To Edward Enninful, Fashion is ‘Borderless’

A VISIBLE MAN: A Memoir, by Edward Enninful

In the five years since Edward Enninful became the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, a pattern has emerged: Whenever a new issue of the magazine comes out, it instantly becomes a part of the zeitgest — the cover often goes viral, and the inside images are shared and re-shared across social media.

That’s true whether the cover is graced by a celebrity like Beyonce, Rihanna or Billie Eilish; or by a new generation of dark-skinned African models; or whether the issue is guest-edited by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. Since 2017, British Vogue has become the fashion magazine that cannot be missed. This is thanks to Enninful.

Aside from his monthly editor’s letter and the glimpses he offers to 1.3 million followers on Instagram, Enninful’s memoir, “A Visible Man,” is the first in-depth telling of his life story.

He walks readers from his childhood in the coastal city of Tema, Ghana — where he fell in love with clothes while watching his seamstress mother build a successful dressmaking business — to his teenage years modeling in London, to becoming the youngest-ever fashion director at i-D Magazine at just 18, to his role today as one of the most important figures shaping fashion, media and culture.

The joy Enninful describes feeling while flipping through Ebony, Jet and Time magazines at his aunt’s hair salon in Tema (“it was a big deal in Ghana to get American magazines”) inspires nostalgia for the days when getting your hands on a glossy issue was a thrill. And his memories of 1980s London will make readers wish they could go back in time and walk down the streets of Ladbroke Grove with the shy young Edward.

Black readers specifically — British, American, Ghanian or otherwise — will find Enninful’s experiences of racism relatable. On his first solo trip to Paris Fashion Week, when “I was still technically underage,” he had the chance to visit the offices of his favorite designer, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Afterward, however, he was stopped by police officers on the Place Vendôme, and asked to show his papers. He was the only Black person in the square, and the only one asked to prove that he had a right to be where he was. “I went from a dauphin to a street rat in a split-second,” he writes.

He reveals what went through his mind at Haute Couture Week in 2013, when “two designers tried to seat me, and only me, in the second row, while my white colleagues, all fashion directors like myself, were in front.” He pulled out his phone and tweeted about it. The post was re-tweeted by the Black supermodels Naomi Campbell and Joan Smalls, among others.

Enninful does not shy away from naming his famous friends. In the preface, he recalls a 2020 stroll with Idris Elba, who urged him to write a memoir about “not what I had come through, but where I had arrived at.” A pregnant Rihanna arrives late to his 2022 wedding to his longtime partner, Alec Maxwell, bursting through the doors in a black lace dress at the exact moment the minister asked if anyone objected to the marriage (“classic Rih”). But it rarely feels like he is name-dropping just for the sake of it. Rather, he credits figures like Elba (“who, like me, grew up in an African household in the heart of London”), Rihanna, Campbell and Kate Moss with having stood by him during the highs and lows of his life.

It would be misguided to pick up this memoir in search of scoops about Enninful’s American Vogue counterparts. The author knows his story is his own, and he does not lean on gossip in charting his own rise. When he mentions Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington it is kindly and in passing; though he is not gentle in criticizing his predecessor, Alexandra Shulman, or of the publication he took over from her after her 25-year editorship.

In 2017, British Vogue “had languished creatively and tonally, speaking almost exclusively to an upper-middle-to-upper-class pocket of Britishness,” he writes. “The magazine felt to me like it was drifting ever further from the beating heart of the country — to say nothing of the world at large. I didn’t think it reflected the Britain I knew and felt a part of.”

This Britain is one that celebrates the diversity of its people, something Enninful has worked to highlight not only at British Vogue but throughout his three decades in fashion, an industry he describes as “borderless.” He acknowledges that when he got to Vogue he stopped rebelling against commercial fashion, accepting that he was now a part of it. Still, his commitment to inclusivity, to portraying a world that is real and welcoming to those who’ve previously been excluded, has never waned. “I became known to the staff as ‘the guy who shoots Black girls,’” he writes, “which was pretty reductive, but fine by me if it at least meant more women of color in the pages.”

The industry insights are intriguing, but some of the most memorable and endearing passages in this book consist of Enninful’s more personal disclosures. There’s the time he “wanted to make a show of domesticity” for Maxwell, but his skills in the kitchen were so nonexistent that he “ordered in some homey-looking fare from a local restaurant and passed it off as my own”; and there’s the wardrobe malfunction at Buckingham Palace the day he became a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. He writes poignantly about his close relationship with his mother, his adoration of his siblings and his tense relationship with his father, who “told us all that if he found out we were gay he’d slit our throats,” and who kicked Edward out of the house when he learned he’d been skipping school to go to showroom appointments and photo shoots. The memoir truly shines in its most intimate revelations of Enninful’s sobriety and depression, of what it felt like to soar professionally while struggling personally — and of how he learned to lean on those who love him most.

“A Visible Man” is about a life in the media and fashion worlds, but it is also about a man of many identities finding his voice in a world that has not always wanted to hear it. Enninful is making that world a more beautiful and welcoming place than he found it.

Tariro Mzezewa, a former national correspondent at The Times, is a reporter who writes about culture and style.

A VISIBLE MAN: A Memoir | By Edward Enninful | Illustrated | 270 pp. | Penguin Press | $30

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