Jeanie Annan-Lewin has 20k Instagram followers and is creative director of Perfect magazine, a biannual magazine edited by Katie Grand and launched in a blaze of hype with its Issue Zero in March. As such, on paper at least, Annan-Lewin is very much a fashion success story. But, she says, the reality is not that simple. “As a Black woman, I’m in a space where I am constantly told it’s not for me, but then I am used as the blueprint for everything else,” she says. “Black women in the fashion industry aren’t given the fair space to be able to do things creatively.”
Working with Perfect, Annan-Lewin is trying to create a new way of doing things. “For me, fashion is great – it’s wonderful – but it’s not very inclusive,” she says. “Katie and I are trying to be thought-provoking and inclusive and not just making things to make them. I don’t think you can do things for shits and giggles any more.”
Annan-Lewin is generally pretty down to earth but sometimes she uses the effusive language of the fashion industry. She says the first issue was “like a piece of artwork. It felt like something we really put our hearts and souls into.” The new issue – Issue One, as it’s known, or Joy – came out this month, and it was also a labour of love. Annan-Lewin – who moved from fashion director to creative director with this issue – worked on or oversaw five shoots in it, ranging from one with new talent in Ghana to a beautiful atmospheric Night Tales shoot with pictures of Burberry’s collection taken by Hazel Gaskin, at twilight on Hampstead Heath.
It’s a shoot called Body Language that is probably the biggest talking point, though. Photographed by Sølve Sundsbø, and featuring work by designer Michaela Stark, partially naked models of different sizes, and sometimes seen from different angles in a way that looks reminiscent of a Jenny Saville portrait. For Annan-Lewin, there was a personal connection to this shoot – “I’m a plus-size Black woman that works in an industry that doesn’t sell clothes to me” – but its relevance goes beyond only her experience. “The images are really arresting and they could make some people uncomfortable but it makes you uncomfortable if you’re not comfortable with your body,” she says. “That’s something you should be asking yourself.”
She adds that she finds the body positivity movement difficult. “I don’t subscribe to [it], not because I don’t believe in it but because it’s something that has been co-opted in this weird way,” she says. “It was started by Black women but you don’t see Black women at the forefront of it, because it’s not palatable.”
Growing up in London and studying art history, Annan-Lewin’s first job was as an intern at Tatler, assisting legendary fashion editor Isabella Blow. “I rang up because I sound posh and not Black on the phone,” she says. “I came in and they were obviously a little bit confused because I wasn’t 5ft 11in and blond. I have never forgotten the person’s face.”
Blow saw her talent. “As I was leaving [Tatler], she rang all of these publications and said ‘I highly recommend that you hire [Jeanie] because she understands fashion from the 360 perspective’,” says the stylist. “It was the nicest thing that anyone had ever said.”
After leaving Tatler, Annan-Lewin freelanced for a long time. She worked with brands, celebrities and magazines, including with Grand at her previous biannual, Love. “Someone described me as a cult classic and I found it really offensive, but now I’m a bit more warm to it,” she laughs. “I had never made it and now I am getting my moment, even if it’s under very strange circumstances.”
Annan-Lewin is coming to prominence is part of a wider shift within fashion media for people of colour to – finally – be in positions of influence and power. British Vogue signposted this with the appointment of Edward Enninful as editor in chief in 2017, and the magazine has since employed a more diverse workforce. This is also true at Dazed, where Ib Kamara and Lynette Nylander were respectively named editor in chief and executive editorial director earlier this year. In the US, meanwhile, Lindsay Peoples Wagner became editor in chief of Teen Vogue in 2018, moving to the same position at the Cut earlier this year, and, in 2020, Samira Nasr became the first Black woman to be named editor in chief at Harper’s Bazaar.
Does Annan-Lewin feel part of a bigger change? “During the pandemic, everyone was like ‘ooh it is a bit weird how fashion is really one-sided and there aren’t that many people of colour’. Had those conversations not taken place I wouldn’t be in the job I am now,” she says frankly. “That’s weird but also good. I am trying very actively to be a voice of change.”