When film-maker Richard Macer met Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, for the first time, he was terribly nervous and decided to open with a safe question. “What is it you love about fashion?” he asked. “I don’t,” she replied.
It’s a very strange thing to hear from the woman who has edited the “fashion Bible” since 1992, a magazine that each month teaches the ten commandments of catwalks and couture.
Macer spent three months at the magazine, interviewing staff and observing photoshoots, and what soon becomes clear from his resulting behind-the-scenes documentary is that Vogue is full of surprises.
So if Shulman’s priority in life isn’t a perfectly cut bootleg jean – she prefers pop culture and art – does that mean she’s not an English version of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada?
“She’s not an ice queen as is the perception of Anna Wintour [editor-in-chief of US Vogue],” says Macer. “Alex commands a certain degree of respect and she can be a bit moody at times. I was in her office and I felt slightly awkward because I didn’t know whether she was going to be really friendly with me or cold and unforthcoming. But the editor of such a large publication [the magazine sells around 186,000 copies each month] can’t suffer fools, can she?”
Meryl Streep as Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada
She certainly doesn’t. The 58-year-old, who started her career at Tatler, is the longest-serving editor of British Vogue in its 100-year history. In the documentary, Shulman pulls the wool over Macer’s eyes, making him look foolish. She shows Macer the cover she’s planning to mark Vogue’s centenary, explaining why she’s chosen a graphic instead of a celebrity. It later transpires that Shulman has already shot the Duchess of Cambridge for the top-secret cover in a coup that made headlines around the world. The meeting was just a ruse. “She was completely inscrutable, a very good liar,” says Macer.
Of course, fashion is based on deception – tiny models making clothes look good, airbrushed photoshoots – and the industry superstars need to be carefully handled. To get an interview for the film with Kate Moss – the ultimate fashion icon – was frustratingly difficult.
So what did a lowly BBC film-maker who says he’s “not particularly fashionable” make of interviewing the glitzy fashion queens of Britain? “I really did feel quite self-conscious, particularly on my first day,” says Macer.
“I quickly realised what an overly protective world it is. Our point of contact for Kate Moss at Vogue would say to us, ‘Leave it for a week, I’m seeing Kate for a coffee and I’ll mention it to her.’ And then a week later she’d say, ‘I did see Kate but she wasn’t in a very good mood so we didn’t mention it.’”
Moss finally agreed to take part in the film but, unsurprisingly given how rarely she gives interviews, she refused to talk for more than a few moments. “She’s odd because she didn’t want to do an interview but she was really happy to be filmed, I felt she really enjoyed having our cameras around. But then a woman on the shoot came up to us and told us we had to leave.”
Victoria Beckham – who sounded a lot posher than she did as a 1990s Spice Girl – also said yes to being interviewed in the end, but on condition that she could watch the footage back. She was happy with the result but told Macer not to zoom in too close.
So while the film is full of celebrities – a serene-looking Kim Kardashian in a sheer gold dress also features – Vogue’s London headquarters isn’t as glamorous as you might imagine. “It looks like it could be a DVLA office in Swansea,” says Macer. However, look a little closer and the fifth floor of Vogue House in Hanover Square is quite a bit more fabulous than that. Digestive biscuits and tea are the staples of ordinary offices across the country, but here the staff snack on luxury sweets and chocolate cake.
“I was really shocked by the amount of flowers and sweets that turn up,” says Macer. “The boys from the post room were always coming up to the fifth floor.” And in true Ab Fab-style, the notes bear messages such as “We couldn’t have done it without you, darling” and “You’re the best”. “It’s the floral equivalent of air-kissing.”
Absolutely Fashion reveals Vogue to be a strange but intoxicating place. The women Macer meets at the magazine seem stressed yet giddy from their good fortune to be working in the absolute apex of the fashion world. Or at least, they say they’re enjoying it. In a world of illusions, who really knows the truth?
What time is on TV? Absolutely Fabulous: Inside British Vogue is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight