He just took over British Vogue. Now he’s poised to be the most consequential fashion editor of his generation.
Edward Enninful, the new editor-in-chief of British Vogue, is supremely confident in both his aesthetic beliefs and in his worldview. In short order, he has upended a century-old publication, transforming its masthead to be more reflective of the global audience it seeks to serve and crafting some of the most memorable, inspiring and diverse fashion covers of the past year. His work exudes authenticity. He’s made inclusiveness look organic and effortless. And he’s made fashion look glorious. Enninful began his fashion career as a model, an instrument for telling fashion stories. Later, when he became a stylist, he selected the costumes for such narratives. As a fashion director for glossy publications, he was able to write the visual story itself. Now that he’s in charge of British Vogue, he has the power to determine whose stories are told at all. “I always feel that the strongest stories resonate with the times we live in. So my stories will always be a bit social — they’ll have an edge,” Enninful tells me. “This is a time when the world is so divisive. So many walls are up. It’s so important that British Vogue just says, you know, it’s okay. It’s okay to show beauty.” It’s okay to highlight differences. “Diversity does work,” he adds with emphasis. “It’s okay.” Enninful, 46, took the helm of the highly regarded British glossy in August 2017, marking a litany of firsts. Enninful is the first man to run the 102-year-old fashion magazine and its first black editor-in-chief. But those would be mere footnotes in his biography were it not for the singular perspective he brings to his work. He wants to celebrate art and creativity, of course. But he wants to do so in a way that feels both real and aspirational. He has been unabashed and vocal about the historical lack of diversity in British Vogue’s pages and on its staff, and he’s determined to remedy that specifically and within the fashion industry at large. “There’s such a buzz about him. Normally that subsides after the first couple of issues. You know people get over it and move on and look for the next thing. But I think they just find it so pleasing, and it’s working in every direction,” says veteran fashion editor Grace Coddington. “I love what he’s doing. I really do... For me that’s the way magazines should look.” Enninful’s take on globalism and his expansive view of culture have gotten him noticed. In the suddenly vigorous guessing game of who will one day succeed Anna Wintour, fashion’s most famous and powerful editor, Enninful is now top of mind. The corporate lords of Condé Nast, Vogue’s owner, have been adamant in batting away speculation that Wintour, 69, is stepping down or even slowing down anytime soon. “She is integral to the future of our company’s transformation and has agreed to work with me indefinitely in her role as [Vogue magazine] editor-in-chief and artistic director of Condé Nast,” said chief executive Bob Sauerberg in a statement this summer. Still. The idea of Enninful as the next Anna Wintour — that is, the next editor to wield outsize influence within the fashion industry and to become iconic outside of it — does not require a move to New York and an office at One World Trade Center. That perch would give him a bigger audience and greater financial might. But he already has extraordinary influence. If Wintour is the producer of studio-financed, big-tent blockbusters, Enninful is the critically acclaimed indie filmmaker whose work punches you in the gut. It is rich and dynamic. It may rile you up or soothe you. It will make you think. People also tend to forget that Wintour was not an omnipotent devil-clad-in-Prada when she climbed to the top of the American Vogue masthead 30 years ago. She grew into that role, and the kind of power she amassed reflected a fashion world that was becoming more corporate, more enamored with celebrities, more hierarchal. Enninful is well-positioned for this new landscape. He has an extraordinary, artful eye that makes his work stand out amid the visual chaos. He regularly engages with his more than 855,000 followers on Instagram. He has his eyes set on Africa as a place to expand his readership and is traveling to Ghana this fall to advocate for arts education there. He’s well connected within fashion’s establishment and in the world of entertainment. He knows Oprah, for heaven’s sake. And he’s laser-focused on arguably fashion’s most pressing social issue of the day: diversity. For his inaugural issue of British Vogue, Enninful chose Adwoa Aboah as the December 2017 cover star. The biracial, British-Ghanaian model and activist has a honey-colored complexion, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, the neck of a gazelle and a buzz cut. She is not especially long-limbed or lithe; she exudes solidity. On the cover, she wears a Marc Jacobs minidress in shades of pale pink and brown with a matching turban by the British milliner Stephen Jones. Her eyelids glitter with metallic turquoise shadow, and her lips shimmer in red. Aboah looks as though she has stepped from the 1970s by way of the 1940s. Her style borrows inspiration from the African diaspora while it revels in a slick disco glamour. The image is a striking mix of references brought together by Enninful and photographed by Steven Meisel. It confidently rebuffs street style and informality. It is unapologetically high fashion — knowing, assured, refined. And yet it also says: All are welcome. It was received with lusty applause in the British press, on social media and in the broader fashion world. The heightened enthusiasm was a reaction to the industry’s especially bleak record on inclusivity. When British Vogue’s outgoing editor, Alexandra Shulman, posed for a portrait with 54 members of her staff, the entire group was white. During Shulman’s 25-year tenure, there was a 12-year period when no black model appeared alone on the cover of the magazine. Until this year, no African American photographer had ever shot an American Vogue cover in its 125-year history. For more than 100 years, no black man or woman had ever served as editor-in-chief of any Condé Nast publication, until 2012 when Keija Minor became editor of Brides. A black woman has never won a Council of Fashion Designers of America award for menswear, womenswear or accessories. And in 2013, the international runways were so disproportionately white that Bethann Hardison, a former model agency owner and activist, with support from Iman and Naomi Campbell, published an online list of design houses whose actions they characterized as “racist” due to the lack of people of color in their fall shows. In an industry that draws inspiration from the global melting pot, few people of color have had authorship over the tales being unspooled, how beauty is defined, where status is conferred and the way in which femininity is depicted. One might argue that in 2018, Enninful’s emphasis on diversity — which also includes size, ethnicity and culture — is inevitable, obvious or easy. Indeed, many international editions of Vogue have bloomed: China, Mexico and Latin America, Arabia. But the truth is that no other editor at one of fashion’s leading legacy publications has treated multiculturalism as a fundamental operating principle. Enninful’s May cover showcased nine up-and-coming models that included women of color, plus-size and hijab-wearing. They were dressed in shades of khaki, taupe, olive and brown and staring out at the viewer: confident, perhaps a bit defiant. A few critics cried reverse discrimination: ivory-complexioned redheads and blue-eyed blondes had gone missing. But again, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. June brought the model and actress Cara Delevingne. Ariana Grande was photographed for July. In August, Enninful styled Oprah Winfrey in an ivory Stella McCartney gown with a ruffled neckline matched with diamond and emerald medallion drop earrings. “For me, it’s a joy to be able to grab Oprah Winfrey and turn her into an empress dripping in the best gowns, dripping in diamonds,” Enninful says. A woman who had been photographed thousands of times was revealed anew. By fall, it seemed that Enninful had created a ripple effect. Traditionally the most advertisement-packed issue of the year, the September fashion magazines have long been stubbornly homogenous. But this year, major magazines featured women of color on the cover. But Enninful led the way with Rihanna wearing a dramatic floral headdress, with the hand-drawn eyebrows of a silent movie siren and lips glimmering like lacquered blackberries. It marked the first time a black woman had ever appeared on a British Vogue September issue. “He has a vision and a talent for telling a story,” Newhouse says of Enninful, whom he has known for 20 years. “Vogue is kind of a magic act. How do you describe the difference between a beautiful image and an ordinary image? It’s hard to put in words; you can’t put it in a business plan. But success depends on that.” Enninful, whom colleagues call genial, even-tempered and just plain nice, has the sort of British accent that sounds, to American ears, unfailingly polite, yet delightfully conspiratorial. He describes himself as European, African and British — in that order. “If I wasn’t all those things I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do or see the world the way I do,” Enninful says. “I see it from the perspective of ‘the other.’ Maybe that’s the strength of my work.” His mother was a seamstress, and his father was in the Ghanaian army and worked with the United Nations. “There was a lot of us. Six of us. And we were like a tribe and kind of didn’t need anybody else,” he recalls. “At home, I lived in Africa: the food, the clothes, the people who came to visit my parents. And then I’d go to school. I’d be in England. So there was always that diversity, [but] I didn’t even know what it was called. It’s always been part of me and my family and my upbringing.” His family wanted him to become a lawyer; they expected something intellectual from him. But Enninful loved art and design. He and his mother would “sketch clothes together. Design things,” he says. “She had a lot of African wives [as clients], so every day the women would come into the house in their heads carves and all these colors. She’d have me zip them into these peplum dresses. I remember that so well, and then later she’d tell me how to make clothes.” Enninful was a tallish, lanky 16-year-old when he was discovered on the Underground on his way to school by Simon Foxton, a stylist who told him that he had a particular, distinguishing model’s “it,” which in this case was full lips, hooded eyes, flawless ebony skin and a bone structure of angles and planes that catch the light just so. His parents grudgingly let him model while he was in school. “I decided that my destiny really was to work in magazines and just to say something, not in the traditional way of, you know, being a lawyer or doctor, but just to say something through art and beauty,” he says. “I was very young. But I knew I had a voice.” Enninful works from a modest office on the fifth floor of Vogue House, a 1958 dun-colored brick and stone building whose exterior is neither as elegant nor as stylish as its name would imply. There are some 40 people on his team. He’s hired stylist Julia Sarr-Jamois as a fashion editor at large, Alice Casely-Hayford as digital editor and Donna Wallace as fashion and accessories editor. They are all women of color. There are some dozen other editors, interns and assistants whose ethnicities read like roll call at the United Nations. And beginning this year, the magazine also has a new publisher after 26 years: Vanessa Kingori, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent. Enninful delights in how his team is also diversifying the front row of fashion shows. The mythical front row. In the alchemy of fashion show seating charts, it’s a designation reserved for those who are gatekeepers, decision-makers, news-makers. It is not a diverse place. In 2013, Enninful remarked on this fact in especially blunt terms. As the fashion director of W magazine, he was in Paris for haute couture shows, a civilized realm of one-of-a-kind gowns and made-to-order daywear presented to admiring clients and industry professionals. Enninful arrived at one of the day’s shows to find his counterparts at other magazines all seated in the front row. Enninful had been seated in the second. He was not pleased. And he did not take his designated seat. This wasn’t a matter of wanting an unobstructed sight line to the runway. It was not ego. And while it may have been a minor detail, it was not a petty one. So he tweeted: “If all my (white) counterparts are seated in the front row, why should I be expected to take 2nd row? Racism? xoxo.” It was the sort of remark that might have bubbled up privately over dinner but had never been stated publicly by someone of Enninful’s stature, in part because so few editors of his stature are black. “At that moment, I thought, ‘I’ve been here working all these years, for 20 years. Same as this editor and same as that editor.’ And there’s just a level of respect, really,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind every fashion director in second row. But if you’re putting me behind my contemporaries, then that means that is a problem that we need to address. My parents [said] when these things happen, stand up. So I stood up ... for myself — and for the future, really.” The matter was resolved privately to Enninful’s satisfaction. “I’d do it again,” he says. “I was taught certain things that were right and wrong. It’s that simple. And you know, at the time, I had to right a wrong.”