When Edward Enninful stepped on to the stage at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 4 September, the 2,700-strong audience rose to give him a standing ovation before he had said a word. The 50-year-old fashion editor, who appeared in conversation with the screenwriter Michaela Coel to mark the publication of his memoir A Visible Man, wore a black three-piece suit, white shirt and his trademark thick-rimmed glasses. “I don’t have very good eyesight,” he joked, “but I have vision.”
Enninful was appointed editor-in-chief of British Vogue in 2017: the first black person and the first man in the role. Even before then the story of his life was remarkable: he was born in Ghana in 1972 and as a child his family moved to Ladbroke Grove, London. Scouted while travelling on the Hammersmith & City line aged 16, he modelled and then moved to styling. He became the fashion director of i-D magazine aged just 18.
In the 1990s he styled the Calvin Klein campaigns that catapulted Kate Moss to worldwide fame. At 26, he became a contributing editor at Italian Vogue: there he spearheaded the July 2008 “Black Issue”, which featured only black models, including Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell. During his tenure at W magazine from 2011, he styled controversial covers: Moss in a nun’s habit; Campbell as the First Lady. He championed women of colour and plus-size models, which the fashion industry has long sidelined. He believes in the power of representation, he said at the Royal Festival Hall. “If you can see it, you can be it.”
Enninful may have seemed a bold choice for the Vogue editorship, but those within the industry knew of his talent. Justine Picardie, the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar UK between 2012 and 2019, recalled meeting Enninful when he was at W. “In my bones I knew that he would go on to even bigger things,” she told me. Enninful was far from a nobody: he has long been surrounded by a coterie of influential friends, including models such as Moss, Campbell and Iman, and cultural figures such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Meghan Markle, who guest-edited Vogue’s September 2019 issue.
When Enninful took the Vogue post in August 2017, he “stepped in and refurbished it like a broken down house”, Coel joked. The editorial staff under Alexandra Shulman, who had been editor-in-chief for 25 years, was almost entirely white. During this period Condé Nast began a voluntary redundancy programme whose aim was to cut staff by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, Enninful brought in a new team of his own, forcing out many employees in what tabloids called a “purge of the posh”. Enninful was fulfilling his vision of an inclusive Vogue, but his treatment of long-standing staff was “brutal”, a fashion insider said. And while many have celebrated his commitment to representation, others have queried why a man should tell women how to dress.
Enninful’s appointment marked a sea change, not only because of what he represents as a black, gay, immigrant man, but because of the arc of his career. In a column for the Business of Fashion in 2017, Shulman wrote that the “new guard” were “less magazine journalists” and more “personalities with substantial social media followings”. The comment was widely taken as directed at Enninful, who at the time had 483,000 followers on Instagram. He now has 1.3 million. Shulman’s dig has evidently stayed with Enninful. “She was very much of her time,” he said of his predecessor. The audience howled. Coel, nearly falling off her chair, cut in: “May she rest in peace! The past tense is killing me.”
Enninful inherited Vogue at a time when the fortune of print magazines was in decline. His command of social media has allowed the brand to maintain relevance in the minds of people who might never buy a print copy. Readership figures are increasing, too: subscriptions grew by more than 14 per cent in 2021, while the number of digital visitors rose by 22 per cent.
In his book Enninful describes the “general perception of me as an image person rather than a words person”. His “interview” with Beyoncé for the July 2022 issue, which featured just two quotes from the pop star, was widely mocked. But his editorship has continued to spark conversation. Vogue in 2022 is a stylish, political vessel, which celebrates “change-makers”: three “key workers” (a midwife, a train driver and a supermarket assistant) appeared on the July 2020 cover; the footballer Marcus Rashford, who lobbied for free meals for low-income schoolchildren in lockdown, was on the cover of the September 2020 issue.
But there is a limit to how far a magazine such as Vogue can claim it works towards “activism” when its primary function is to sell its readers expensive clothes. Until Enninful proved differently, he told the audience, there was a myth in the industry that “black models don’t sell”. He showed Condé Nast and its many luxury advertisers that they do. If they hadn’t, he knows he would have been advised to make changes.
In December 2020 Enninful was appointed European editorial director of Condé Nast, alongside his Vogue title. Several European editions of the magazine were consolidated, resulting in the loss of jobs for editors. Enninful now works closely with Anna Wintour, who also holds dual titles as editor-in-chief of American Vogue (a role she has held since 1988) and global chief content officer of Condé Nast. As the company’s ambit shrinks, the power of Wintour and Enninful grows. Many tip Enninful to succeed Wintour, who is 72. “If Anna Wintour is the queen of Condé Nast, Edward is the crown prince,” Picardie said.
Like Wintour, Enninful is one of a select few magazine editors who has come to transcend his title. Vogue is the world’s best known fashion brand. The adoring audience at the Royal Festival Hall looked upon Enninful as someone even greater.
This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained