Rafael Pavarotti/Penguin Random House
Black women don’t sell magazines. That’s what Edward Enninful heard early in his career in the fashion industry. And to him, it just seemed absurd.
“I [was raised] by my mother, who was a seamstress, and she made clothes for the most amazing women, women of all sizes and all ages and all skin tones,” says Enninful. “To me, fashion has always been such an inclusive and beautiful thing.”
The reality of the industry was often different. Enninful’s family emigrated from Ghana to the UK when he was a child. As a teenager he was “discovered” by a modeling agent on a train, but when he went to castings he was often fired because of his race.
“I’ll be told I was too dark or my lips were too big or my nose was too wide,” he says. “I really saw with my own eyes that having dark skin or being black wasn’t so desirable back then.”
At 18, Enninful began working behind the camera to identifier, a magazine focused on youth street style. As artistic director of the magazine and subsequent publications, he made it his goal to represent the world in all its diversity: “Even when people were like, ‘Oh, another black model on the cover,’ I was like, ‘ Yes, and here’s another one!… And I was never really scared because I knew the world I saw had to be reflected.”
This idea is one of the driving forces behind Enninful’s three-decade career as a stylist, art director and editor for some of the world’s most popular fashion magazines and brands. He was editor-in-chief of British vogue since 2017, holding the distinction as the first black and gay male editor in the magazine’s 106-year history.
Enninful writes about his life and career in the memoirs, A visible man.
Growing up in her mother’s garment workshop in Ghana
My mother had a workshop, about 40 seamstresses, so there was almost like a huge room in the bungalow and the seamstresses sewed all around. And my mother would be in another room. If you know African fabrics, you know colors. African women like to dress up. There is no bashing with African women. So I was my mother’s assistant. I will draw with her. I will literally put women in some kind of corseted dresses. I go play with carnations and I was transformed by what my mother showed me, what these days showed me, and when people talk about today, inclusivity and diversity, I knew from a very young age that, really, beauty for me began with curvy women.
On how her mother’s African fashion influenced her editorial eye
I remember when my mom always liked nipped waists, always like big sleeves, three-layer sleeves and… three-layer peplums, [in] African wax prints. And all I remember was these scarves literally touching the sky, and the skirts were always very, very tight, so the women were always hobbling. But it was about accentuating a woman’s curves, not hiding them. So it was like an hourglass. And I remember these beautiful, beautiful prints — oranges, greens, greens mixed with oranges, yellows mixed with browns, unexpected kinds of colors, which even to this day, when I put colors together, people always said, “Oh, that’s a weird combination,” but it works.
By becoming fashion director at identifier when he was 18
There I was, an 18-year-old in charge of this important magazine. So what did I do? I just threw myself into it. I learned everything I could about magazines. I did not sleep. I would literally style the covers. I would work on cover lines. I worked on articles inside magazines. I worked on the shopping pages. I mean, it was like a one man army. And then on top of that, I’d be in the publicity department learning how to sell the magazine. And we had these club nights. So I went to those club nights too, so we could show the world what we were doing as a magazine and get them to invest. I was in the art department. When you’re 18 and you feel like an impostor, you learn everything you can learn. So I didn’t sleep. I just worked and learned my trade. Even though it was quite difficult [for] However, in the following years, at that exact moment, I knew that I could not fail.
On the importance of empathy in fashion
When I work with Rihanna or Beyoncé or an incredible icon, I even know by a little expression on their face if they are comfortable or even a little movement of discomfort. I notice all of these things because of my mom’s studio and studying what makes a woman feel really comfortable and really her best.
If I hadn’t rubbed shoulders with my mother, immersing myself in women and the beauty of women, I probably wouldn’t have had this sensitivity. And really, when I took over those early days, it was empathy. … You have to be able to feel what someone is feeling because, I always say clothes – it’s not just clothes, it’s armor. That’s how you want the world to see you when you step outside, that’s how you want to be perceived. So there’s a lot to do. So you really have to have empathy as a designer, as a stylist towards women, women’s bodies and basically how they feel.
On the all-black 2008 issue of Vogue Italyfeaturing cover-to-cover black people, who launched his career to the next level
The Black Issue has begun [after] I went to what are called ready-to-wear collections, twice a year, when designers show their clothes to the world. And I just remember sitting there, really sad because out of a line of 40 models, there wasn’t a single black model. There were none ! …And I remember going back to New York because I was working in New York at the time on W Magazine and telling my collaborator, Steven Meisel, who was the first photographer for the Italian vogue, he turned all the covers. And I was sitting with Steven and I was really sad and I said, ‘Steven, there are no more black models on the shows. There are no more black models there, not in magazines.” …
Steven was like, “Let me talk to Franca Sozzani.” … [She] was the editor of Italian vogue at the time and a true visionary, literally came back and said, “Let’s do a number full of black women… through and through.” So it was a really amazing moment. I worked on a shoot with Toccara Jones, with Naomi Campbell, but it was amazing to see an issue that had Iman, Beverly Johnson and Tyra Banks and all the young models. And it was such an incredible idea and an incredible moment. He sold out. And I think they must have reprinted, at the time, 40,000 copies. But it showed that Black could sell, that in fact the world was waiting or the world wanted him, but he was just not being offered it. That’s what the black number showed.
On what it meant to receive an award from the British Empire, as an immigrant
I just realized, oh my God, I had brought something to my country. And I wasn’t that little stranger that got on the plane with my siblings, that I was able to seize the opportunity and really work hard. But by doing that too, I was able to bring people with me, people of color with me. … So when I received the award, it was really a wonderful moment, especially also for my father, who literally had to come to another country, start a whole new life, not be able to work and not have money and raise six children. So for him, it was such a special moment. There was also one of the reasons why I agreed to accept it, because it made him very proud.
Using his imagination as he recovered from eye surgery
As I lay in the dark, unable to be visually stimulated, I dreamed bigger. I saw Technicolor. I saw colors. And I came out of the three weeks in obscurity to create one of my most memorable covers with Rihanna as queen for W Magazine. … I may not be able to do my hair if [I lose my vision], but I know that I can withdraw into the imagination because in my imagination I see everything. I see beauty.
Drawing ideas from his dreams
Sometimes I’ll really fight with myself and can’t come up with an idea and go to sleep. And then I’ll wake up and see all the pictures. I’ll see the model, I’ll see the location, I’ll see the hair, I’ll see the makeup. And for years I thought that was cheating. [It was] my mother who said, “It’s actually a gift”, because I didn’t know… what a gift was. “It’s a gift from God and you really have to take care of it.”
Ann Marie Baldonado and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.