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.
Yet Enninful, on this day in the middle of Paris Fashion Week, is flummoxed over a coat. Not just any coat, Enninful tells me, but his coat. It’s caramel-colored, a gift from Riccardo Tisci, the recently appointed creative director of Burberry. The color has thrown Enninful thoroughly off balance. He prefers the strict camouflage of black and white: Black suit. White shirt. Black-framed eyeglasses. It’s his uniform.
The Burberry coat is a classic and looks splendid on Enninful, but he clearly does not feel fine in it. He’s chatting up his colleagues, killing time before the start of the umpteenth show of the day, and he’s clutching the coat around his torso with his shoulders hunched forward as if he’s attempting to vanish within its tailored confines. Most people would not have such strong feelings about a simple piece of outerwear, but Enninful has spent his entire adult life considering the way clothes not only make us look but also the way they make us feel. And the coat makes Enninful feel exposed at a time when he is in the spotlight as never before.
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 Conde 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.
American Vogue remains an advertising behemoth, but it has not been immune to the economic travails of magazines. The next Anna Wintour will rise out of an industry that is now more diffuse and deflated. It is a borderless business, one in which celebrities are just as likely to rise from social media and Nollywood as network television and Hollywood. The role of kingmaker is less important when a young designer can sell direct-to-consumer, broker a lucrative sneaker deal or court the affections of myriad influencers.
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.