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15 June 2023

Inside the downfall of Edward Enninful

Did the former Vogue editor really live up to his mission?

By Nina-Sophia Miralles

This month Edward Enninful, in what is becoming another of his loudly self-publicised achievements, managed to be promoted and demoted at the same time. On 2 June it was announced that he would stop being editor-in-chief of British Vogue after six years, and move to a new job: “editorial adviser at British Vogue and global creative and cultural adviser”. Was he promoted or was he fired upwards?

The BBC was among those outlets that treated his departure as a promotion. “Throughout his six-year tenure, the firsts have continued,” agreed the Guardian, “with Enninful recently promoted to a new global role, championing a series of pioneering moments.”

But his tenure is also coming under critical scrutiny, arguably for the first time. “It’s funny how everyone’s coming out now. It’s like it’s safe to let rip,” one Vogue insider tells me.

“Ed is gone. Anna cut him off,” a source in the industry says, referring to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue since 1988. A rift between the two was widely reported. Another source tells me that “after six years I can see why Edward might feel he was no longer a mentee. But it’s the kind of role you take knowing it’s number two in the fleet.”

What was Enninful trying to achieve at Vogue? Last year, he claimed in an interview that he had thought “I’m probably going to get fired for making it [Vogue] inclusive”. Diversity and inclusion were his professed aims. “I look at magazines that are now so much more diverse and I realised nobody was having this conversation in 2017,” Enninful says in 2022, implicitly celebrating his own narrative: that his tenure at Vogue was changing the fashion industry.

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[See also: Coco Chanel’s second coming]

Yet it is far from clear that he lived up to his mission (or “manifesto”, as he called it). “He obviously wanted to change the colour of the magazine, and it went from being fully white to a really good mix,” a former member of his team told me last week. “But diversity behind the scenes? No. He definitely brought his friends in.”

There are claims that Enninful did not create an inclusive environment that nurtured all members of staff. “There was a real culture of blame, a lot of throwing people under the bus if something goes wrong. It was not at all supportive,” says a source. “I got a lot of ‘we don’t do it like that here’. He has a clique around him, and it’s not a nice place to work unless you’re with the in-crowd.” Staff have reported to me of a culture in which they were made fun of for previously working at magazines considered less glamorous than Vogue – behaviour that was never addressed.

Nor did Enninful break new ground in photography, the lifeblood of the title. In the first 30 issues of his tenure, he hired only two photographers under the age of 50, and only one was a relative unknown. He typically worked with Vogue mainstays such as Steven Meisel, who has worked for the magazine since the 1980s.

Enninful was the first editor to put a man on the cover of Vogue, but that was Timothée Chalamet, a Hollywood actor. The LGBT+ creative who graced Vogue in August last year was Cara Delevingne, a supermodel. He made another model, Adwoa Aboah, his first cover star in 2017, in a move heralded for its diversity. But a key detail was missed: Aboah is the god-daughter of Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, whose husband Jonathan Newhouse is the chairman of Condé Nast, which owns Vogue.

The rich and storied history of Vogue suggests advisory roles of the sort Enninful has now been handed are mere tokens given to editors on their way out, typically to spare them public humiliation. Jessica Daves, the homely editor-in-chief who saw American Vogue through the boom years of the 1950s was moved to “editorial adviser” when management was seduced by Diana Vreeland’s outlandish aesthetic. Vreeland was herself unceremoniously made a “consulting editor” in 1971 on her way to retirement. She was never consulted.

Condé Nast has taken to inventing new titles in recent years. Anna Wintour, for instance, was made artistic director of Condé Nast, then in 2020 its chief content officer (as well as global editorial editor of Vogue). Wintour’s titles handed her almost total control of Condé Nast, a mission she has been pursuing assiduously since the 1990s. Enninful’s new title, decoded, hints at something else. Being named an “adviser” twice over allows Enninful to return to what he was doing before.

[See also: The joyless rise of Anna Wintour]

Before Vogue, Enninful was a kind of fashion gun-for-hire. Scouted as a model for i-D at 16, shortly after moving from Ghana to Britain, he became its fashion director at 18. Though i-D has since become a leading youth fashion title, it was launched as a fanzine and the grandiose title bestowed on Enninful was a premature vote of confidence. While there, he was free to build his relationships with brands, taking on lucrative extracurricular projects. When he became contributing editor at Vogue Italia, and then contributing editor at American Vogue, he could continue to style and consult on the side.

Such creative work for commercial brands is far better paid than anything Condé Nast can muster now, even for its brightest stars, and is less demanding. (The company used to offer its editors interest-free mortgage loans on Park Avenue flats in Manhattan.) As editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Enninful could not take on freelance work: many of the magazine’s advertisers were would-be clients, which would have created conflicts of interest. By relinquishing the shackles of the editorship, he will now be free to do some well-paid projects elsewhere.

There is precedent for Enninful’s move. The celebrated fashion editor Grace Coddington gave up her title as US Vogue creative director in 2016, becoming an editor-at-large to “pursue external projects”. “She bought a big house in the Hamptons [on Long Island, New York state] and needs to earn the money to pay it off,” one former editor-in-chief of Vogue tells me. Coddington herself said she was “not running away from Vogue” and that it would be “nice to collaborate… nice to go out [and] give talks to people. It’s just another approach.”

Vogue itself is unlikely to suffer from Enninful’s departure as editor. The scoops he pursued – such as the first images of Naomi Campbell’s daughter and of Rihanna’s son – were frequently predictable. But they generated an easy buzz. Nurturing new creatives may never have done so. “He was trying to get those people [the celebrities] on the pages of the magazine, rather than searching for something new,” a former employee says. Meaningful change may have been beyond Enninful. “I like him personally,” one insider suggested, “but I always thought this [role] was too big for him.”

The role of a Vogue editor-in-chief used to be one of the most powerful in journalism, involving a delicate balancing act between commercial, creative and editorial concerns. Now that role is evolving. The last two editors-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld and Emmanuelle Alt, were both stylists, as was Enninful. (The position at Vogue Paris has since been replaced by a “head of content”.)

Vogue’s history is dominated by editors-in-chief who had a journalistic background. But journalists have been usurped. Stylists – one-person brands – have increasingly been placed in this sacred role, underlining how important the visual has become. “I know people are saying that he [Enninful] wasn’t an editor in the true sense,” a former staffer says. “He did read the proofs, but I’m not sure how well he read them. He really relied on [the journalist] Giles Hattersley, and pretty much went with every word Giles said.”

“It did lose something editorially. I don’t think the writing or the stories were as strong,” the staffer thinks. “It was trying to be very young.” This is perhaps unsurprising given the company’s pivot to digital. “We put YouTube first,” the magazine’s publisher Vanessa Kingori said in 2021. Rather than looking for the next Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter and Marina Warner (all of whom at one time wrote for British Vogue), the title was tasked by management with pursuing “magic moments”, which is its house term for viral content. What is important now, as Alyson Lowe, Vogue’s audience growth manager has said, is to “own the story” and “shape the moment”. And to make cameo appearances in the selfies of celebrities.

Through the prism of these new rules, it is easier to understand what may seem like left-field appointments to the Vogue roster, not least the hiring of Margaret Zhang as editor-in-chief of Vogue China in 2021. The move confused many, not least because Zhang, at just 27 years old, was the youngest editor-in-chief in Vogue history. Zhang is Chinese but was born and had lived most of her life in Australia. Yet she was an influencer, with a huge personal following. Zhang’s predecessor, Angelica Cheung, had done the gruelling work of setting up Vogue in a new country and winning a position in the market, as Enninful’s predecessors did at British Vogue. Zhang inherited a ready-made brand. Vogue needed her to front it rather than run it.

“It’s important to have a figurehead who understands how to best appear in the public eye; a zeitgeist conductor,” says Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, founder of the academic fashion publication Vestoj. “An influencer is probably better-suited to doing this than a traditional editor.”

The game Condé Nast plays today is not to pick the right editor but the right influencer; a nominal editor who is really more of a brand ambassador, with unseen deputies editing the actual magazine and any other products in question. The job of editors and creative directors at fashion magazines is “to incarnate the brand”, according to Cronberg.

Picking untested influencers is, however, fraught. Social audiences are fickle. “I used to follow her,” says one stylist in Hong Kong, referring to Zhang. “But then she got predictable. I was surprised when she became China’s Vogue editor, as she hasn’t lived in China and doesn’t know the country from a Chinese reader’s perspective.”

One former staffer expressed her surprise at Enninful’s exit: “He was supposed to be this great hope.” The news has shocked those who believed Enninful was being primed to take over from Wintour and run Vogue globally. In September 2022, Enninful published his memoir with Bloomsbury, A Visible Man. Publishers tell me he sought £2m for the manuscript. It was one of the few ways he could make money while editing Vogue.

Enninful may also have decided that going up against Wintour was not worth it. By shifting positions, he can continue to claim relevance with his role as an “adviser”, while Vogue can continue to draw on his activist credentials. Wintour, meanwhile, can go on happily amalgamating every Condé Nast property and moulding it in her image.

Promotion or demotion? More than anything this move is an obituary for the once-lauded position of editor-in-chief of British Vogue. Enninful’s successor will not be an editor but a “head of content”. Wintour can finally integrate the last company outlier, British Vogue, into her global editorial structure. The merger of Vogue’s gorgeously varied, culture-specific editions into a homogenised blur will be complete.

Vogue’s founding principle was to be one thing to a very select group of people. Intended for a monied elite since its launch as a New York journal of society and fashion in 1892, Condé Montrose Nast bought the title in 1909. He refined the audience even further, targeting wealthy women. That focus has been all but forgotten in Vogue’s desperate bid to compete with the avalanche of digital content now available online.

Vogue today seeks to snare an audience anywhere it can: on social media, at fashion week events, through newsletters or in print. It relentlessly manufactures such content. Its new mode – “more and cheaper” – is at odds with the title’s past artistry. There is a perpetual tension between its claims of inclusion and the exclusivity luxury magazines must offer. “I don’t know what Vogue stands for anymore,” says Cronberg in the wake of Enninful’s exit. “I suppose that’s what they are trying to figure out themselves.”

[See also: Why everyone wants to be friends with Edward Enninful]

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