What is going on at British fashion magazines? This is not a frivolous hemline query – though, if you’re interested, they do appear to be dipping – but a matter of serious media concern. In the past three months, the editorships of the two major British fashion magazines Vogue and Elle have both changed hands. To the shock of fashion pundits, both have gone to applicants with no previous fashion experience.
Alexandra Shulman, 34, at Vogue and now Angela Palmer, 35, who takes over at Elle in May, are both seasoned journalists with editing experience. But neither of them is, in the industry’s eyes, a “fashion person” with the artistic eye, industry contacts and drop-dead chic wardrobe to prove it. In the insular fashion world, this is the cause of great concern. Just what are the publishers playing at?
Xavier Goupy, chairman at Hachette which owns Elle, believes that fashion magazines do not necessarily need editors who are experts in fashion. “The priority is to find somebody who can work with the team. We have a very good fashion and beauty team here at Elle; we were looking for an editor who could get the best out of every member of staff.”
Angela Palmer – a former Observer news editor and more recently editor of their colour supplement – is, claims Goupy, very interested in fashion. “And it’s good to have a fresh eye. Fashion is, after all, a question of attitude.”
At Conde Nast, Vogue’s publishing director, Stephen Quinn, says, “We saw what a brilliant job Alexandra had done at GQ and wanted her in order to bring an overall intelligent strategy to Vogue.” He disputes the comparison with Elle’s new appointment: “Alexandra had worked on Vogue before, as features editor; she totally understands glossy magazines.”
Quinn says he has yet to encounter any resistance to their new editor in the fashion industry. “We take their opinion very seriously indeed. For example, we hosted several parties for Alexandra to meet the designers. I believe the appointment has gone down very well with them. Alexandra is seen as a highly intelligent and professional editor.”
But is she seen as a Vogue editor? During the four weeks of fashion shows in Milan, London, Paris and New York, every Ray-Banned eye was trained on Shulman’s seat. Her wardrobe was dissected; her hair and make-up analysed; her comments overheard and circulated. “I can only describe it as the smell of blood in a sharks’ pool,” says one fashion editor.
This is hideous behaviour but hardly surprising. And Angela Palmer can expect much the same treatment when she makes her collection debut in the autumn. For those who work in the fashion industry – from designers through PRs to writers and stylists – take fashion very seriously. And this is what is threatened by the new non-fashion editors: the right to treat the industry and its work as important.
Sally Brampton, who before she launched Elle was fashion editor on the Observer, thinks Angela Palmer is “an astonishing appointment. Having an editor who knows nothing about fashion devalues the work of the fashion department and they are the life blood of a fashion magazine. It’s like putting an accountant in charge of a creative team. It’s bound to create low morale.”
But the writing has been on the wall for some time. The big name, big bucks photographers dictating the terms, the extravagant stylists spending two weeks on a single story in the tropics, the art director dumping pages on arcane aesthetic grounds – those days are gone. The reasons are not purely economic – though the advertising recession has hit glossy magazines hard – it is also a sign of our more pragmatic times.
Sales of Marie Claire have recently overtaken its more glamorous French counterpart Elle. Some of this must be attributable to its sensationalist features, but fashion coverage has definitely played a strong role. They feature clothes that are relentlessly wearable, usually affordable and easily available. In contrast, both Elle and Vogue, in very different ways, have until now kept up the tradition of eccentricity in British fashion styling. Critics have a long list of complaints about their fashion pages: clothes are too expensive; “difficult” (as in weird); not widely available; unwearable. They say it’s all about styling and never about clothing.
Designer Jasper Conran supports this right to be outrageous. “It’s not what I subscribe to in my own work but it’s important because if you react against fashion, you react against the continuation of ideas. If you play too safe, only show clothes that are ‘wearable’, you are murdering the magazine. You have to be able to say, ‘this is crazy but we’ll do it.’ After all, fashion magazines are not about reality; 99.8 per cent of women are not going to look like Christy Turlington and they accept that.”
But, without resorting to the cliched “We’re all dressing at The Gap” line, it is possible to see that fashion’s place in the outside world has changed since the designer-led eighties. Ostentation is out, utility is in. Pretty pictures are no longer enough; there is, certainly in newspapers, a directive to be analytical, informative, entertaining, rather than merely cite seasonal trend directions and colour palettes.
There is a fear – more justified with Elle than Vogue – that this climate, combined with commercial pressures, will result in publishers applying the pressure. The number of pages devoted to fashion will probably stay constant but the spirit of adventure that marks out a brilliant stylist will be curtailed, the choice of stories weighted to the mainstream. If editors are not experienced and knowledgeable about fashion, they are unlikely to resist, possibly believing that their readers want “real clothes”. But that is not what a fashion magazine – the ultimate luxury item – is there for. As Jasper Conran says, “It’s boredom that we should all be frightened of.”
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