It was the astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus who first came up with a model of the universe that placed the sun rather than the Earth at its centre, a formulation published in 1543 to which the rest of us have held fast ever since. But it seems that an alternative point of view may now be abroad. Read the opening pages of A Visible Man, and you’ll find that its author, Edward Enninful, the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, is in grave danger of believing himself to be the burning star around which our planet revolves.
Why has Enninful written an autobiography? It seems that the urge, fierce and momentous, came upon him in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was at its height and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis had filled streets with protesters. The world having “tilted on its axis as the most significant social justice movement in decades met the worst international health crisis in a century”, Enninful felt “a familiar gnawing sensation” somewhere deep inside himself. “The world had stopped,” he writes. “Then it had exploded. It was time.” He would now respond to those who’d long begged him to tell his story, and carefully take stock of his career in fashion, scrutinising it against “the backdrop of a world I helped to change too, in my way”.
Blimey. I know grandeur’s traditional when you’re the editor of Vogue; Enninful’s boss, Anna Wintour, is reputed to be able freeze innards at 100 yards (though not his, perhaps – later on, he commits to paper the treacherous notion that when he worked for her at US Vogue, he was “creatively stifled”). The cars and the parties, the freebies and the sucking up do get to people in the end. Nevertheless, as opening statements go, this is out there. It’s also a sign of things to come. In the Enninful lexicon, key words include “destiny” (his own, and that of friends such as Rihanna and Naomi Campbell), “gifts” (as in “God-given”) and “talent” (ditto). Though he’s open about his weaknesses, too – among them his kindness, his sense of humour and his Stakhanovite work ethic.
To be fair, Enninful’s backstory is rather extraordinary; certainly, it sets him apart, even now, from most of the inhabitants of Condé Nast’s central London HQ, Vogue House. The son of a dressmaker and an army major, he was born in Ghana in 1972, where the family lived for a time on a military base with a view of a hill on which enemies of the state were regularly executed by firing squad (“‘Oh, is it firing-squad day?’ we’d ask each other. Anything habitual becomes normal when you’re a kid”). However, after a change in the political situation, the family were forced to flee, pitching up in London days before the Brixton riots of 1981. Britain was, of course, an extremely racist country then; Mrs Thatcher, he writes, was a purveyor of “fascism lite” (and, almost as bad, her handbag was “tired”). But in Ladbroke Grove, where the family made their home, the vibe was vibrant and mixed. It wasn’t long before, heavily influenced by the Buffalo movement, he had adopted his first “look”, buying some cowboy boots from a shop called R-Soles.
Enninful found his calling early on. The stylist Simon Foxton, who scouted him first as a model, later employed him as an assistant; work that led, at the age of just 18, to his appointment as fashion director of i-D, a position he held for two decades. There, his inspiration came from the street, from the clubs he liked to frequent, and from his hip friends: the stylist Judy Blame, the makeup artist Pat McGrath and the model Kate Moss (whose minimalist blurb for his book – “What fun!” – makes me love her more than ever). But by moonlighting, Enninful developed more commercial chops, too. Work for Calvin Klein and Jil Sander, and stints at American Vogue and W, preceded his arrival at British Vogue in 2017, a magazine that was, he says, sorely in need of his skills, having “languished” for so long “creatively and tonally” (he is surprisingly graceless on the subject of Alexandra Shulman, the long-serving editor he succeeded).
The early years can’t have been easy. His father wanted him to be a lawyer; when he walked out of his degree course at Goldsmiths college, his father threw him out and a long estrangement followed. Enninful seems to have struggled, too, with his sexuality before he met Alec Maxwell, whom he married at Longleat House earlier this year (his father once said that if he found out his children were gay, he would slit their throats). Later on, there are battles with his eyesight, which he almost lost thanks to a detached retina. His achievement in making it to one of the top jobs in fashion is as undeniable as the fact that he has made Vogue so much more diverse and inclusive, particularly in terms of the models it uses.
But Enninful’s social politics do seem to be somewhat flexible. While he makes, for instance, a point of noting that Balenciaga has shamelessly appropriated the kind of bags his family used to transport their belongings when they fled Ghana (remodelled in leather, the sort of striped holdall that costs about a fiver in a market is now priced at more than £1,000), it doesn’t strike him as tasteless – or if it does, he’s too frightened to criticise an advertiser. And should we really celebrate unequivocally the fact that a man is now the editor of Vogue? I think this is open to debate.
A lot has been made of the fact that the September issue of Vogue has for its cover star Linda Evangelista, a model whose face was disfigured by a cosmetic procedure that went wrong. To make the shoot work for the magazine, her jaw and neck had to be taped, and she wears a concealing head wrap. Enninful proudly writes of this that he doesn’t believe in “popping people in the dustbin” when their sell-by date is up, presenting the whole thing as celebratory and somehow authentic. No mention is made of the fact that it was the standards of beauty that Vogue promotes even in this very shoot that drove Evangelista to mess with her beautiful face in the first place – and for this remarkable feat of sophistry, I’m afraid, it is Enninful, a visible man, who must take all of the blame.
• A Visible Man by Edward Enninful is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply