The man taking the fashion world by storm
Can fashion influence politics? As part of our series on modern role models to mark Black History Month, we look at the stellar career of the ground-breaking magazine editor Edward Enninful.
The security guard glanced up from his desk as a black man entered the lobby of Vogue House and headed for the lift. This could not be allowed to happen, he thought – the lift was for staff, not messengers making deliveries. “Hey!” he called. “You need to go in through the loading bay.” But the guard had made a false assumption – one that he would soon regret.
The new arrival was not a messenger but Edward Enninful, editor of British Vogue – the company’s most important journalist, and one of the most influential men in world fashion. He immediately complained that he had been racially profiled. The security guard was sacked.
The incident shows how much work there is still to be done in changing racial attitudes. But Enninful’s rise to become Vogue’s first black (and first male) editor demonstrates how barriers can be broken – and he is determined to open the way for others.
Enninful was born in Ghana in 1972, one of six children. His father was an army major; his mother, who fostered his interest in fashion, was a seamstress. “She loved clothes,” he says. “Oh my God, she had peplums and headscarves and frills and colour! People were always coming into our home, and she used to pin things all over them; I would sketch for her. My mum would dress them impeccably.”
The family moved to London and settled in Notting Hill. Enninful did well at school, taking A-levels in English literature, politics and sociology, and his father was determined that he should go into the law. But one day on the Underground he was spotted by a stylist for i-D who asked if he was interested in modelling. “Two weeks after that, a whole new world opened up. I remember doing the shoot and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I can’t be a lawyer!’”
Soon he was working as an assistant on the magazine, and at just 18 he was made its fashion director. “It was a baptism of fire. I had to style the covers and write the features and the shopping pages. I would work until 4am.” At the same time, he managed to complete a three-year course in English Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London.
At 26, he started working for Italian Vogue and masterminded an issue featuring only black models. He later joined American Vogue under Anna Wintour, and in 2011 became fashion and style director of W. Among the striking covers he produced was one of Kate Moss as a nun.
Since taking over at Vogue in 2017, he has made a point of featuring and employing people from ethnic minorities in prominent roles and highlighting social issues.
“My heart goes out to all those families whose relatives have been hurt or killed in gun and knife crimes. No one should ever go through that, ever. But what I can do is create amazing models and be a model for them. I had role models in my father, uncles, brothers. I want to show that there are other gangs, families they can make; their job can become their lives. It’s more exciting, less dangerous.”
Can fashion influence politics?
Fashion with passion
Some say, yes: it has always been an effective way of highlighting important causes. In the 1780s a Wedgwood brooch showing a kneeling black man in chains became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement. Fashion, Enninful says, “occupies a unique place in the Zeitgeist, and it has a singular ability to shift mindsets... I've always wanted to effect change in the world."
Others argue that fashion affects the way that people dress, but not the way that they think. Designers may follow popular movements, but they do not initiate them. When Katharine Hamnett went to a party at 10 Downing Street wearing a T-shirt with a giant anti-nuclear slogan, she attracted a lot of publicity but was simply preaching to the converted.
- There have been shocking reports recently about workers being paid less than the minimum wage by companies that sell cheap fashion items. Would you pay more for clothes to be certain that the people who made them were treated fairly?
- Is it right for a man to tell women what they should or should not wear?
- Organise a fashion shoot involving everyone in your class, using clothes that they already own.
- Imagine that you have been invited to a party by Edward Enninful to celebrate London Fashion Week. Design an outfit to wear to it.
Some People Say...
“Life for everyone has to get better; the thought it might not is unbearable.”Edward Enninful (1972–), British-Ghanaian journalist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that Enninful has broadened the perception of what a fashion magazine can be by featuring many different types of people rather than just glamorous models. In July, Vogue’s cover stars were “everyday heroes” of the pandemic: a train driver on the London Overground, a midwife from east London, and a supermarket worker from King’s Cross. He says that he wants Vogue to “speak to all the women I know: rich or poor, young, old, black, white, the prime minister, my neighbour.”
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether fashion can play a part in the environmental movement. In recent times the emphasis has been on unsustainable fast fashion, involving cheap clothes that people wear for a short time and then throw away; often these are made of non-biodegradable materials. Some designers are now pinning their hopes on “upcycling” – taking second-hand clothes and making them more beautiful so that people will want to wear them again.
- British Vogue
- Vogue is the world’s most influential fashion magazine, with editions produced in many different countries. The British one dates from 1916; its first editor was Elspeth Champcommunal, a friend of Virginia Woolf.
- Tops with extensions that go over the waist. The name comes from the ancient Greek word for tunic.
- Faultlessly. The word comes from the Latin verb “peccare”, meaning to sin.
- A British magazine known for promoting street fashion rather than the expensive designer clothes associated with Vogue.
- Anna Wintour
- Editor of American Vogue since 1988. She is famous for her chilly manner, which has earned her the nickname “nuclear Wintour”.
- An American fashion magazine. It is a spin-off of Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry’s trade magazine.
- Wedgwood brooch
- Josiah Wedgwood was the leading English potter of the 18th century. The brooch he produced bore the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?”
- A German word meaning the spirit of the age. German nouns always begin with a capital letter.
- Katharine Hamnett
- An English designer who has embraced many political causes. She has spoken out against the exploitation of workers in the fashion industry, and the scarcity of black models in catwalk shows.