Edward Enninful (second left), Jennifer Lopez and Anna Wintour at the Coach spring 2024 show in New York, September 7, 2023.Photo: Nina Westervelt/WWD/Getty Images
The scene is May or maybe June 2008, PO (pre-Obama). I was working at my desk dreaming of escaping my finance job in the City of London to become a successful writer (still working on the “successful” part). Out of the blue, I received a message on my blackberry, something about Vogue Italia using only Black models and “experts” predicting that it would be the worst-selling edition ever… it. Before the day was over, I had received the same message, or a variation of it, dozens of times.
Whether it was a heartfelt plea for community solidarity or a relentless viral marketing campaign or both, it worked: despite the fact that I could barely order a glass of water in language, for the first time in my buying life I fashion magazine from the newsstands. I was far from alone: the magazine sold out in 72 hours on both sides of the Atlantic, prompting a massive reprint of 30,000 copies in the US, 20,000 in Italy and 10,000 in the UK. The moment made it clear, even to an ax, that fashion was a big issue of diversity. More precisely, fashion was an anti-Depression issue, which made it a normal industry or institution in the west.
About 10 years later, British Vogue would have its own Obama moment, when Edward Enninful was appointed editor. Enninful, a Ghanaian-born, British-raised son of Ladbroke Grove, was a veteran stylist (he was, in fact, the stylist for all the models in the all-black edition of Vogue Italia back in 2008). A somewhat enigmatic figure who was first appointed fashion director of iD magazine at the age of 18 and also served as fashion and style director of W magazine, Enninful was the first man and the first Black person to hold the title. In retrospect, it was like handing him the keys to a one-of-a-kind Rolls-Royce, asking him to drive 1,000 miles through a tsunami and bring it back in pristine condition. Full tank. Somehow, he pulled it off.
When Enninful became editor of British Vogue, Britain was far behind the United States in terms of diversity. No Black or brown person has ever held a major state office, a Black or brown prime minister was a pipe dream (which quickly became a real life nightmare), the number of Black people who had, say, TV commissioning power around their necks . and neck with the number of Black people in the royal family (zero), and fashion (including the fashion media), much like the rest of British media, arts and culture, was still largely a yard play of pigmentation-free, middle-class upper. privilege.
So Enninful’s diversity threshold was struck by adversity. “It’s like we went into Crufts and the cat won” commented Enninful attributing a rival editor who beat him to the top job. Unconscious racism also reared its head, when a white security guard was said to have instructed editor Enninful to use the death lift in his company’s building. Harsh as it was, these experiences and words seemed to do more to inspire the outgoing Vogue editor.
Today Enninful is an undisputed master of the art, craft and business of fashion media. The diversity of thought, personnel and tone from the top he brought to the table helped lift British Vogue during a period of crisis for the print media – while at the same time maintaining the core foundation and readership of the publication. His understanding of the genre meant he was able to change it. Flipping it on its head and taking it to places it hasn’t been before, while creating opportunities for people who would have been out of the industry before.
Under his editorship, British Vogue became the leading organ of the irreversible movements towards a more diverse, compassionate and competitive Britain. The dirty topics in much of the British media – race, disability, queerness, sustainability, climate crisis, “wokeness” – became selling points for British Vogue.
Related: Edward Enninful ends British Vogue’s reign with 40 cover stars
As high-level politics has shown, the appointment of people of color to powerful positions can be a blessing, a disappointment, or a terrible curse to their fellow citizens. Enninful was a blessing. His editorials represented a full-spectrum expansion of the pool of possibilities (and personnel) in fashion and beauty journalism. Misan Harriman, who quickly went from recruitment agent to photographer to Oscar-nominated director, was the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of British Vogue in its then 104-year history. Titans of Black British thought and literature such as Yomi Adegoke, Bernardine Evaristo and Afua Hirsch were regular features in the publication. Perhaps his unique achievement in this regard is that he is giving the axes to another Black person, Chioma Nnadi.
Enninful’s final cover, shot by renowned photographer Steven Meisel (who also shot all the models in the 2008 all-Black issue) features a who’s who of models, celebrities and actors, including Naomi Campbell and Iman, Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey and fashion designer Victoria Beckham. The stark diversity of the cover is a reflection of Enninful’s tenure as editor, how he changed fashion and beauty journalism and the progressive impact he had on Britain and the world. He left his mark, only Britain will be able to erase.
Nels Abbey is a writer, broadcaster and former banker, and author of Think Like A White Man. His new book, The Hip Hop MBA: Lessons in Cut-Throat Capitalism from Rap’s Moguls, is out in April
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