Art vs Business

Art vs Business

(Source: Flickr)

I attended a talk last week at the Oxford Union given by Alexandra Shulman, editor-in-chief of British Vogue.

Shulman is the longest serving editor in British Vogue history. She took the helm in 2002, and has presided over a circulation increase to 220,000 copies.

Needless to say, I was interested to hear what she had to say about the media and publishing industry.

Shulman is an interesting character, and a master of the British art of understatement.

She entered journalism in the 1980’s and claims to have had no particular inclination towards fashion. Although, after gaining some exposure to the fashion runways working with the British edition of GQ, she says that she ultimately found herself as the editor of Vogue. She also claims not really to be a business person, but has engineered not only a successful career for herself as the editor-in-chief of British Vogue but has also helped to build the profile and circulation of the publication. This is no small feat given that the media industry in general is struggling.

The most interesting takeaway from Shulman’s talk was the distinction she made between art and business.

People who think fashion is all about art and pretty pictures, she said, are not going to do very well in the fashion business.

Pretty pictures and fanciful notions are not worth much, unless you can deliver on time and on budget.

To drive home just how much of a business pragmatist Shulman actually is, it was interesting to hear how she selects which model to use on the cover of British Vogue.

One of the students in the front row asked whether there were plans to feature more black and Asian models on a regular basis rather than merely bringing them in as part of special feature issues.

Shulman acknowledged that things are evolving on this issue albeit very slowly. The reality, she told the audience, is that a blonde will sell even more issues than a brunette, and (as we understand her) a black or Asian model will sell fewer copies still.

British Vogue may be a magazine about fashion, but its editor-in-chief remains a pragmatic business woman. If her readers prefer blondes, then she will be only too happy to provide them.