Alexandra shulman on VOGUE and the business of desire
12th February 2017

February is a busy month for the fashion industry, from runway shows held in all the major fashion capitals to trade shows such as PURE London, one of UK’s largest biannual buying event.

This weekend at PURE London, the esteemed Alexandra Shulman holding both titles of OBE and longest serving editor in British VOGUE history, a title she held for 25 years until her recent departure, addresses the audience about fashion then and fashion now.

Addressing herself as a walking example of entering fashion with no prior background in said industry, Alexandra places emphasis on her “every woman” point of view. Her love of vintage shopping and spending money on the high street, although disparate from the magazine’s luxury offerings, has led to the publications massive success. Instead of reaching her audience through a highbrow point of view, she disseminates information by showing her readers why they make the choices they do in terms of what they buy and what they wear. She finishes off her introduction with an anecdote about her very first interview after securing her job as editor at VOGUE “I was asked how much I spent a year on clothes and I’ve never thought about that before, I had no idea and I didn’t know what the right thing to say as an editor of VOGUE, so I said £2000 a year, which in 1992 seemed like an awful lot to spend. But I later learnt that one of my bosses had terrible second thoughts about hiring me that I could spend so little money on clothes and still do the job of editing VOGUE”.

During her 25 years at British VOGUE, the fashion industry has changed drastically. “The amount of fashion and fashion retail are unrecognizable as to what they were a quarter of a century ago”, Alexandra states. The presence of luxury brands and their high street counterparts have exploded and with the help of social media, members of the general public all have a degree of fashion literacy. Trends, she notes, have also changed. With the age-old model of the trickle-down theory now debunked, fashion has trickled up, across and every which way. The need for individualism in a world with such a diverse fashion offering has become extremely important. This desire has shaped fashion consumers in their retail choices and style, “it’s how clever the label is that they are wearing, they still care about the label but it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a label that everybody knows. And style now is having the confidence to experiment with all these different levels of fashion”.

The changing fashion scene has also affected how retailers are approaching their customers, the debate between bricks-and-mortar vs digital and the ever-evolving fashion calendar. Alexandra acknowledges the importance of owning a digital presence in a digital age, but she also emphasises the importance of a physical retail space. Aligning its necessity with her love of shopping, she iterates everybody’s desire to touch the clothes, embody the shopping experience, and “smell the coffee”. And for retailers alike, through a physical presence can they properly deliver their brand message.

On attending her first set of shows this year, Alexandra touches on the industry’s see-now-buy-now battle. “The big debate is where you should be putting your marketing spend”, she says. The traditional model of showing 6 months in advance, focused heavily on the importance of the press whereas the current ready-to-buy model focuses their attention on buyers. It's a ripple effect felt throughout the industry where shifts in the calendar cause shifts in marketing direction thereby impacting fashion media and fashion consumers. With no definitive answer yet as to which one is ‘better’, she emphasizes the importance of understanding your brand, the idea of brand value, enhancing the brand and identifying your customer. “Dolce & Gabbana are a very good example of how a brand through cleverly about their customer. Stefano and Domenico decied they wanted to produce couture clothes called Alta Moda, but they didn't want to show in Paris with everybody else, they wanted to show in their beloved Italy and they wanted to have their own time where they have total ownership of what was going on. So they came up with this idea of hosting couture weekends”.

These couture weekends are a weekend-long party where Dolce & Gabbana’s customers fly in to view the couture and buy the couture. The idea seemed ludicrous at first, who would opt out of Paris and seeing all the shows at the same time as opposed to seeing one show from one label? But Alexandra praises their ingenuity, “they managed to identify that their customers aren’t necessarily the customers that go to Paris for the couture, they have customers that don’t necessarily get access to high fashion events. And every season they get more and more buyers because what they did was they identified that their customers loved a lot of razzmatazz”.

What brands need to be doing now Alexandra remarks, is to identify what extra added value they can offer their customers, “the reality of our business is that nobody really needs what we are offering”. Fashion is built around a business of desire and the formula for any brand’s success is the ability to tap into that desire.