summer holiday, the Rasta DJ who stalked me day and night outside my flat, the cherished older male mentor who one night lunged as he dropped me home. And the terrifying, creepy paedophilia of a Jeffrey Epstein who could, incidentally, so easily have been our date at the Tour d’Argent.

Alexandra Shulman 1978
Alexandra on the Greek island of Sifnos, 1978. ‘I had been invited there by a man I had met but by the time I arrived he clearly wished I was not there. At least I looked nice in the bikini’

Viewed through today’s lens the episode in Paris was at best sordid, but at that time it didn’t occur to us that it was wrong to be expected to take part in a sexual transaction, for that was surely what it would have been. We had imagined that we could handle the trade-off: us offering the possibility (not, mind you, the actuality) of sex with a couple of schoolgirls in exchange for an evening of true jet-set living.

But when it came down to it, jammed into a plush booth late at night in a foreign city with these predatory guys, all I yearned for was to be back at home with a half of lager and lime in some Hammersmith pub and wearing something utterly unglamorous and asexual like my Sloppy Joe.

The occasion hat

And a secret royal appointment

I very rarely wear hats. There is something about the way they draw attention to the face that makes me feel as if I am showing off. Yet hats have a haunting place in our family history.

Our grandmother Ethel was born in 1891 in the city of Zhytomyr 87 miles west of Kiev. Ethel’s family, like many other Jewish families threatened by anti-Semitism, left their home to make the 4,692-mile journey from the Black Sea to Toronto. It was there she met and married my grandfather Samuel Shulman, also a Russian Jewish immigrant. Samuel and Ethel quickly had two boys, our father, Milton, and his brother, Alex. Samuel started a millinery business and soon had three shops selling haberdashery in the front and making hats in the room behind. Their speciality was extravagant constructions made from the feathers of birds of paradise.

Grandmother Ethel
Alexandra’s milliner grandmother Ethel, ‘wearing one of her bird of paradise hats. She would have been 24 and by this time my grandfather Samuel had died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918’

In 1918, when our father was only five, Samuel died in the Spanish flu epidemic and Ethel was left, a single mother of two, in charge of the business. Desperate for security, she soon married again, this time to a character called Murray Gottleib. By all accounts he was a complete dolt and eventually the fledgling hat empire that Samuel Shulman had created collapsed.

There is a wonderful picture of Ethel – round-faced, with heavy lidded eyes and lustrous dark hair – wearing one of her flamboyant creations. I think she looks rather like me, although her life was unimaginably different to mine. She would have been proud and no doubt amazed by me being present at the only formal occasion where I did wear a hat.

Alexandra’s mother Drusilla
Alexandra’s mother Drusilla wearing a bandana in 1973

Not perhaps exactly a hat, more of a headdress. It was concocted for me by Kate Halfpenny for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, and in a mixture of chiffon and grosgrain with an antique diamanté decoration was designed to go with the Christopher Kane outfit I planned to wear.

I was invited because I had played a minuscule part in the proceedings. Immediately the engagement was announced, there was feverish interest in who would design the dress. As Editor-in-Chief of Vogue my advice was called on. Naturally I was hugely flattered and scrambled together a list of designers that I thought might be appropriate, bringing pictures of their work to Clarence House. I remember the Duchess arriving in the large, gracious room and thinking her so much taller and slimmer than I had imagined, with a remarkable poise for one only at the start of her journey with The Firm.

Alexandra Shulman with her family
Alexandra (far right) with her father Milton, mother Drusilla and siblings Jason and Nicky in 1969. ‘I remember being particularly fond of the belt I was wearing which came from Kids in Gear in the King’s Road’

She was keen to listen to what I had to say, asking questions as we went through the candidates. It was clear that the chosen name should be British, but it was less clear whether it should be a fashion designer or somebody who specialised in bridal wear.

Alexandra Shulman with Kate Middleton
With the Duchess of Cambridge a few days before the opening of the Vogue centenary show at the National Portrait Gallery, 2016. Image: Ian Gavan/WPA Pool/Getty Images

We sat on a sofa and discussed the various options, piles of pictures scattered on the floor. As we talked, I began to realise that my favourite was Alexander McQueen, a label which at that point, shortly after McQueen’s horribly untimely death, was newly in the hands of Sarah Burton. I thought that the level of extraordinary craftsmanship and their tradition of working with symbolism would be up to the task, that Sarah and Catherine would get on as women, and that it would be terrific to have a relatively untraditional fashion house given this privilege. And then I left. I didn’t mention the meeting to anyone and I didn’t hear anything more.

Kate Middleton vogue cover
‘I was so excited when I heard the Duchess of Cambridge had agreed to do a cover shoot for the centenary issue of Vogue. She was a real trouper, standing in a freezing field for hours’; June 2016. Image: Josh Olins/Vogue © The Condé Nast Publication Ltd

Months later, as I sat in the nave of Westminster Abbey awaiting the Royal bride’s arrival, as intrigued as the rest of the world to see what she had chosen, a text pinged through from a colleague: ‘It’s McQueen!’

I lay no claim to being anything other than one of many sources of that decision, but all the same I was thrilled at being a small speck in the picture of this particular moment in history.

The big ticket dress

And the slow dance that changed my world

Few things in life provoke such an intoxicating mix of emotions – fear, anticipation, hope – than those big ticket occasions that require you seriously to dress up. Literally. Dress in a way that rises above the ordinary. That lifts you out of the everyness of everyday.

Alexandra Shulman Kim K
With Kim Kardashian at Vogue’s centenary gala in 2016: ‘I am wearing a dress the designer Erdem made for me’

My first such event was a party held in the beautiful ballroom of a private house in Chelsea, given by two boys that were the sons of friends of my parents. They were 18 and 16, and I was 13 and utterly terrified. Up until then parties had only involved a group of girls from my class going to the cinema.

The dress I found for the evening was from Forbidden Fruit, a shop on a corner of the King’s Road. It was midi length in a very pale pink silky material with a grey forget-me-not print, long sleeves and a neckline that laced up. When I showed it off at home, to my complete chagrin my mother insisted that a modest piece of fabric was inserted between the laces and my skin, removing the one element of daring.

Alexandra Shulman kate moss
With Kate Moss in 2016: ‘The dress is by Osman. I still wear it often.’ Image: Getty Images/David M. Benett

The party was filled with public schoolboys in black tie, with their white shirts and teeth glowing in the ultraviolet lighting that also dramatically improved everyone’s dodgy complexions. The air was thick with Eau Sauvage aftershave. That winter’s hit, ‘Lady Barbara’ by Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits, played again and again, a rather soppy song which, with the benefit of hindsight, had absolutely nothing to recommend it.

But I danced with a cabinet minister’s son, who held me clammily against him, and somebody who I didn’t know kissed me during a slow dance. My father picked me up at midnight and my world had changed.

Alexandra Shulman as a child
‘My favourite party dress, when I was two. I’m already showing bossy tendencies, pointing out something to my father, Milton’

Ahead of me was a lifetime of parties where I might meet somebody who might kiss me during a slow dance. And I was wearing a pink dress which I never wore again. There was never another occasion that could live up to the memory of that one.

The huge budget

I was told I didn’t spend enough on clothes!

In 1992 when I was appointed to edit Vogue, Jonathan Newhouse, then chairman of the company, asked how much I spent on clothes in a year. I had no idea. It was a calculation I had never even thought of doing but I was pretty sure that, whatever the sum was, it would not sound very impressive to him. This was not a company where thrift in matters of personal appearance was rewarded. So I told him that I thought it was about £4,000, which was probably around triple what I truly spent.

A 1992 newspaper cutting announcing Alexandra’s appointment
A 1992 newspaper cutting announcing Alexandra’s appointment. ‘I rushed out to buy this Lolita Lempicka jacket; I thought it was the kind of thing a Vogue editor would wear’

Only later did I learn from my immediate boss Nicholas Coleridge that it was at this point that Jonathan wondered, no doubt not for the last time, whether he had hired the right person to edit the leading fashion magazine in the country. Somebody who, as he saw it, spent such a paltry amount.

The dressing gown

The transit lounge of my life

You wear dressing gowns as you wait to move from one state of being to another – from sleep to day, from bathing to dressing. In my opinion you can never have too many.

One that came to play a central role in my life was a birthday present from my mother. In blue, green and yellow plaid brushed cotton, it was large and old-fashioned with a long tie belt and deep pockets. It felt protective but also soft as a cloud.

In the early autumn of 2016 I had set off to the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh to move into a flat I had rented overlooking the North Sea. I had just finished the heavy lifting involved in British Vogue’s 100th anniversary year: an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a book, a fashion festival, a BBC TV documentary, a gala dinner and a special centenary issue.

Alexandra Shulman 1993
Alexandra at the Vogue office, 1993 – ‘I loved those mini layouts’. Image: David Montgomery/Getty Images

After all this exhilarating activity, life seemed a bit flat, and I was searching for something different, although I had no idea what. I had plans to write poetry, paint bad watercolours and just be me.

On the first morning, I wrapped up in the dressing gown, made a pot of coffee, poured it into a Thermos and walked with it across the road on to the shingle beach, where I sat watching the sun rise above the sea. Glorious.

I wore it to walk to the beach for freezing but invigorating morning swims and to scuttle back to the warm flat. Sometimes I wore it to cycle down the high street to buy the morning papers. It was what I reached for when I woke, pottering first into the kitchen with the portable radio and then into the sitting room, where I could spend hours studying the gulls nesting on the tiled roofs.

Aldeburgh was where I realised that what I was looking for was in fact a new life, and for that I must leave Vogue after a quarter of a century. It was where one morning I woke up and realised that the future without Vogue was not the dark and frightening place I had previously thought but a bright, empty space ready to be filled with new adventures.

Three months after arriving in Aldeburgh I resigned and about six weeks after that, in late January 2017, I was allowed to announce the news to my staff. I was terrified of that moment. It was like abandoning a family. It was, though, nearly four months more until Edward Enninful was announced as my successor.

Alexandra in the 90s
Alexandra in the 90s. Image: David Montgomery/Getty Images

By spring another dressing gown, in a thinner cotton with a blue and white African block print, had replaced the plaid for my Aldeburgh mornings. Both my boyfriend David and I loved the sharpness of the light there, the small life that we had playing tennis, dining in a rotation of three of the restaurants in town, reading for hours in the collapsed armchair and sofa in the sitting room.

Increasingly my dressing gown life was a delightful contrast to the mounting chaos around my departure. When I resigned Jonathan Newhouse, the president of the company, asked me to agree to stay at least six months so that they had time to find my replacement. In retrospect, it is clear that once my replacement had been announced I should have left. As things became more complicated I offered to, but I was told that I must stay until June as had been originally agreed. But that was becoming increasingly difficult.

Traditionally, a new Editor-in-Chief can make no executive decisions until they are in the job, but Edward was being allowed to commission and hire and fire from a distance months before he arrived. He and I had one perfectly amicable meeting and I was unprepared for what was about to happen.

Alexandra Shulman Vogue Leaving card
Her Vogue leaving card, photographed by Mario Testino

Shortly after it was announced that he was to be the next Editor, he fired my fashion director Lucinda Chambers, who had worked on the magazine for over 30 years, and appointed and announced her successor despite the fact I was still supposed to be in charge. Models who were close to him and had been booked for my remaining issues began pulling out and the word was that he was suggesting they should wait until he arrived.

A narrative was growing up around British Vogue being a place that was filled with ‘posh white girls’ that he would be getting rid of. It was deeply unpleasant not only for me but for my staff, who didn’t know how long they would have their jobs.

Meanwhile Edward, I gathered, felt that I was not supporting him while I was still in the chair. And that I tried to undermine him after I left. The seeds were sown for an acrimony that I could never have imagined occurring after having worked for the magazine for 25 years.

The perfect dress

It probably doesn’t exist

While writing my book I have found the perfect dress. It is from the Indian designer Saloni and is in multicoloured checked crepe de chine, mid-calf, with a cuffed elbow-length sleeve, a shirt collar and tiny metal buttons down the front. The colours are joyous in the same way that, as a child, a new packet of colourful pens always were. It is narrow enough above the waist to give me some shape but floats in a satisfactory way over my stomach and hips. It is a marvel.

It is of course my perfect dress and not the perfect dress. During the Vogue years I was always publishing pictures captioned the ‘perfect’ this and the ‘perfect’ that. Perfect is such a winning word. But by definition, it is also totally inaccurate. Perfection is only in the eye of the beholder so my perfect dress is highly likely to be nothing like yours.

Alexandra Shulman looking at dresses
Looking at dresses, 1993. Image: David Montgomery/Getty Images

Perfect dresses are blissful when you find them. Their one-stop convenience, the not having to stress over what to match with what, the absolute certainty that they look good, is heavenly. The only problem is you have to find them. And that means shopping.

Clothes shopping is one of the great divides. There are those who enjoy it so much that the activity of rifling through the rails, trying things on, having conversations with sales assistants, is an end in itself. And then there are others, many of them, for whom the very thought of any of the above brings on a wash of sweaty anxiety. All that stuff to wade through. The ghastliness of choice. That’s why so many now shop online, which doesn’t give me the same enjoyable hit as walking out of a shop with booty in hand, but it does offer the same endorphin rush of possession. Until, that is, you try it on and discover that it doesn’t fit and the fabric is like a cheap dishcloth.

Alexandra Shulman at Wimbledon
At Wimbledon wearing her ‘perfect’ Saloni dress

Although I own the perfect dress, there is naturally always room for more. Which is why I ended up scrolling away online yesterday when I should have been writing this. Within five minutes I’d swerved off-piste and instead of finding a new dress I have bought a pricey Prada skirt that I had no previous intention of buying.

I have no need of a new skirt. I didn’t even want a new skirt. But there it popped up in a glorious rose print and I heard it calling my name. Never can resist a rose print.

Alexandra Shulman
The rose-print Prada skirt was a recent impulse buy. Image: Chris Floyd

When the skirt arrives I try it on. It fits perfectly. I find David to ask whether he likes how it looks on me. Not because it would make much difference if he didn’t, but even so it’s always kind of nice to know. He says, ‘That’s a very nice dress. You’ll like wearing that,’ having looked at me for a few seconds. I leave the room, pointing out to him: ‘It’s a skirt!’

Clothes… And Other Things That Matter by Alexandra Shulman will be published on 23 April (Cassell, £16.99). To pre-order a copy for £13.60 until 31 May, go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155