Why The Haughtiness Of Former British Vogue Editor Alexandra Shulman is Refreshingly Validating
While weathering an annoyingly feisty cold — I stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix titled: Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue and submitted to witnessing what I knew wouldn’t much of a treat.
Richard Macer — is the guy with the camera — following former editor-in-chief — Alexandra Shulman as she expertly and fashionably manipulates the high-style rows of practiced pedigree. Her overall demeanor matches the list of qualities that are assumingely assigned to a woman who basically rules the world.
Shulman is a handsome woman in her late fifties — with very little patience and the proper amount of directness that stems from a privileged upbringing and the comfort of being effortlessly aligned with heirs and heiress of every facet of existence. It’s not hard to calculate her enviable rise and accomplishments in an industry that unapologetically caters to specific prototypes with very little room for improvisation.
We are inevitably given open entry into the hub of specialized chaos as we watch the decked out staff piously help their boss with the assembly of editorial issues and the intricately-maddening logistics for epic operations like the Met Gala.
The sea of White soldiers ploughing through the trendy landscapes is never a surprise because the global bible with verses of beauty and viability has always adhered to the aesthetic of rosy cheeks, primed pale skin, and aquiline profiles.
Cosmetic giants like L’Oréal, Estee Lauder, Shiseido, Chanel and Lancôme have historically relied solely on White models and actors as certified representatives. This isn’t necessarily a stretch when you consider that all of these brands are localized in Europe and Asia — and as such the marketing campaigns are erected for an audience that fits the stringent profile.
Back in 2014 — when Mexican-born Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o burst onto the scene — after her award-winning performance in the Oscar-winning film — 12 Years a Slave — there was a phenomenal reception for the token dark-skinned beauty — who can miraculously rock vivid hues with exceptional ownership.
The stage was set for a newly-implemented religion called — diversity — as the memo was finally circulated to high-profile editors and beauty companies who used Nyong’o as their ceremonious guinea pig — with an impressive roll out of over-exposure that included countless magazine covers and a much-heralded ad campaign with Lancôme.
The pity-party ended as soon as it started because making up for lost time in the form of rushed compensation without a thoroughly genuine initiative can’t ever be effective — in the long run.
The truth is that the White aesthetic sells. It’s the only currency that flows without road blocks or speed bumps.
Shulman, like most world-renowned editors understood the value of selling to the masses — and spent her twenty-five years of service producing issues that didn’t deviate from the norm.
Her recent interview with The Guardian is an eye-opening homage to the woman who stepped away from her world-class gig back in August — and was admirably replaced by fashion stylist and former fashion director of another British staple — i-D — Edward Enninful.
Enninful is British-Ghanian and garnered his former post at the tender age of eighteen and retained it for over two decades — so it’s not surprising that he was the natural choice for the major overhaul that was direly necessary for a fashion magazine that until now was absorbed by the law of exclusion.
His arrival and placement is notable for the fact that he is the first non-White candidate to assume the reins of a publication that has spent 100 years downplaying the responsibility of presenting varying shades of appeal. And since his appointment — Enninful has quickly unveiled an ambitious slate that will undoubtedly correct the issue of diversity — and his newly commissioned team serves as evidence of this pledge.
British supermodel Naomi Campbell — who has publicly criticized Shulman’s “White reign” joins illustrious filmmaker Steve McQueen and model/activist and newly-minted cover girl Adwoa Aboah as contributing editors — while make-up artist Pat McGrath has been bequeathed — beauty editor-at-large.
Shulman’s reaction to all the drastic revisions and additions is an interesting mix of cautious respect, educated arrogance and laced nostalgia — as she mourns the fate of her departed staff while pridefully refuting the charges against her.
Based on the results of her Guardian interview — Shulman approves of the new cover and its subject as she notes Aboah’s “perfect mixture of mixed race” which evokes a “sort of posh Notting Hill royalty” that ultimately makes her “the perfect cover star.” She regrets sharing the highly-criticized shot of her all-White staff because of the uproar it manifested.
“Had I known that this was going to happen, I would not have put that picture in it. But it never entered my head. Over the years there have been people of all kinds of ethnicities in the magazine. On that particular day there was nobody there and, you know, it’s frustrating.”
She notes that she was never against hiring non-White employees, but confirmed that very few made it “through the pipeline” for reasons that were beyond her comtrol. This reality also accounts for why “only two black models (Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn) have had solo Vogue covers in the past 15 years.”
Shulman steadfastly rejects the notion that she was a racist editor — particularly when her own son’s grandfather, Robert Spike was a civil rights leader. She instead blames the dire lack of diversity during her long years as captain — on the fact that there just “weren’t enough enough established black models.”
Shulman’s haughtiness might come across as potently uninspiring, but in retrospect it’s also refreshingly validating. Her bottomline floats in the waters of overall profitability and the ability to remain ahead of the competition without faltering. Only big names bring in the money — which explains why cover models don’t have to be fashion models by trade.
The industry-at-large is a frustratingly tight bubble of mandates that aim to preserve the culture of familiarity that has always placed bets on the fact that anything or anyone with levels of ethnicities has to be regulated to the sidelines.
The art of scouting for beauties in its purest form has officially perished. It’s hard not to scoff at Shulman’s lazy excuse about the lack of Black models when you consider the magnitude of her former station and the power she wielded long enough to make ingrained advancements.
If she was more than capable of soliciting portraits for members of the Royal Family — then how cumbersome could it have been to step outside the barricaded code — to bravely venture into the uncharted currents of exploratory “wokeness.”
The reason why Shulman failed the diversity test is a universal one. She was simply not interested in misplacing the status quo and chose to rely on the global formula for success.
In her own words:
“I was judged by my sales. That was my remit. My chief remit was not to show ethnic diversity as a policy.”
Shulman clearly states that if she attempted to put a “black face” without the cushion of recognizability on the cover — there was the danger of selling considerably fewer copies — and that is never a risk worth taking.
Her no-nonsense policy of presenting the facts as she sees them is refreshing — even if the truth is bitingly bitter. Her revelation also embraces the realization that the complexities of diversity has always been a virus with many hosts.
As long as the industry responsible for dictating the statutes of global viability continues to propel the validity of Whiteness above all else — the cycle of progressiveness will be on hold — until the ongoing revolution completes formation.
In the meantime — Enninful’s glossy position at the helm of a traditionally British outlet will most likely saturate the climate with overdue payments that took an embarrassingly long time to settle. The new British Vogue cover is stunning — and of course Aboa’s mixed heritage is a template that is typically easier to facilitate — versus darker hued models that are tragically shut out without mercy.
Until the Blackout ends — top publications will continue to flock to Instagram and Reality TV for new faces — and the staple of beauty will silently shift in the direction that the will eventually give future “black faces” the spotlight they deserve.
Wouldn’t that be refreshing?