Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Alexandra Shulman's Inside Vogue: a legacy

Image via NearSt
Can you imagine how it feels to step down as editor of Vogue? You've reached the apex of an institution which many people in journalism and fashion only dream of entering. To let go of that must be a huge decision.

But Alexandra Shulman has perhaps left us some clues over the past year. The fact she has been considering leaving for months doesn't surprise me. Her legacy has been well and truly cemented in the past 12 months, in no small part thanks to her own efforts. By founding the Vogue Festival, serving a neat quarter century in her role, and convincing the Duchess of Cambridge to cover the centenary edition of British Vogue, Shulman can rest assured that her reputation will endure.

It must also be a comfort to have published Inside Vogue, her diary of Vogue's centenary year. The book is a beautifully-produced hardback which, once you remove the half-dustcover, looks as though it will survive another 100 years in many a personal library. Much like the centenary edition of British Vogue, here is a piece of print on paper which has been made with the intention of both preserving the past and holding its own in the future.

I read the book over Christmas, and since I imagine a few more people will be buying it during the final months of Shulman's tenure (perhaps waiting it out for the paperback) I wanted to share this review, to encourage anyone who is unsure about reading it to take the plunge.

A photo posted by Alys Key (@fashionmoriarty) on

I found Inside Vogue extremely readable. Always a fan of diary formats, I found myself racing through the entries, eager to see how everything was going to pan out with the Duchess of Cambridge cover, the Vogue 100 exhibition, and the Vogue Festival. It is a skill to be able to keep someone who already knows essentially what is going to happen hooked until the end.

But this is not simply a log-book of her work. Shulman mixes the story of the centenary issue with snippets of her domestic life and observations of London, Berlin, and Paris in all their beauty. It is no surprise that she has a gift for description, given that she is a published novelist. When that literary instinct meets the whirlwind of her life in the fashion industry, her prose really sparks and fizzles on the page.

She has a particular knack for describing people, calling one man "one of those good-looking, sorter-outer men, a kind of Sebastian Coe type." Two compound adjectives and a comparison and hey presto, the reader knows exactly what she's talking about. At another point, Kate Moss has her arm slung around Shulman's 21-year-old son, "looking like a cat with a baby mouse". It's wry and sparing and as candid as it can be.

Shulman admits that the diary is an edited version of her life, but even so it is honest about the depressing or mundane moments of her job. Sometimes her stress seeps off the page, and I found myself filled with second-hand worry about a documentary I had already seen, a festival that had already happened, and the fact that Shulman's house seems to be constantly on the verge of another problem with the plumbing. The subtitle of the book "A Diary of my 100th Year", while tongue-in-cheek, does hint at fatigue, and I have to admit I did wonder while reading if she was likely to step down soon.

The sections I found most difficult to read were those about the making of Richard Macer's Absolutely Fashion documentary, which if you read this blog regularly you may know I thought very little of. Shulman's slow realisation that Macer will make a wide-eyed, deliberately obtuse, and intrusive final product was amplified by the fact I had already watched the film.

Yet the Vogue team's suspicion of Macer and the general sense of unease about the documentary itself is an engaging storyline. And this diary, though an accurate record, has several compelling narrative strands. The beauty of many is reading about them after the fact. There is something comforting to read Shulman's account of a year which exists in our own very recent memory.

The same is true of the frequently-mentioned EU referendum and the US election, as she frequently expresses her horror at the prospect of Brexit and a Trump presidency. The diaries end on the night of the referendum, before the results come in, which I thought was a clever reminder that the cycle of stress is never over: though Shulman has pulled off several amazing events and a much-praised issue of the magazine, there are bigger challenges waiting around the corner. And so, on with another year.

Or so we might have thought. As it turns out, at the end of her diary, she is embarking on her final year at the helm of the legendary publication.

All I can say is that I admired Shulman before I read this book. Now, having seen close-up the amount of stress, organisation, and determination that went into the centenary issue and the Vogue 100 exhibition, she seems to me something of a miracle-worker. I am excited to see what she will do next.

Edit: I'd also just like to add that Vogue's Managing Editor Frances Bentley, has also made the announcement that she will step down today (you may have missed it due to the coverage of Shulman's exit, which I suspect was rather a deliberate choice by Bentley). I think she deserves just as much credit as Shulman for the magazine's success, and on a personal note, she also gave me some career advice last year for which I am very grateful. I wish both women all the best for the future.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Weekly Reading List 19/11/16

Fashion and retail news and features

Hadley Freeman's Inside Vogue Review - for anyone on the fence about whether to give Shulman's diary of Vogue's centenary year a read, Freeman's review might make up your mind. Like Shulman, Freeman is someone who has worked in fashion journalism but who easily could (and does) do other things, making her the perfect person to cast a critical eye over the book. I'm pleased to find that she thinks it's honest as well as entertaining. Certainly one for my Christmas list.

Why fashion may learn to love Melania Trump - an interesting examination of why some first ladies enjoy a closer relationship with the fashion world than others, and whether Mrs Trump can expect the same. There has also been a slightly contradictory piece on the topic in Elle.

New Balance Created Its PR Crisis. Neo-Nazis aren't helping - and you thought that fashion news might be a welcome relief from the weirdness in the rest of the world. Nope. Turns out New Balance shoes have been given the same treatment as Pepe the Frog with white nationalists declaring them 'the official shoes of white people'. OK then.

Other top picks

These commuters just got surprised by the best journey to work ever - not only am I very envious of the lucky people who got to travel aboard the Belmond British Pullman on Thursday morning, I'm also so pleased to see The Spitfire Sisters (featuring my former piano teacher) getting the publicity they deserve - check them out!

Death of the hatchet job - it's reassuring to know that the recent lack of criticism in the literary world is not just in my imagination. D.J. Taylor painstakingly assesses how this happened and what it means in a lengthy piece for the The New Statesman.

Writing by me

Min and Twinkle - I wrote this a couple of months ago for Oh Comely, and thought it might be a good time to share it on here since the arrival of Christmas decorations and advertising has me thinking about magic and the innocence of being a child once more.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Weekly reading list 12/11/16

Fashion and retail news and features

Burberry profits down 40% as costs rise - from what I've seen, Burberry has been struggling for a while. Personally I think it's the type of business we need to be supporting in Britain to maintain a global presence after Brexit, so let's hope it can get back on its feet.

Why we still care about royal style - I've just started watching The Crown and loving it. As Jess Cartner-Morley points out here, the show's sumptuous costumes are all part of its success, and that's because we are still - perhaps now more than ever - obsessed with what the royals are wearing.

M&S to close clothing and home stores - ever since I started reading about fashion (about 7 years ago), M&S has been throwing everything at their clothing sales. And it's never worked. I think this is the right move, though I hope they'll be selling their famously good quality tights and underwear in a small seciton in the new food-focused stores.

Lunch with the FT: Tom Ford (£) - lunch interviews are always good for covering a rambling selection of topics, and that seems necessary with Ford, a veritable polymath. Jo Ellison talks to him about everything from business and design to film and family life.

Other top picks

Zadie Smith interviews - with her new novel on the horizon, Zadie Smith seems to be in the pages of every magazine I look at right now, perhaps because the London press and the New York media feel equal claims upon her. Since there are so many, I'll recommend three: Stylist, the New York Times, and (another) Lunch With the FT.

Canadaland: Tabloid! (podcast) - Canadaland's discussions of the media landscape are always relevant, even beyond the Northern border. But on occasion I can find the show a little righteous in its approach, this episode proved to be refreshing listening as host Jesse Brown and writer Marc Weisblott have a lively debate about the future of journalism.

Writing by me

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman - I mentioned this book a couple of weeks ago, and this week I had a review published by The London Magazine on their site. I thoroughly recommend the novel if you like dystopian concepts, social commentary, and exciting, brilliant writing.

Drink of the Week: Mexican Wallbanger - This cocktail actually contains the (discontinued) Trump brand vodka, should you wish to either toast the President-Elect or drown your sorrows...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Weekly reading list 6/11/16

Taken at London's Southbank Centre
Fashion and retail news and features

How to make money as a digital influencer - the title is misleading here, as this piece is more of an analytical insight into the world of paid-for Instagram posts and the lives of influencers (using the Beganovich sisters as a case study). An interesting read and a relevant one following last month's Vogue/blogger argument.

Kenzo x H&M: will it all be snapped up by the eBay super-sellers? - as the Kenzo collection dropped at H&M on Thursday, fashion fans fell into a familiar pattern of trying desperately to buy a piece, knowing it was a race against time before the line sold out and started going for 300% markups online. This Telegraph piece questions how far these collaborations can really claim to be 'affordable'.

British Fashion Film Initiative - not an article but an opportunity for young fashion designers: win funding from the British Fashion Council to make a film promoting your upcoming collection.

Philip Green's plan for BHS pension falls short by £100m - even his friend and ally Alexandra Shulman said in a recent interview that Green ought to "do something that makes people feel better about him". This attempt is a start, but for those who relied on the retailer for their retirement plans, it's not enough.

Other top picks

Click plate: how Instagram is changing the way we eat - beautiful prose as ever from Ruby Tandoh as she defends the culture of online food pictures. In case you didn't guess from the header image for this post, I agree with her wholeheartedly.

Ritz boss Andrew Love on running London's most luxurious hotel (podcast) - I loved this interview with the Chairman of the Ritz on the subject of good old-fashioned hospitality.

Unpaid internships reform plan blocked in the commons - relevant for all kinds of industries, but fashion and entertainment were named as some of the worst offenders in the Commons. This bill may not have got very far, but it's brought this important issue into the public conversation again.

No new writing from me this week, but hopefully a couple of things coming up in the next few days. Follow me on Twitter if you're interested in hearing about them.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Weekly reading list 29/10/16

In an attempt at keeping this blog alive and useful even though I'm snowed under with work for my magazine journalism course, I thought I'd start a weekly reading list. This will contain mainly fashion articles and radio/TV shows, as well as a few other choices from around the web and, in a brazen act of self-promotion, links to any writing I myself have published lately.

Fashion and retail news and features

Gucci fashions its reinvention with style - This examination of how new CEO Marco Bizzari and creative director Alessandro Michele turned around both Gucci's image and its profit margin is both in-depth and seriously readable.

Saturday Woman's Hour - Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of British Vogue was a guest on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, discussing that documentary, her new book, and diversity in the industry.

Underage, Underpaid, and Unwelcome - BBC's Panorama uncovered that child refugees in Turkey are being used as cheap labour in manafacturing clothes, including products for M&S, ASOS, Zara, Mango, and other major retailers. The Telegraph did this great longread on the subject.

Investors try to bag French Connection - The struggling High Street brand may be bought out. Let's hope it's not another BHS situation...

Jack O'Connell to play Alexander McQueen - The casting of an undoubtedly talented actor is a promising development for the upcoming biopic. But let's not forget that the wonderful Stephen Wight played the designer in McQueen (the play), and that received several mediocre reviews (including one by me).

Other top choices

Men abandon groundbreaking study on male birth conrol citing "mood changes" - People are kind of angry that the same side-effects that women have been experiencing for years are deemed a big deal in men. However, the actual results of the study were promising in terms of success rate. So, watch this space.

Why are "smol pupers" cuter than "little dogs"? - I've been following Amelia Tait's writing ever since her commentary on last year's Bake-Off, and now that she's at the New Statesman she is not only continuing to produce insightful articles but she's producing them in abundance. This piece is just the latest in her analytical, investigative approach to the weird world of internet culture.

Writing by me

The Canvas of Literature - An old interview I did with Naomi Alderman, which I'm bringing back to your attention because her newest novel The Power was released on Thursday and my god, it is brilliant. I'm hoping to publish a review of it soon but in the meantime I implore you to go read it.

Review: Green Goose pub - I'm collaborating on this new London-based drinks website as part of my course and this is my first piece for it. Give us a follow on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook if you like what you see.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Absolutely Fashion: My Verdict

"Sometimes I wonder if a woman would have been a better choice to make this series." So begins the second episode of Richard Macer's Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, and thus the patronising tone is set.

Macer assumes that a woman - any woman at all - would shy away from confronting Anna Wintour about the sales competition between American and British Vogues. Whether he assumes that all women are too reverential of fashion to ask any important questions, or whether he just sees himself as the pinnacle of journalistic rigour is difficult to say. What is clear from watching this two-part documentary series on BBC 2 is that this comment is part of a pattern in which Macer's narrative viewpoint depicts women, especially those working in fashion, as confusing, aloof, near-mythical creatures. In the first episode, he describes the Vogue offices as a "guarded world" in which "men are the underlings". The rest of his commentary is similarly oversimplified or misleading for the purpose of a weak dramatic arc.

After all the fuss over interviewing Wintour at the end of the first episode, I was at least looking forward to hearing what she had to say in this second installment. Yet when the much-anticipated moment arrives, the questions are under-researched, the interview brief, and the coverstar rivalry not even mentioned. It is such a wasted opportunity, and underscores for me why this documentary should have been made by somebody else: not necessarily a woman, but someone who knows the basics of the fashion industry and is willing to research it rather than just trail around behind editors with a camera and sulk behind them when someone requests not to be filmed.

The actual content of the series is interesting, both for those who would never dream of missing a Vogue issue and those who have never bought it in their life. Judging by the Twitter reaction, Fashion Director Lucinda Chambers was a particular favourite, and some of the best parts of the documentary are when Macer steps back and allows the staff of Vogue to explain for themselves how their process works. Alexandra Shulman is at the centre of the programme, and in fairness to Macer he does capture some interesting insights into the life of the Editor-in-Chief; hurrying across some grass to a runway show is a rare moment when Macer properly gets behind the perceived image of Vogue and shows his viewer the less glamorous and sometimes haphazard world of fashion.

This could have been such a good documentary. I haven't yet mentioned the elephant in the room: The September Issue. The difference between this documentary and The September Issue all lies in the presence of the filmmaker. Whereas RJ Cutler's classic is absent of narration, and the filmmakers never interfere with the process they are recording, Macer takes the opposite approach. In the first episode, he even intervenes in a meeting in an attempt to resolve a dispute over the cover. I realise that this is probably a deliberate departure from Cutler, but the presence of the filmmaker, both in voiceover and in participation in the action, is distracting.

Ultimately, Macer centralises himself and his own experience rather than that of his subjects. This is why he is so upset when he realises Shulman has been keeping the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge will appear on the magazine's centenary edition cover from him - even though this was a secret kept from a huge number of other people, many of them with more of a right to know than a documentary-maker. This is then unfairly trailed in the BBC's episode description as the discovery of "a world of deception".

For those who want an insight into the process behind Vogue's centenary year, it is still worth watching, but there are far better fashion documentaries to be watched. Other than The September Issue, there's a favourite series of mine Le Jour D'Avant, following fashion designers the day before one of their shows. There's also British Vogue's own video going inside their offices, hosted by Alexa Chung, which gives rather a different, less annoying view on everything we see in Absolutely Fashion. If you haven't already, I really recommend watching it.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

How to make yourself at home in your dorm room

After three years at university, two of which I spent living in the same room, I finally packed up all my things and left my accommodation empty for the final time last week. It was not as emotional as one might expect, owing to the fact that I've been moving out at the end of every term and then moving back in again, so I had by this point cleared the room five times. Nevertheless, before I packed up (and by 'packed up' I mean unceremoniously shovelled my belongings into crates) I had time to reflect on how I had slowly adapted the small space to my own needs, and by my sixth term I had it all pretty much figured out.

So I wanted to write this post for my student readers, especially those of you heading to university for the first time this year. While your accommodation/dorm/digs/halls will not be the same size or shape as mine, there are some general rules which I learned by trial and error. These I pass on to you now, and hope they can be of some use to you in an exciting and stressful time.

Box everything up

The boxes and cases in which you cart all your stuff to your new home need not cease to be useful once you arrive. Chances are, your furniture will be sparse, and the storage units not ideally placed or shaped. Your own boxes, both large and small, can double as a shoe holder (above), a make-up organiser, or a spare table. Plus they will make packing everything away much easier at the end of your residence. Ikea is always good for this type of thing, but if you're after a pretty suitcase, Sass and Belle have some reasonably priced items; I like this world map one.

Display favourite objects

Posters are the obvious choice for injecting your room with a little personality. But if you want to break the mould or, like me, you are not actually allowed to use Blu-Tak on your walls, the alternative is to display your possessions. I adorned my walls with strings of bunting, a rotating display of favourite clothes (conveniently hung from an exposed piece of piping) and all the postcards I received during my time there. You could also try taking an ornament for your desk, a plant for the windowsill, or a much-loved teddy bear to be propped up against your pillows.

Keep bedside reading handy

During my three years, I have hardly ever had time to read for pleasure. That time which I did spend leafing through magazines or, in my first year, devouring The Goldfinch, ought really to have been spent more intently reading for my subject - a literature student's work is never done. Nonetheless, I would have been miserable if I had never allowed myself these indulgences. Whatsmore I would have got even less sleep: the best cure for my anxious mind was always a few pages of Oh Comely magazine or an excerpt from the Lunch With the FT collection. Get yourself something you can enjoy without analysing, and keep it nearby - just in case.

Be selective about clothes and shoes

I know, I know - easier said than done. When you are preparing to leave home for the first time, you have no idea how everyone else will dress, and how many different occasions you ought to pack for. My advice is to seek as much information as you can about the social and daily life of students at your university - the best place to start will be on the website of the student newspaper. Plan a couple of outfits for specific activities - a formal drinks event, going out clubbing, coffee with classmates, attending a lecture - then build a core wardrobe around that. This will make it easier to keep your room tidy, and if you stick with a few key colours, it will also look better when hung up in your wardrobe. 

Put work away when you're done

You should be able to relax in your room, and the best way to do that is to assign a place where your work materials can be put away for the night. Some people even restrict working to the library, keeping their room as a sanctuary of leisure time. This is not always possible if you live far from the library, and even with a library on my doorstep, I often don't fancy getting out of my pyjamas on days with heavy workloads. So I made a big effort in the run-up to exams to clear away what I was doing by putting it in a drawer, placing my laptop on a shelf, and collecting the folders you see above in a little basket. This is actually the front basket from my bike, but you can get similar products. It allows you to chill out a lot more when your notes are no longer glaring at you from the desk.

Bring cushions

As you can see, I was very lucky to have this huge windowseat, which doubled as a guest bed. I would still urge anyone to bring cushions with them, no matter what your room contains. They are useful both for making things more comfortable and for adding your own taste to the surroundings. If you have space, any extra bedding, like a cosy blanket, can really make a difference in helping you to settle in and will be useful any time you want to put a friend up for the night. If you're not sure what kind to get, try something in a classic Laura Ashley or Emma Bridgwater design. Any clothing chain with a home section will also have pretty ranges available - I like this lovely gold-dotted cushion from Primark.

Good luck with moving into your new homes! And enjoy your first few days - it's a cliché, but it really is over before you know it.