Vogue editor turns to fiction

Francesca Segal talks to Alexandra Shulman

By Francesca Segal, June 8, 2012

"Can We Still Be Friends?" is published by Fig Tree at £12.99

Alexandra Shulman

Alexandra Shulman

Jubilee fever is showing no signs of fading. Along with last weekend’s Big One, there are several notable anniversaries in 2012. There is even another queen celebrating: the beloved ruler of British fashion, Alexandra Shulman, has now been editor of Vogue for 20 years, during which time she has increased its readership to well over a million. This April, she also launched the magazine’s first festival, featuring a range of big names from Stella McCartney to Nigella Lawson.

And now she has written her first book. Can We Still Be Friends? is a coming-of-age story, in which three young women struggle to build their careers, find love, and discover the peaks and perils of adulthood and independence.

It opens in 1983, nostalgically reprising ra-ra skirts, Duran Duran and the ascent of the Joseph power suit, the armour needed to navigate the male-dominated world of business. The three girls make different professional choices — Annie is a publicist, Kendra works with troubled teenagers in Kentish Town, but it is Sal, the trainee hack, who gives us a glimpse into the boys’ club atmosphere of a Thatcher-era newsroom.

It is a world that Shulman knows well. Her father was Milton Shulman, the Evening Standard’s exalted theatre critic from 1953 to 1991, and her mother is Drusilla Beyfuss, herself a former Vogue writer and author of the etiquette guide, Modern Manners. Hers is a family of high-achieving talents, Alexandra’s sister Nicola is a literary critic, and has recently published Graven With Diamonds, an acclaimed biography of the 16th-century court poet, Thomas Wyatt. Brother Jason is an artist.

Shulman had always imagined she would write a novel when she left Vogue — but her enthusiasm for the day job shows no sign of flagging, and it seemed a shame to postpone her other ambitions any longer. In fact, she suggests, the pressure helped:

“If you’re doing nothing else, it’s very easy to write a little and then decide to go for a swim. I had to write when I could. The book became both company and a sort of security blanket. I would have it in my bag everywhere I went.”

Reassuringly, the head honcho of the fashion Bible that is Vogue, the very likeable Shulman is far from being a Prada-wearing devil. At 54, with gorgeous, luminous skin — the result, one imagines, of good genes and good face creams rather than more radical interventions — she is in an orange printed dress by Chilean designer Maria Cornejo, when we meet at Vogue House, and on her ring finger is a simple gold cursive circle bearing the word, “Alex”. She has been married once — to American editor Paul Spike, the father of her 17-year-old son Sam — and is now happily settled with writer David Jenkins.

Her paternal forebears left the Ukraine for Toronto, where Milton and his brother Alex were born. Trained as a lawyer, Milton Shulman joined the Canadian Army and, when the war was over, tried his luck as a writer in London. “My father really left everything behind. And everyone. He never really talked about it,” she says.
Alexandra and her siblings were told almost nothing about their father’s family, and it was left to a visiting Canadian cousin to fill in some blanks about their Jewish heritage, many years later.

But, while Milton Shulman was an atheist, he was renowned as a prolific teller of Jewish jokes. His daughter cherishes the one she calls, “the Ladybird Jewish joke; the one all children must be raised on, because I heard it so often: Mrs Goldberg buys her husband two ties. The next morning, Mr Goldberg comes downstairs wearing one of them, and she says: ‘So — you didn’t like the other tie?’

“I sometimes think I might be a bit like that,” Shulman adds with a smile.
The publication of her first novel has given her the impetus to write a second. “I wanted to see if I could do it.”

‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ is published by Fig Tree at £12.99. Francesca Segal is the author of ‘The Innocents’ (Chatto & Windus)

Last updated: 3:47pm, June 8 2012