The editor-in-chief of British Vogue on activism, hope — and how he’s making a modern, multicultural magazine “Racism is a part of my life whether I like it or not,” says Edward Enninful, the Ghanaian-born, west London-raised stylist who became the first black editor-in-chief of British Vogue in 2017. It’s a light, sunny Monday in August and a momentous occasion for the 48-year-old, who in just a few hours will reveal the cover of the September issue, the most important of the year. He is nattily dressed in signature black-frame glasses and a navy wool Burberry suit, ready for a day of TV appearances — first Sky, then CNN — and a photo shoot with the FT, for which he will soon change into a black suit. But we aren’t at present talking about the September issue, a well-thumbed copy of which lies on his office desk. We’re discussing an incident that Enninful tweeted about on July 15, when he walked through the front door of Condé Nast Britain’s headquarters in Mayfair and was told by a security guard to use the loading bay at the back. “I’m a black man — it isn’t the first time I’ve been profiled and won’t be last,” he says now. (The security guard, who is employed by a third-party contractor, is no longer working in the building.) Drawing public notice to such events is a relatively new thing for Enninful, who in a 2018 interview said he tried “not to pay attention” to racism. “When I was younger I would have been so nervous,” he says. “But at my age, I feel I have to voice it so people didn’t have to go through that and think it was OK.”
Enninful has recently read André Leon Talley’s memoir, which details the systemic racism the 71-year-old former American Vogue creative director encountered in the fashion industry. Did Enninful, who broke into the industry as a model at age 16, find his depiction accurate? “Yes, though André came before me,” he says. As Talley did, Enninful learnt early that “If you were black, you have to work 10 times as hard.” “I did that from studying more, looking at more images, owning my craft and educating myself,” he says. At a time when Condé Nast’s US operation is under scrutiny for its treatment of people of colour — leading to the resignation of two executives and a company-wide memo from American Vogue editor Anna Wintour conceding that her magazine “has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors” in June — Enninful has shown what a modern Vogue can look like: inclusive but luxurious, multicultural in its outlook and the make-up of its staff, fashion-first but with an eye on the wider world. It’s not enough putting an image on your Instagram feed, or showing a picture in a magazine. The infrastructure behind the scenes has to change His issues have celebrated activists and cultural “changemakers”, and expanded the brand’s historically narrow definition of what is beautiful, stylish and aspirational. He has been the first editor to introduce covers featuring subjects in a hijab and a durag, and pushed the ceiling on age, making 85-year-old Judi Dench the title’s oldest cover star in June. Clocking in at 352 pages, his latest issue travels in that same vein. September is the most important issue of the year for fashion magazines and the one that holds the most advertising. It’s also typically used as a lure for the least attainable of celebrities: last September’s issue was guest-edited by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in a celebration of “trailblazers” that proved a real press coup. For the first time, all 26 international editions of Vogue have agreed on a common theme for their September/October issues: hope. “For me, I knew that with everything that had gone on, our interpretation had to be about activism and education,” says Enninful. He enlisted the Nigerian-born photographer Misan Harriman — the first black man to shoot a British Vogue cover in its 104-year history — to capture model and mental-health activist Adwoa Aboah alongside Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who in June wrote a moving letter that persuaded the government to extend its free-meal vouchers to disadvantaged schoolchildren through the summer holidays. The cover folds out to reveal individual portraits of 20 activists featured in its pages, including Angela Davis and Alice Wong.
Enninful has made a name for himself with timely covers that resonate on social media. In a period when the audiences of magazines and their websites are a mere rounding error relative to that of Instagram and WeChat, which each reach more than 1bn people a month, that is all the more important. He has also changed the people behind those covers. Most of the crew on the cover shoot were black, says Enninful, adding that “the clothes are by BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] designers” including Martine Rose and A-Cold-Wall’s Samuel Ross. It was important “to have input not only in front of the camera but behind it” — something fashion brands need to do more of, he says. “It’s not enough putting an image on your Instagram feed, or showing a picture in a magazine or shoot. The infrastructure behind the scenes has to change,” he says.