LONDON — Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue, gave me a list of friends to contact for this article.
It’s a very impressive list, I told him when we had coffee in the kitchen of his London apartment, opposite Hyde Park. The first five people on it go by only one name. Beyoncé. Rihanna. Naomi. Iman. Oprah.
He giggled. “I didn’t even think about that,” he said. “Talk about strong women.” His soft voice, with its Ghanaian lilt, has an upbeat vibe, like he’s about to tell you something delicious. He laughs easily, which I wasn’t expecting, having read his new memoir, out on Sept. 6, which is full of harrowing setbacks. He dryly described the autobiography, “A Visible Man,” to his friend Idris Elba, who also has Ghanaian roots, as the simple tale of “a boy from Ghana making his way in a racist, classist industry.”
Mr. Enninful is the first male editor in chief of British Vogue in its 106-year history. He is also the first Black editor to be at the helm of Vogue in Britain or America — at the vanguard of a new cohort, many of them editors of color, who have come into power over the past few years.
The 50-year-old said he did not have the customary privileged pedigree but he did have “a calling”: to drag fashion magazines into the future. He has successfully revolutionized a magazine that was once known as a white, aristocratic cocoon, a cabal of London “posh girls” in Wellies churning out covers that showcased milky complexions like their own. He yanked open the fusty chintz curtains and displayed an aurora borealis of different races, sizes, ages and sexualities — and also managed to do it while maintaining the edgy, glamorous sensibility that helped him rise quickly through the industry.
Now, Mr. Enninful is touted as someone who could someday succeed Anna Wintour. In 2018, the Washington Post critic Robin Givhan contrasted them this way: “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.”
Part of the reason Mr. Enninful gets to take the editorial risks he does is that British Vogue’s circulation is small compared with that of American Vogue (about eight million between print and digital compared to American Vogue’s 25 million, according to Condé Nast). Under his leadership, though, the magazine and its digital outposts are growing. The company brags that British Vogue subscriptions rose over 14 percent in 2021 compared with the year before, while digital visitors jumped 22 percent in the same period.
‘I Made Sure I Was Seen’
The devil wears Prada, and so does Mr. Enninful. He had on a black Prada shirt, Marks & Spencer flat-front pants, a Rolex, black-framed glasses from Cutler and Gross, and black velvet slippers with crossed bones that are a tribute to another one-named companion present at the interview: Ru, his Boston terrier. We drank out of mugs imprinted with the image of Ru, who has more than 17,400 Instagram followers.
“As you can tell,” he said, gazing at his dog, “Ru is practically my child.”
Mr. Enninful is a sci-fi fan and his autobiography’s title, “A Visible Man,” is evocative of the H.G. Wells book “The Invisible Man,” about a scientist who figures out to make himself invisible, as well as the Ralph Ellison book “Invisible Man.”
“I love what it stands for with the Black experience,” he said. “I grew up in another country. We were very poor. I was supposed to be invisible.” But, he said, “I made sure I was seen.”
In the book, he is candid but diplomatic about his time at Vogue and its parent company Condé Nast, writing: “Some months, it felt like being a redhead or a brunette rather than a blonde was what counted for diversity. Unsurprisingly, the staff was overwhelmingly white too and it was impossible not to feel it.”
After a buzzy six-year run as the fashion and design director of W, he was elevated in 2017 by Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of the board of Condé Nast, to the top job at British Vogue.
“Even though people knew me as a fashion insider, the newspapers saw me as an outsider because I was Black, because I was gay, because I was working class, because I didn’t go to the schools” they considered right, he said.
The drama played out in the vivisecting British press amid the anti-immigrant, racist currents swirling around Brexit.
There were also barbs about the job going to a man — a risk-taking stylist who would not be able to fathom the understated fashion preferred by British women.
“I endured this for four months,” he said. “I remember calling Rihanna and Naomi, and they both said, you just have to tune it out. Sometimes the only way to do is to show the work.”
Grace Coddington, his mentor when he worked at American Vogue from 2006 to 2011, recalled: “I told him to take a leaf out of Anna’s book. They were foul to her when she arrived. You just can’t take it seriously.”
The Daily Mail yelped, “He will take up his throne amid a bloody battleground” of furious fashionistas who were spurned, despite their high-society connections.
Mr. Enninful writes that he was “truly shocked and saddened” to see “the same out-of-the-box skepticism” from his predecessor, Alexandra Shulman, who had run the magazine for 25 years.
After she left the Sloanie Club, as some called it, Ms. Shulman became a columnist at the fashion trade website Business of Fashion. Shortly before her successor’s first issue hit the stands, she wrote a column knocking “the new guard of editors” who “will be less magazine journalists and more celebrities or fashion personalities with substantial social media followings.”
This comment was widely viewed as shading Mr. Enninful, who did not have a background in journalism. He couldn’t resist a jab back in his book: “I don’t recall Zadie Smith or Salman Rushdie writing for her at British Vogue, as they would for me, but there you go.”
At the time, stung by the criticism of Mr. Enninful by some in the media, the model Naomi Campbell jumped into the fray, tweeting a picture that Ms. Shulman published in the magazine as she departed: the outgoing editor with 54 of her white staffers. “Looking forward to an inclusive and diverse staff now that @edward_enninful is the editor,” she said.
“Things evolve and change,” Ms. Campbell told me about Ms. Shulman. “What you’re supposed to do is embrace. You could have looked far more elegant and superior and graceful if you embraced.”
Among Mr. Enninful’s many famous friends are, from left, Rihanna, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.Credit…From left; Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images; Pool photo by Philip Toscano; David M. Benett/Getty Images
Ms. Campbell said that she still steams when she thinks about the kerfuffle in parts of the British media over Mr. Enninful’s ascension. She said that when her friend was being roasted, “There are a lot of people who benefit from Edward who didn’t speak up.”
“I don’t use the word ‘racist’ often, but in this situation, I felt that it was,” she said. “It was just simply, to me, the color of his skin and who he was that made people say he did not deserve this job.”
For her part, Ms. Shulman told me that her remarks were “misinterpreted.” She said that she was referring to some top openings at Condé Nast publications in America. “Somebody said Gwyneth Paltrow was in the frame as an editor, which is what triggered that comment,” she said in an email. “I was naïve not to realize that the comment would be interpreted as a critique of him.” She said that she was “very supportive of his appointment.”
Out of the hundreds of covers Ms. Shulman did, Black models appeared alone on only five — four with Ms. Campbell and one with Jourdan Dunn. But the former editor told me that she thinks her record on people of color on the cover was “somewhat better than some” other magazines at the time. However, she said, she is “delighted to see that things have changed hugely.”
Mr. Enninful says it’s not an either-or proposition. “You can still have diversity and keep the quality up,” he said. “As you can see from the sales, as you can see from the advertisers, as you can see from the success of British Vogue.”
He said that “we had to turn some advertisers away because they just didn’t fit the vision” of inclusivity. He laughed. “But they all came back later.”
Mr. Newhouse called Mr. Enninful “un-push-around-able.” His first cover, featuring the Black model and activist Adwoa Aboah, celebrated Britain’s diversity.
“Edward’s Vogue was masterful from his first issue,” Mr. Newhouse told me. “I never saw that before. When the December 2017 issue came out, we printed 1,000 hard-bound souvenir copies and they not only sold out, but readers lined up for two blocks to have him autograph them. That was unheard-of.”
Mr. Newhouse’s wife, Ronnie — a powerful fashion player in her own right — knew Mr. Enninful from the 1990s, when she was the creative director of Calvin Klein and he was hired as the stylist for Kate Moss’s jeans campaign.
“I was one of the only women creative directors in the industry, so I had faced a lot of sexism. He faced a lot of racism,” she said. “It was something we could talk about openly with each other, the fears, the pain, the feeling of being left out.”
Ms. Newhouse said that during the pandemic, she and Mr. Enninful began walking in Hyde Park, theoretically for exercise, but “if the gossip is really good, we just sit down on the grass.” She said that excited fans would come up to him in the park to thank him for making them feel recognized.
As he dealt with spiking stress, Ms. Newhouse would stay on the phone with him for long stretches in the wee hours, while they sang show tunes — from Sondheim to Hammerstein — so he could unwind. A huge film buff, he would also talk movies, which helped him dream out his narratives for fashion layouts.
“Ru is practically my child,” Mr. Enninful said of his Boston terrier.Credit…Serena Brown for The New York Times
‘Woke Can Sell’
After his fast start, Mr. Enninful stuck with his mission. For his first September cover, he offered a dramatic picture of Rihanna, the first time a Black woman had appeared on a British Vogue September issue. In July 2020, in the depths of the pandemic, the magazine released a foldout cover featuring front-line workers. This August, he did another expanding cover, showcasing L.G.B.T.Q. stars.
His September cover features Linda Evangelista, who talks about her nightmarish experience with CoolSculpting, a procedure that she said left her “brutally disfigured,” with permanent bulges on her face and body. To achieve her luminous cover shot by Steven Meisel — whom Mr. Enninful called “the best of the best” — Ms. Evangelista said, the makeup artist Pat McGrath had to tape back her face, neck and jaw.
Mr. Enninful has been doing this kind of work for decades. In the book, he recalls his anger at fashion week in 2007 when he saw “a white-out,” blonde after stone-faced blonde coming down the runway. He, Naomi, Iman and Bethann Hardison, a barrier-breaking model in the ’70s turned activist, learned that “no Black, no ethnic” casting notices were being sent by brands to model agents and they decided drastic action was needed.
He plotted with Mr. Meisel and Franca Sozzani, the editor of Vogue Italia, and thus was born the sensational “Black Issue” in 2008, with every page featuring Black models. It sold out at American and British newsstands in three days, and, Time later reported, an extra 60,000 copies were printed; it still costs a pretty penny on eBay.
“Sometimes, the downside of the fashion industry is, it gets stuck in trends,” Mr. Enninful said. “The African models are having a moment. We did a whole cover. But it’s dangerous when they become moments. How do we make these models last? It’s working with them over and over, not just having them in the show and throwing them away.”
When he started, he said, people would say to him, “‘diversity is down market.’ I was like, ‘OK, let’s see.’ We got Oprah. I did a shoot with her as the empress, covered her with diamonds. Then, slowly, they were like, ‘Ohhh.’”
Ms. Winfrey recalled the first time she was on the cover of American Vogue, in 1998 for “Beloved.”
“Anna Wintour said, ‘You know, you’re going to have to lose weight for the cover,’” she told me. (Ms. Wintour later said “it was a very gentle suggestion.”)
“But Edward never said anything about weight. He sent somebody over. They measured me. I never once felt self-conscious or any of that.”
Ms. Winfrey continued, “Fashion is really intimidating even to someone like myself. There’s nothing intimidating about Edward. When I look at his Vogue, I think, ‘Maybe I will try some white socks and roll them down over my high-heeled boots.’”
Rihanna was on the cover of Mr. Enninful’s first September issue of British Vogue in 2018. In 2020, he featured front-line workers of the coronavirus pandemic in July and Beyoncé in December.Credit…From left; Nick Knight, Jamie Hawkesworth, Kennedi Carter
Twice, Mr. Enninful — who said he had a terrifying experience as a teenager being stopped and searched by the police in London, and later in Paris — has called out racism on Instagram. In 2013, covering Haute Couture Week in Paris as W’s fashion director, he said, two designers seated him in the second row while putting his white counterparts in the front. And at British Vogue, a white female security guard refused to let him in the front door of Vogue House and directed him to the loading bay.
“I am not that removed from things like that happening, but that also makes me who I am, that I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “Look, if I go downstairs and I try to stop a cab, it won’t stop. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time. What I know is that it won’t break me.”
Fashion has always been about exclusion and hierarchies. How has our new wokesphere changed that?
“I don’t even take that word ‘woke’ on board because it’s become a dirty word now,” he said. “But for me, it’s just a way forward. I remember when I got this job and speaking to my sister and other friends from different races and cultures and they were like, ‘We don’t read that magazine. There’s nothing in there for us.’ The success of it shows that woke can sell, right?”
From Ghana to Margaret Thatcher’s England
Mr. Enninful grew up in Ghana, the son of a severe Army major and a dressmaker, in a family with five siblings. He shared a bedroom with four of them, sleeping on straw mats on the floor, which he liked, because it made him feel safe.
His interest in fashion was clear when, as a child, he decided to wear his mother’s heels for a stroll around the neighborhood with his brothers. His mother, the “love of my life,” who died in 2016, was his role model. (Other than her, one of his only other role models coming up was his friend and “North Star,” André Leon Talley.) He writes that he clung to his mother’s skirts in her sewing workshop. “I learned how to fasten a hook and eye without pawing someone, and how clothing works technically on a woman’s body,” he said, adding: “I learned to recognize the expression on a woman’s face when she turns to look at herself in a new dress and finds what she sees really beautiful.”
He said: “These days Rihanna or Taylor Swift need only move a millimeter of their faces for me to know if it’s love or hate.”
When he saw American fashion magazines, he treated them gingerly, like “precious jewels.” He made drawings of ladies in elaborate gowns in his notebook, but that made his father, who considered it women’s work, angry.
The family immigrated to London when he was 13. He was shocked to see so many white people and brick buildings. He didn’t know what vapor coming out of your mouth on a cold day was. When he and his brothers saw Sloane Square, Princess Diana’s old haunt, he said, they felt “like peppercorns in a bag of rice.”
“In Ghana, we had the luxury of never thinking in terms of Black and white,” he writes. “We showed up excited to be in the glittering home of cool pop stars and the queen, and landed into Margaret Thatcher’s hateful mess.”
As a skinny 14-year-old, Mr. Enninful was recruited as a model on the tube. Suddenly, he said, he “went from dorky immigrant to interesting and exotic.” He studied stylists as he modeled and then became one himself. In the cool area of Ladbroke Grove, just north of Notting Hill — where Jamaican and African immigrants mingled with British “It Girls” — he hung out with Ms. Moss, whom he met when she was 14. She is always, he said, “wherever the best party is.”
At 18, he was offered the job as fashion director at i-D, an avant-garde culture magazine that became his circle’s “playground,” as they pioneered the grunge look inthe ’90s.
Even at i-D, he said, when he would put Black models on the cover two months in a row, people would say, “Oh, really? Another?” He said he would reply, “Yes, and another next month.”
“I took it as a compliment,” he told me, “because Black models are beautiful.” And because he was tired of seeing Black models pitted against each other, as though there could only be one, or get featured only in exotic locales or in summer clothes.
He left his family home after his father found out he was skipping classes to work at i-D and tossed his tank tops, acid-washed jeans and cowboy boots out the window. They didn’t talk for the next 15 years, until Mr. Enninful saw how devotedly his father cared for his mother after she had a stroke.
As “a budding friend of Dorothy’s,” he writes, he crept out of the closet, chastely at first. “I was terrified of sex,” he said, adding “I thank God to this day for my prudery, because the AIDS crisis was raging.” He ventured into clubs and learned derogatory terms like “dinge queens,” describing white gay men who liked Black men.
“It was horrible,” he told me. “‘I’m going to leave home because I’m gay and I’m going to find this amazing new world.’ And then you get into that new world and you’re pigeonholed to being essentially somebody’s fantasy, but in the most insulting way.”
He writes that he went to a hypnotherapist for “compulsive negative thinking” and discusses his weight yo-yo-ing — “I ate when I was happy.” He tried veganism as a diet but actually gained weight from rice and pasta. He told me that while he is heavier than he would like, it has helped him be more empathetic.
“I don’t fit sample sizes either,” he said. “I can’t go to Prada and jump in a suit.”
A Life Marked By Illness
In his apartment, which is modest and minimalist, we sat beneath a classic black-and-white Corinne Day picture of Ms. Moss and Lorraine Pascale, both looking young and grungy yet sultry. Also on the wall was a signed print that Beyoncé sent him of her December 2020 British Vogue cover wearing a Mugler bodysuit, kicking up one leg; it was shot by a 21-year-old Black photographer, Kennedi Carter.
Mr. Enninful has spent much of his life in excruciating physical pain, suffering from sickle cell anemia.
At times, the only thing that would ease the pain was morphine. Once, he writes, when a doctor came to his room at the Ritz in Paris during fashion week, he refused to give him morphine, assuming he was an addict. “It was the same old racist story,” he writes, “one that even visible success can’t protect you from.”
He nearly lost his eyesight from side effects of the disease in 2016. “I was thinking about seeing things, beauty, all the shapes and forms and what would happen if I couldn’t do that. It was just the biggest fear of my life,” he said. His friend Diane von Furstenberg helped him get an appointment with one of the best specialists in New York, who saved most of his vision.
Mr. Enninful also struggles with tinnitus, and he leaned in to listen to my questions. Perhaps, he speculated, it came from hanging out in too many nightclubs as a young man.
He writes about giving up daily drinking after imbibing a lot when he was younger to mask his shyness. When he felt like an impostor, he writes, “I could just knock back another drink and try to forget it, as both of my cultures, English and Ghanaian, dictated.”
One night in New York, he had a party and a random guest stole his passport. He was supposed to leave for Milan to style a Dolce & Gabbana show. He panicked and went to the British Embassy with a vodka bottle in his pocket. That was the last straw.
“I just realized ‘Oh my God, I have to stop this if I’m going to have any life or relationship or career,’” he told me. “I literally stone-cold stopped.” Through Alcoholics Anonymous, he writes, he began to understand “all the insecurity, anger, rootlessness, and fear that I’d internalized.” (After 14 years, he says, he can sip tequila occasionally.)
His friend Iman said that when her husband, David Bowie, died, Mr. Enninful and his longtime partner, Alec Maxwell, a British filmmaker from the north of England, checked in on her every day. Mr. Enninful had won Mr. Bowie’s trust during a shoot for Tommy Hilfiger. The rock icon did not like wearing other people’s clothes, and Mr. Enninful promised to style him so he felt like he was wearing his own clothes.
“Everyone really trusts him,” Iman said.
There have been few published pictures of his wedding to Mr. Maxwell in February. Mr. Enninful’s good friend Emma Thynn, the first Black Marchioness of Bath, lent him the magisterial Longleat House in Wiltshire. (Ru, in a crown, graced the front of the menu.)
“Everybody struggles when they go to weddings on what to wear,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll make it easy for you. Black and white.’”
Mr. Enninful used his phone to show me the pantheon of fashion royalty and movies stars who were present, including his friends Mr. Elba and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a very pregnant Rihanna in black Alaïa and Victoria Beckham in a slinky long white gown.
“This was the outfit of the night,” he said, showing me Natasha Poonawalla, an Indian industrialist and philanthropist who was wearing a white Schiaparelli dress that resembled a cloud, with a wire mesh wave going up in the back.
Mr. Maxwell wore a white Burberry tuxedo and Mr. Enninful wore a black McQueen jacket with insects embroidered on the lapels, a nod to the fact that Longleat has its own safari park.
Ms. Moss told me that Mr. Enninful is successful because he’s a “grafter.” “It’s an English word, meaning he is a hard worker. And he’s really clever.”
(Mr. Enninful said that whenever Ms. Moss sees a microphone, she picks it up and begins belting out the Rolling Stones or other favorites. At his wedding, she burst through the door late and sang “Hey Big Spender.”)
A Wintour Protégé Who Pushes Back
For many, the first glimpse they had of Mr. Enninful was of him melting down in “The September Issue,” the 2009 documentary about how Ms. Wintour put together the most important issue of the year. Mr. Enninful had gone to American Vogue in 2006 to be a contributing editor, working under Ms. Wintour’s fiery-haired lieutenant, Ms. Coddington. The crew captured the moment where Ms. Wintour rejects a color-block story prepared by Mr. Enninful and he keens to Ms. Coddington amid the racks of clothes. She instructs him to be not as nice or he’d get rolled over.
Now Ms. Coddington tells me: “He was a lot tougher than I gave him credit for. He had it there, he just needed it kicked out of him.”
Mr. Enninful said Ms. Wintour taught him an important lesson: “That fashion is a business and that whatever you put on a page, you have to really think about what women want to wear.” (He also learned from her to answer emails promptly.)
Still, he writes, “Despite the huge platform, it was hard not to feel creatively stifled in those years. My journey had been about art, and my work had always resonated best when there was at least some strand running through it that connected to what was happening in society.”
Mr. Enninful says in the book that Ms. Wintour had an unofficial list of models she was eager to push, mostly non-Black. “I rocked the boat,” he writes. “If I wanted a story with eight Black girls, instead of just the usual one, often all I had to do was ask. (Once again, I became known to the staff as ‘the guy who shoots Black girls,’ which was pretty reductive, but fine by me if it at least meant more women of color in the pages.)”
“She brought me there because she knew that I will push,” he said when I asked about Ms. Wintour’s list. “She likes people who push back.”
In his book, Mr. Enninful writes about Ms. Wintour, “She’s unsentimental, but if she respects you, she listens to you.”
Condé Nast is changing rapidly as its ambit shrinks; Mr. Enninful has proved to be a savvy power player. Whatever the creative friction when he worked under Ms. Wintour, he and the American Vogue editor, whose titles are worldwide chief content officer and global editorial director, have reached a homeostasis.
They have been working together on consolidating European editions, which some criticize as a blood bath of top editors and a route toward foreign editions losing their souls. (Some French fashionistas raged last year when Vogue Paris morphed into Vogue France.) But Ms. Wintour and Mr. Enninful consider it a way to save money and share talent by having some of the same stories appear in different issues worldwide.
I asked Ms. Wintour if she could see Mr. Enninful taking her place on the Chiffon Throne someday.
“I always focus on the present,” she replied in an email. She praised his “honest” memoir and his “natural talent.”
“He has learned from so many people in fashion about creating just the right cultural moments — he knows what’s fabulous and what people respond to — and his sense of occasion. That’s him through and through.”
Mr. Enninful himself was elliptical on the question of whether he would like to follow Ms. Wintour.
“I’m happy working in Europe,” he said. “But you never know what the future holds.”
I press on, asking if he’d like to bring Ru, who was born in America and who is listening to us intently, back to live in his native land?
He laughed, shooing me out. “Stop it!”
Confirm or Deny:
Maureen Dowd: Your ultimate cover get is the queen.
Edward Enninful: Confirm. The queen in McQueen would be good.
Once the Barbie movie with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling opens, Barbiecore will be the most important fashion trend of the last two decades.
You pioneered grunge, and Tom Ford came along and killed it.
Tom did kill it but also it was time. We needed glamour.
In 2016, when you received an O.B.E. for services to diversity British fashion — presented by Princess Anne — you had a wardrobe malfunction.
Yes. The braces never came and there were no belt loops, and my pants almost fell down.
Naomi Campbell can get anyone to do anything.
Literally. I can say, 30 years later, I’m still here doing what she wants. But you can also get her to do what you need.
You discovered Jason Statham when he was a champion diver at the Crystal Palace pool in London.
Confirm. We were trying to shoot stuff for i–D magazine. He was a diver at Crystal Palace. We laugh about it still.
Boy George was a big influence on you.
Growing up, I’d never seen gender fluidity, the beauty, the voice, the way of dressing. It really opened my eyes. I was telling a mutual friend the other day, “He’s going to die when the book comes out because he doesn’t realize he meant that much to me.”
You think Margaret Thatcher was “fascist lite” obscured by a middle-class grandmother identity.
You like black-and-white layouts and black clothes more than Anna Wintour does.