Vogue editor Edward Enninful: ‘Impostor syndrome is what drives me’
One Wednesday morning in 2020 the editor-in-chief of British Vogue was on his way to work. It was a warm day and London was quiet, that uncanny stillness as people crept awkwardly back to life – this was the first time Edward Enninful had been into the office since lockdown. He was there to finish Vogue’s September issue – . The theme was “hope”, and it featured a black and white gatefold of portraits of social justice activists, with footballer Marcus Rashford and model Adwoa Aboah sharing the cover. Enninful was excited. Hopeful, even. Over lockdown, he’d been organising virtual round tables in response to George Floyd’s murder, and having crisis discussions with Black leaders in other industries, like Oprah Winfrey and the Duchess of Sussex, as protesters marched in the street below his flat. They had talked and talked about “moving forward”. But as he approached the glass doors of Vogue House, a white security guard stopped him. “Deliveries go through the loading bay,” she shouted. Enninful had two thoughts. The first, a groan: “Not today, Satan.” The second: “I can do something about this.”
It’s just after 8am in Enninful’s kitchen, almost five years to the day since he took the editorship of British Vogue, and two since he was made Vogue’s European editorial director, part of a larger management team with Anna Wintour. Where Wintour’s dawn routine involves a game of tennis then professional hair and makeup, Enninful gets up at five to meditate. This year he turned 50 and celebrated with a wedding to his partner of 20 years, Alec Maxwell. To his left, nestled against the kitchen counter, a wedding cake the height of a modest woman is waiting to go into storage. It sits at the edge of our vision as we talk, radiating glamorous, oversized joy.
We’re here to discuss his new book (this is the first time I’ve met Enninful, though I write an agony aunt column on Vogue’s website), a memoir by the first male, first Black, first working-class and first gay editor in the magazine’s 100-year history. After reading it (Oprah Winfrey tells me over email), “I see how everything that happened in his life shaped him to be the man he is now.” A man, Winfrey says, who is, “At the pinnacle of the fashion industry and still kind and sensitively aware of other people’s feelings.” The same month that he was stopped by the security guard, Enninful was walking his dog (Ru the Boston terrier, who has more than 17,000 followers on Instagram) with his friend, actor Idris Elba, explaining what the book would be about. “Oh, you know,” he sighed. “A boy from Ghana making his way in a racist, classist industry, and the struggles along the way.”
Elba stopped him. No, he said. No. “We see glamour and swagger,” Elba said. “We don’t see a struggling Black person. Make sure you give us power and success. We need that.” Enninful was taken aback. He didn’t feel particularly powerful, or successful. He didn’t feel like he’d “made it” – success for immigrants, for most Black people, he says, is fragile. But he listened, and the book he’s written has power in it, and glamour, and humour, but also politics, and vulnerability, and a little horror, too.
He recalls growing up in Accra, the fifth of six kids in a military family, with a view of a hill strung with wooden posts. This was where the executions would happen. “Oh, is it firing-squad day?” he’d ask his dressmaker mother Grace, when they heard gunshots.
In 1981 a coup in Ghana meant his father, Crosby, a major in the Ghanaian army, was no longer safe, so he quickly moved the family to London where they stayed with an auntie in Brixton. “We had to essentially flee,” he says. “And people say to me, ‘How do you still have such a positive attitude?’ But when you work in an industry like fashion, if you’ve come from where I’ve come from, this has to be fun. Work has to be fun, because I was never supposed to be here.”
Soon after the family moved to London (“Another kind of war zone”, he writes of Thatcher’s Britain – he watched the sky change colour as Brixton erupted in riots outside their door) he started stealing fashion magazines from WH Smith, and at 16 he was scouted as a model for i-D. It was on fashion shoots as teenagers that he first met lifelong friends like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Steve McQueen, now a Turner Prize-winning artist and acclaimed film-maker. Ladbroke Grove in London, where they lived, was “everything”, says McQueen. Gay, straight, rich, poor, Black, white. “And we all influenced each other. Edward embodies that in his work. It was all about possibilities and being open. And it was fun.” They both enrolled at Goldsmiths to study together, but on the first day, says McQueen, “As we were approaching the building, he just turned on his heels and walked back towards New Cross station. He never came back.” Instead, Enninful became i-D’s fashion director. He was 18, and remained in that job for the next 20 years. He writes that his father did not speak to him for 15 of them, so disappointed was he by his son’s career choice. Kicked out of the family home two years earlier, “I had the manic energy of someone who had just lost his family and was desperate to create a new one.” A day would come when Crosby would dance alongside Madonna and Naomi Campbell, Enninful’s chosen family, at a party to celebrate his OBE. He accepted the OBE, he said, just to make him proud.
His life story leaps along like this – precocious talent, extreme pain, Rihanna running in late, major surgery, Naomi Campbell being fabulous, names dropping like confetti – in such a dazzling way that his grandest achievement to date, becoming editor of Vogue, is almost the least interesting part. He’d been working at W Magazine and US Vogue when he got the job in 2017 and, returning to Britain from New York, “I didn’t realise the country had changed so much. People were talking about Brexit, saying, ‘Your country’s so xenophobic,’ but I thought, you know, I’m going home, I’m going to be welcomed.” He winces slightly. While in front of the camera there’s been a push for more models of colour (spearheaded by Enninful’s 2008 Black issue of Vogue Italia, which featured only Black women and sold out in 72 hours), today in Britain only 0.2% of journalists are Black. The British Vogue Enninful took over from Alexandra Shulman had seen only 12 covers out of 306 featuring Black women, and an almost completely white staff.
A month before Enninful’s first issue came out, Shulman wrote a column seemingly denouncing fashion editors who think “the main part of their job is being photographed… with a roster of famous friends”. It appeared deliciously undignified to the casual spectator, but for Enninful it was wounding. “We did a handover,” he recalls of Shulman, “and I thought she was a lovely woman. I had so much respect for her. Then the press hit – I thought as editors we’d have a certain decorum with each other.” In his book, Enninful remembers daily stories in the press, “about what this radical gay, Black man was getting up to. Remember this was three years before every magazine suddenly seemed to care about diversity. The global right wing had not yet adopted the word ‘woke’ as its insult du jour. I was truly shocked and saddened to see the same out-of-the-box scepticism from Alex Shulman, though.” However, “I don’t recall Zadie Smith or Salman Rushdie writing for her at British Vogue, as they would for me, but there you go.” The press continued what felt like a pointed attack. “They called me ‘an outsider’,” he says now, “which was funny to me because I was very much an insider, actually, having started so young. I was ‘the dark horse’.” He raises his eyebrows. “I was always ‘Ghanaian-born’. There was one article that I was horrified by at the time, but now actually laugh at. One of the editors who was up for the job said, ‘It’s as though we entered Crufts and the cat won.’” He hoots, a little mournfully. “In the office, people were leaking stories. That I was ‘chaotic’. ‘Spending too much’. All that was…” a breath, “that was shocking.”
But at the same time, a part of him was not surprised. “One of the most crucial survival skills for any Black person in a white space,” he writes, “is to intimately understand how institutional white psychology works… To go into any white space without that comprehension is like walking into a swordfight without a rapier and a shield.” Being Black in the workplace, he adds, “is not a recipe for inner peace”. How did the criticism make him feel? “Horrible. But I had friends who had been in a similar position before. The first lesson they taught me was, don’t listen, don’t read, just focus.” Which friends? “I called Naomi. I called Rihanna, people who’ve been through it. And I didn’t speak out about it – I just kept going, kept moving forward.”
He’d arrived back in London with a manifesto – he wanted to create “a Vogue that really represented women today, just as it had in the 70s. Ordinary women’s stories, activism, stories about culture, and people who were shaping the world. In my head I was like, ‘I’ll probably get fired in three or four months, but I’d rather get fired for something I believe in.’” The accepted line had always been that Black women didn’t sell magazines, but since Enninful took over (with more than half of his covers featuring women of colour) revenue is up, digital growth is huge and circulation has increased. “It’s so commercially successful – we haven’t lost readers, we’ve actually gained readers, almost six million people come to the website every month – now it’s not just about the magazine, we’ve created a brand.”
So, does he still feel like he’s yet to “make it”? “Impostor syndrome is what drives me. I will never be one of those people that can sit back and go, ‘I’ve done it.’ My background doesn’t allow me that. Impostor syndrome never leaves you. But I also realise – that’s what pushes me. You know, when an issue comes out, it takes me a while to relax, I’m always looking for mistakes, just to get better. You can’t rest on your laurels, as my mum used to say, you always have to keep moving.” His mistakes, he says, “Got me where I am. Not my successes. There’ll be more regrets along the way. But now, I don’t dwell. It’s like, ‘Let’s just move on.’” Ru skitters across the floor and Enninful hoists him kissily on to his lap. “It helps that I have the best team. I remember the newspapers saying, ‘He’s got rid of everybody at Vogue.’” There was a series of blogs and Daily Mail scoops about him firing “Sloaney sloths” on staff, determined to “remove the posh girls” (he laughs – some of his best friends are posh girls). “But any good editor wants people with a similar vision, don’t they? That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, having a team who really believe that, yes, fashion is exclusive, but we can also be inclusive, and welcoming to everybody.”
Which is not to say they’re infallible. The September issue of British Vogue saw Linda Evangelista shot by Steven Meisel for the cover, her first interview since being “deformed” by a cosmetic procedure. In 2005 Meisel and Enninful collaborated on a controversial Vogue Italia shoot starring Evangelista as a diva stalking the corridors of a hotel in bandages after cosmetic surgery. This month’s shoot saw her scarved and retouched, and met criticism for its “filtered version of dreams”. In the New York Times Vanessa Friedman wrote, “Imagine the impact if Vogue had put someone, purported flaws and all, on the cover of its biggest issue of the year, and framed those flaws not as flaws at all but as simply part and parcel of a new kind of beauty.” Even in 2022, even here, some fantasies of beauty appear non-negotiable. But, Enninful tells me, “I read the criticism, and that’s not how I approached the September issue cover. Linda had a horror of an experience over the last couple of years and it was her decision to go forward with a timeless, ‘Everlasting Linda’ look.” He adds, “I respect women’s choices for their own bodies.”
Enninful’s flat, he says, is reminiscent of the simple home he grew up in, and despite the fact it’s a penthouse apartment a moment from Hyde Park, I can see what he means – it’s clutterless, bright, the walls are empty but for a handful of fashion photos. The only tchotchke of note is a Barbie-sized doll in his image – a puppet designed by Moschino – which sits watchfully on a dresser. The hallway is lined with his magazine archive, and Beyoncé’s Vogue cover looks imperiously down at the dining table.
In 2019 Enninful received a cryptic email suggesting tea. It was signed “M”. The magazine issue that tea date led to, guest-edited by the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, became an international news story, but the backlash was just as extreme, with Markle criticised for being “divisive” for celebrating transgender women, and too “left wing”. Does Enninful see himself as an activist? “No. But I know injustice. I love fashion, but I also know what’s right from wrong. And when people say to me, ‘You’re so fearless,’ now, you know why. Where I came from, I lost everything. I was thrown out of home. Fear is maybe what makes me… unafraid. And empathic.” He pauses. “I remember being very sensitive as a child and feeling so much. Then realised that the older you get, you’re like, ‘We can put this feeling here for later,’” his hands mime cutting a slice of cake, “‘And deal with what we have to deal with now.’” Being in this role really toughens you, but empathy is very important, and I think that’s what makes British Vogue what it is. All these people who’ve been othered, bringing them in, and welcoming them. I know I’ve done my job when a Korean woman comes up to me or a little Black girl and says thank you. It’s really important, I think, for people to see themselves.” And besides, he adds, “Equality and inclusivity make the world more exciting. A multitude of voices is always better than just one. Don’t you think?”
Bringing Enninful’s politics with him to Vogue, says McQueen, was never up for debate. “Edward is interested in ideas. Of course there’s everything that surrounds them: the politics can be loud. But first and foremost he’s an artist. In recent times he’s had to navigate that at Vogue, and he’s changed the conversation completely. Look around, on billboards and on catwalks, in other magazines. He has put things in the mainstream that are evident: manufacturing images which are lasting and stunning and true. It’s not easy. And there’s also a resistance to it.” Thanks to Enninful, the culture, McQueen says, “has shifted”.
Enninful has watched this shift – the march below his window, the photos across his desk – with some glee, but more impatience. “I’ve seen change, of course: Black models are everywhere now. But for me, change needs to happen from behind the scenes. I think that’s the way forward. That’s how you choose to truly change, when people behind the scenes are also diverse, and can advise and help shape a narrative. That’s the next step.” He might not identify as an activist himself, but he platforms them regularly, both the people grinding away quietly for charity and the stars who step off the catwalk to talk about mental health or trans rights. “That’s what makes a modern celebrity,” he says. “There has to be purpose. You can’t just be walking around your big house or shot on a red carpet. You need to stand for something.”
That summer’s day in 2020 wasn’t the first time Enninful was racially profiled, “And you know,” he chuckles, “It won’t be the last. As a Black man you have to be so self-aware; you have to know who you are. Nothing is new to me about being Black. At restaurants, my partner is handed the cheque, you know, little things. I ask my [white] assistant to stop us a cab. But these are biases that I’ve known my whole life. The important thing about that moment was I knew I could do something about it, this time. And I have to speak up.” He thinks for a second. “But, you know, the beauty about things like that happening is that you see the support, the allyship. Black people can’t do it alone, trans people can’t do it alone, gay people can’t do it alone. Women can’t do it alone. We all need to stand together. Also,” he smiles, “those moments keep me real. And it’s great. It’s like, I’m just another Black person. I like that.”