“I just have to turn into Eaton Square and it’s like a Proustian hit – I’m about to be a child again. It just feels unbelievably familiar”
“Children take their original surroundings for granted. It never occurred to me that the walk from the London flat where we lived to Harrods, where we were taken to buy our school shoes, was anything other than the kind of expedition everybody did. We would cross the big garden squares where we bicycled and played ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’, and march up the cream stucco streets of Belgravia, home to Greek shipping dynasties and American film producers; they were immaculate and quiet.”
So begins the first chapter of Alexandra Shulman’s latest book Clothes…and Other Things That Matter, recently released in paperback.
Alexandra – the daughter of the late theatre critic Milton Shulman and etiquette writer Drusilla Beyfus – was editor-in-chief of British Vogue for more than 25 years before stepping down in 2017. She and her siblings spent their early years in a flat in Eaton Square. “I remember we used to pull pods off this tree in the square gardens and pretend they were medicines,” she tells me. “There were families living there – you knew people and recognised people.
“Belgravia is much more international now. I think it’s more obviously wealthy so you see incredible cars parked everywhere – Ferraris and Lamborghinis.”
Part memoir, part history and part social commentary, Clothes…and Other Things That Matter tells the story of Alexandra’s life as a “privileged London child, arty teenager, thriving media girl, magazine executive, mother, wife, lover, friend, sister, daughter” through the contents of her wardrobe – 556 items in total.
Each chapter explores one item that has meant something to her, including bras (“there’s a point in most women’s lives when shopping for bras is consigned to one of those special places in hell”) and hats (“I very rarely wear hats. There is something about the way they draw attention to the face that makes me feel as if I am showing off”).
One of the few times Alexandra did wear a hat was to the wedding of Prince William and Kate. She’d been asked to advise on Kate’s wedding dress and top of Alexandra’s list was Alexander McQueen. Like everyone else she was intrigued to see what Kate would choose to wear. Sitting in the nave of Westminster Abbey awaiting the Royal bride’s arrival, a text pinged through from a colleague: “It’s McQueen.”
Alexandra is self-effacing, modest (she makes a passing reference to her OBE and CBE) and openly admits her anxieties and fears including flying (“the kind of fear that wakes you burning with terror for many nights before”).
“For years I was claustrophobic, agoraphobic and prone to panic attacks,” she tells us in a chapter on handbags (“the cash cow that supported most of the most famous fashion brands in the world”).
I ask if it was a given that she would become a journalist because of who her parents were. “I very much didn’t want to be a journalist because of who my parents were but it sort of happened,” she says. “At one point, I wanted to be a hairdresser but, more realistically, I wanted to be a photographer but I never went seriously down that route.” So fashion it was and she took up the role as Vogue‘s editor-in-chief in 1992.
Other items covered in the book include white shirts (think the iconic shot of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses); tracksuits; trench coats; the Chanel jacket; the little black dress; dressing gowns; white shoes (Manolos, naturally); bikinis; and her first “big ticket dress” she wore to a party in a beautiful ballroom of a private house near Eaton Square.
“The party was filled with public schoolboys in black tie, with their white shirts and teeth glowing in the ultraviolet lighting that also dramatically improved everyone’s dodgy complexions,” she writes.
“I danced with a cabinet minister’s son, who held me clammily against him, and somebody who I didn’t know kissed me during a slow dance. My father picked me up at midnight and my world had changed.
“Ahead of me was a lifetime of parties where I might meet somebody who might kiss me during a slow dance. And I was wearing a pink dress which I never wore again. There was never another occasion that could live up to the memory of that one.”
In the chapter on suits, Alexandra remembers visiting her American aunt Constance – a high-powered businesswoman who wore different coloured suits – at The Berkeley hotel.
“It was my first exposure really to a luxury hotel,” she says. It was Constance who gifted Alexandra her first suit – a pale Cerruti number. “I wore that suit to every important office event and job interview throughout my 20s. When I wore it I felt exactly the way you were meant to feel in business suits – confident, smart, empowered.”
Has her view about clothes changed over the course of the pandemic? Do they still matter? “Yes, I feel that clothes have mattered hugely to me because they’ve been a way of both normalising the time and marking points in the day, so, for instance, I found myself having a bath and changing in the evening because it was one way of creating an occasion.”
Like many people, Alexandra took up various hobbies throughout lockdown. “I tried to take up embroidery, I did jigsaw puzzles, knitting – crafty things – but I’ve always been hopeless at it and I’m no better now. I read, listen to music, watch a lot of television.”
Alongside a weekly column for the Mail on Sunday, Alexandra is a strategic adviser to fashion marketplace Atterley – a website that provides a platform for over 250 independent boutiques – and still spends much of her time in Belgravia visiting her mum. You’ll often find them dining at Olivo Carne or shopping in Waitrose in Motcomb Street. “I still love the square gardens and I just love it on a sunny day when you see those big, brilliant white terraces – they are just magnificent. I love NRBY on Elizabeth Street and Eccleston Yards is really interesting. I feel the area is becoming much more alive again and I think people are realising how much they enjoy shopping locally.”
Does she still feel an emotional connection to Belgravia? “Oh, yes, hugely. I just have to turn into Eaton Square and it’s like a Proustian hit – I’m about to be a child again. It just feels unbelievably familiar.”
Clothes…and Other Things That Matter (Octopus Books) is out now.