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The changing face of British Vogue: an interview with digital editor Alice Casely-Hayford

10 Aug 2018

Now in its 102nd year, Vogue has always been a closed (and glossy) book. Access to journalists has been limited in the extreme – only once were cameras allowed into its hallowed Soho offices, a peek backstage only permitted to mark the centenary of the magazine and just as Alexandra Shulman’s 25-year tenure at the helm came to an end.

So when I wrote to Alice Casely-Hayford, the new Digital Editor of British Vogue, I didn’t expect to be greeted with a genuine interest in gal-dem or such an open response. In usual Vogue style, the response was that she would first need to run it by management, but the following week I found myself sitting across a table from her in Vogue House.

“Anyone can see from picking up the magazine that a lot has changed”, she began – and I can’t disagree. Ever since the new editor-in-chief took the reins, Vogue has been making headlines. And not only that – it’s reaching people who haven’t always been so convinced to take the hefty editorial home with them. Bold new covers and glowing sales aside, the people driving this change, behind the shoots and the gloss, are people like Alice.

“Anyone can see from picking up the magazine that a lot has changed”

Alice Casely-Hayford is from a fashion dynasty. Her father is Joe Casely-Hayford, one of Britain’s most respected designers. Her brother Charlie is an incredibly successful tailor. But there is much more to Alice than the Casely-Hayford name. She is a complete design of her own making, with a carefully considered route into fashion.

She started at Vogue House almost 10 years ago, interning at Tatler whilst she studied English Literature at UCL, knowing she wanted to become a writer of some sort. She stayed at Tatler as a fashion assistant before moving to POP magazine, where she finally implemented her passion for writing. She credits her first by-line to the magazine and talks about it as a springboard for her next big coup – becoming an editor at Refinery29, working in a small team in its early years, way before Refinery29 was powering the cultural waves it does now.

Refinery29 now has offices around the world and is cited as the biggest online women’s magazine in the UK. She talks about it with palpable warmth – and you can tell she had a huge impact there, leaving her role as Fashion and Beauty Director to land the role of Digital Editor at British Vogue.

I ask whether it was a shock to go from the founding team of Refinery29 to the oldest institution in the fashion world. She laughs, “I’d never thought of it in that way”, one of many signs of how she takes change completely in her stride.

“I know it’s the most obvious frustration of so many women I know, but I never saw myself in the pages or words”

And that’s her down to a Chanel tee. She is unapologetic of who she is – a phrase I have never been convinced by until I met her. Her self-confidence is jealousy-inducing – she openly laughs at me when I ask her if it was a coincidence that her and Edward Enninful started working at Vogue within a couple of months of each other. It was as if the whole interview I was conducting wasn’t about how inspiring it is for people of colour to hold positions of power that pave the way for others.

I have been a huge, huge fan of his for years and years. I don’t post on Instagram that much but looking through my feed I saw that I’d posted two of his shoots a few years back. That was really interesting, because I had never realised how much of a hero he had been until I scrolled through my feed. It was a shoot he did for W Magazine with Iman, Naomi Campbell and Rihanna – it was just so powerful to see this cross-generational image of incredible women of colour. That he could bring that mission and vision to British Vogue, an institution that has been around for 102 years, is pretty remarkable. When I saw he was going to be at the helm, I definitely wanted to be a part of it.”

She wasn’t always this confident. She is open about the familiar feeling of being the girl at school who stuck out. As she puts it, “Growing up in a private school in north London where I was one of only two black girls in my year, I’ve always been the minority.” She draws a contrast between this experience and a recent trip to Ghana she took with her boyfriend. Whilst they were there, she got the sense that he understood a bit more about what being a minority felt like day to day, as a white man in Ghana.

I wonder how her mixed heritage has shaped her identity, and she is consistently frank in her response. She admits that she struggled initially with defining herself. “When I was reading magazines or even stories as a child I never saw myself. I know it’s the most obvious frustration of so many women I know, but I never saw myself in the pages or words.” It was only through the works of Zadie Smith, Ekow Eshun and Hanif Kureishi that this began to change. “It had a huge impact on me because it helped me define who I am. It gave me the impetus to be a writer.” And that’s how she defines herself now.

“I don’t see myself as a role model, but if I can show that ordinary people can make it, then that’s great”

Casely-Hayford knows how powerful it is to be engaged and wants to do the same for others. I press her repeatedly on how it feels to be a role model, but she never answers in a way that acknowledges that position as fact. Even when she describes the amount of people who directly messaged  her after she got the job – women of colour from all around the world and people she didn’t even know – she still doesn’t really concede it; “I don’t see myself as a role model, but if I can show that ordinary people can make it, then that’s great.”

She admits that she’s still learning too. But she’s inclusive with her teaching and unabashed about sharing. She documented her first trip to Ghana, where some of her family have roots, and intimately spoke about how she knew “it wasn’t home and yet it felt like home.”

Championing people like herself, but who are also vastly different, as she describes in her words, is the total focus for her. We briefly talk about the difference in experiences between her and her fiancé – and the willingness and enjoyment she gets from awakening him to the things she’s passionate about. You can see how willing she is to engage people – it’s a genuine spark in her.

And this is self-evident in her digital content at Vogue. Articles on making misogyny a hate crime are as engaging as they are bold. Other pieces making the argument for increasing diversity behind the camera and covering interviews with trans rights activists like Munroe Bergdorf really signal what is happening within Vogue, and Alice is at the forefront of that change.

Oh, and by the way, Rihanna is on this month’s cover.