Is British Vogue editor Edward Enninful the next Anna Wintour?
Any rough edges are smoothed over by a high-minded, intellectual, respectful sense of fashion history. “I used to spend all my money on books I couldn’t afford just so I could learn about the people who had been before — all the great editors, the great designers. You have to study. [Styling] is not just going to a party and thinking you’re fabulous because you know how to put outfits together,” he says, likening styling more to acting or singing. “You have to study your craft.”
He turned fashion into social commentary as a contributing editor at Vogue Italia in the early 2000s. One of his most memorable fashion shoots boldly commented on the modern obsession with plastic surgery and our inability to accept human imperfection. The 2005 feature depicted bandaged models in various states of recuperation and reinvention. There were blackened and bruised eyes, bloody bits of gauze and magnificent designer frocks. It was a jarring juxtaposition of superficial confidence and deeply rooted insecurity, of self-creation and self-destruction. Enninful didn’t mock fashion’s doyennes; he exposed their truth.
In 2008, he was instrumental in shaping Vogue Italia’s groundbreaking Black Issue. A response to the fashion industry’s near whitewashing of the runways in New York, Milan and Paris, the project exclusively featured black models in all of its fashion spreads. It celebrated blackness while underscoring the ways in which it’s sidelined and categorized as “other.”
During the early 2000s, Enninful also was contributing to American Vogue. His first story, in 2005, was photographed in a laundromat. He followed up with one shot in a supermarket. “I wanted to bring this element of reality to American Vogue,” he says. He also learned how to balance art and commerce.
“I was very young going into Vogue, in my early 30s, and I learned that fashion is a business,” he says. “It’s not just telling all these fanciful stories.”
“I was doing all these Italian Vogue stories — 60 pages of head shots and a little scrap [of clothing], and you get to Anna and you have 12 outfits, and you have to create a story around these 12 outfits, and you find that it’s not just 12 outfits on a rack [at the magazine] but it’s units in a store.”
He moved on from American Vogue to become fashion director of W magazine. There, he once styled Rihanna as a post-apocalyptic warrior princess in a feather coat, armloads of tribal bracelets, skeleton medallions and a king’s ransom of jewels. In another story, model Linda Evangelista became a cyborg matron. Naomi Campbell was a chic Michelle Obama doppelganger.
“We shared the same set of values. We’re both European,” says W editor in chief Stefano Tonchi, who was born in Italy. “We lived the ’80s in the same place with the same ideas, the same set of images, the same music, the same clothes. We believe in diversity. We both live it as gay men to start with — and with the people we work with.”
Enninful spent about five years at W before stepping into his current position. He was not the obvious choice. He was not a woman; he was not white. And while he was well connected, he had not come from posh circumstances. But Enninful is well liked in an industry known for its prickly characters and unapproachable personalities. The announcement was met with surprise and delight.
“In this business, he’s somebody who is always positive, who’s always looking for solutions,” Tonchi says. “Most of the time, we spend our life pushing the stone up the hill. It’s nice to have someone helping you push it.”
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.
The interior is functional. Its open floor plan is filled with unremarkable workstations and old magazines. Odd bits of fashion paraphernalia are pushed into corners, including an Edward doll commissioned by Harvey Nichols that consists of a large bespectacled brown head atop a Giacometti-like body dressed in a black suit. It has been turned to face the wall. Enninful’s own office is a glass box dominated by a large desk, which he occasionally thumps for emphasis when talking, and stacks of fashion and art books.
We meet there in early September, after a long holiday and before he heads into the circus of international runway shows. He’s finishing up a morning staff meeting. There are some 40 people on his team, as well as regular contributors including filmmaker Steve McQueen, makeup artist Pat McGrath and Campbell. 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.
Alexandra Shulman, who preceded Enninful, was the longest-tenured editor in chief in the magazine’s history, and she cast it as a champion of British designers and as a thoughtful read with a bohemian take on glamour. Indeed, Shulman’s own style was more muddy Wellingtons than high-gloss Manolos. When she was asked about the all-white group portrait of her staff, she told the Guardian newspaper that when nonwhite candidates applied to work for her, “they almost always did in fact get the job. But relatively few came up through the pipeline, for whatever reason, so that might account for why there weren’t more.” Enninful has begun reaching out to local schools, cultivating the talent pool in digital media and trying, with his very presence, to change the presumptions about who is welcome at Vogue House.
There was a perception that one had to be wealthy, connected or of a certain class to work at British Vogue. Indeed, both of Shulman’s parents once worked at the magazine. “So many people thought it wouldn’t be possible for them to work at Vogue. Now they’re not scared to pick up the phone, to pick up their CV because they know, ‘Oh my God, we can!’ They know that the possibility is there,” Enninful says. “All these magazines are putting these incredible women of color on the cover, and I hope it’s not just a fad. The only way we can really stop it from being a fad is to get the people working behind the scenes [more diverse].”
“And the way to get there is … getting the kids coming in here to see what’s possible, to see what can be done no matter what background you’re from. To see me, from my background,” he goes on. “If I’m here and I can do this, there is no reason why these kids can’t do it.”
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, newsmakers. 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 sightline 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.”
In Enninful’s quest to halt the inertia of tradition — to make a century-old product modern — there have been bumps along the way. He severed ties with longtime editors and criticized the former editor in chief’s failure to be inclusive by making plain his determination to be so. He hurt feelings and nicked egos. And there is concern among close readers that the magazine is publishing fewer long-form feature stories, a concern Enninful says is overblown. “British Vogue always had a history of great journalism, and I guess because I come from the visual [side] people assume that maybe I can’t read,” he says. “I studied English literature at university. I used to write all the things for i-D.” British Vogue, he says, has published substantive features on abortion in Northern Ireland and racial tension in London, among others, and will continue to do so.
Based on the numbers, the changes Enninful has made have been positively received. While overall circulation for British lifestyle glossies is down, British Vogue had a 1.1 percent uptick in circulation over last year. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, its circulation as of August 2018 was about 192,000. (In comparison, American Vogue’s circulation is about 1.2 million, while Vogue Italia has a circulation of about 114,000.)
“The reaction of readers and business partners, they feel [British Vogue] is relevant,” Newhouse says. “Our revenues are up by 8 percent, for a magazine that’s more than 100 years old. That’s not just a feeling; it’s transforming into real revenue and profit.”
British Vogue may never be an advertising colossus like its American counterpart. But Enninful has nonetheless become a leader by the example he has set. He’s turning a legacy brand into a next-generation fashion bible, not by reinventing the product but by reflecting its audience. To see Adwoa and then Vittoria, Halima, Adut, Faretta, Paloma, Radhika, Yoon, Fran and Selena on the cover of a fashion institution, one that regularly featured Princess Diana, is, well, something.
“I realize: Oh my God, this might be normal to me, but for Vogue, it’s a different thing. Seeing this on i-D or W is different from seeing it on the cover of British Vogue with its incredible history,” Enninful says. “It feels more real. It seems more substantial.”
Diversity is becoming part of the magazine’s legacy. It’s being written into its future history. Which matters because Vogue “stands for tradition,” as Enninful points out. “It’s not going to evaporate in a year or two.”
Lettering by Craig Ward for The Washington Post; animation by Sarah Hashemi; photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks; design and development by Michael Johnson.