Inspired choice: ‘I think [Edward] offers a lot of hope for people who see fashion as something they couldn’t ever get into, that they’d be shut out from,’ says photographer Nick Knight / Getty

Edward Enninful’s journey has taken him from Ghana to the editor’s chair at British Vogue. Matthew Schneier reports on how he contrived to break the fashionista mould

A rarity in a business like fashion, where fairy-tale transports are most often town cars, the story of Edward Enninful, recently named the next editor of the British edition of Vogue, began on the London Tube.

Born in Ghana and raised in Ladbroke Grove, Enninful was discovered in 1989 on the Hammersmith and City Line by fashion stylist Simon Foxton. It was not necessarily a fashion sighting. Foxton recalled Enninful in those early days in an ever-present duffel coat and National Health-style glasses, the arms of which would occasionally be mended with tape. Still, Foxton said in a recent interview: “He must have had something about him. I don’t stop that many people.”

Enninful went home and asked his mother’s permission to model for Foxton. He had to. He was all of 16. Duly, if reluctantly, permitted, the teenager appeared in a shoot done by Foxton and photographer Nick Knight, for i-D magazine, the upstart London style bible. He was transfixed. He quickly went from Foxton’s model to his assistant. “I seem to remember he said he was wanting to go to college to do law,” Foxton said, “But once he saw the bright lights of fashion, he thought, ‘Oh, well, forget that’.”

So began a near three-decade career in fashion, which has taken Enninful, now 45, from the chaotic offices of i-D to fashion shows and photo shoots the world over to – as of this August, when he and his partner, filmmaker Alec Maxwell, will relocate to London – the tiny doorstep of Vogue House in Hanover Square. His appointment represents a timely rupture with tradition. He is a gay black man in a position that has been held for 100 years by white women, for the past 25 by the departing editor, Alexandra Shulman.

“It does show that there is a God,” said Knight, who continues to work with Enninful. “He’s broken that mould. I think that offers a lot of hope for people who see fashion as something they couldn’t ever get into, that they’d be shut out from.”

Enninful, who declined to be interviewed for this article, may have been little more than a lad from Ladbroke Grove at the outset, but he happened down one of London fashion’s most fertile and febrile rabbit holes. i-D had been founded a few years earlier by Terry Jones, a former British Vogue art director who struck out on his own to document a London that was truer to what he saw in the streets than in Vogue’s high-gloss pages. Its Covent Garden office was a magnet for ambitious young talent, which Jones assessed without overmuch regard for age, station or experience. Foxton compared it with a drop-in centre. Money was a secondary concern, and a spirit of can-do reigned. Enninful came with Foxton and, for some 20 years, stayed.

Enninful grew up in Ladbroke Grove having moved at an early age from Ghana (Flickr/stevekeiretsu)

“He was basically soaking up what he needed to set himself up,” said Judy Blame, a stylist and jewellery designer who contributed to i-D. “I suppose we were his mad college.” Blame invited Enninful to move into his house, which belonged to singer Neneh Cherry; Enninful stayed a year.

Enninful distinguished himself early, and when i-D’s fashion editor left for another magazine not long after, Jones appointed him to succeed her – despite the fact that he was 18 years old. “It’s gut instinct,” Jones said of the choice. “The nature of i-D was to start people who didn’t already work with major magazines, usually at the beginning of their careers, and then just give them support. I always wanted that energy, that fresh beginning, when people have got their eyes open and are prepared to take risks.”

Suddenly Enninful was a person to be reckoned with. Blame took him to Paris to see the runway collections there for the first time. They cadged shelter from friends and slept on the hotel-room floors of better-budgeted editors. i-D was a favourite of the designers on the cutting edge. “All the designers that I knew gave us really good tickets,” Blame said. “It caused a bit of a stir: ‘Who is that boy with Judy?’ ‘Oh, he’s the new editor of i-D.’ There weren’t that many black faces in the front row.”

“He was a bit nervous, to tell you the truth,” Blame added. “I was glad to be there to hold his hand and say, ‘You’re the bloody editor of i-D! Jean Paul’s given us front row, come on. Helmut wants to see you afterward’.”

Enninful adapted quickly. Soon he and the magazine were attracting new attention. He met Naomi Campbell, who said he is like a brother to her, at a shoot for i-D in Paris in 1993. “I’d heard of him,” she said, and when she arrived on set, “I loved his style, I loved his personality, I just loved him. Any model will tell you, to this day,” she said. “Even when Edward was at i-D – they never had a big budget – but no matter what, if Edward called, the girls would jump on a plane and do it. We knew it was going to be a great story, creatively. We wanted to be part of it.”

He was promoted at i-D, and bigger commissions followed. Enninful began a long and fruitful collaboration with Steven Meisel at Italian Vogue, and Grace Coddington paved the way for a contributing position at the US edition. He styled major fashion shows and high-paying ad campaigns, including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Dior.

Naomi Campbell poses with Enninful after he received his OBE at Buckingham Palace last year (Getty)

It was not a transition without growing pains. Enninful’s appearance in The September Issue, the 2009 documentary about the making of the year’s largest issue of Vogue, painted him as a journeyman stylist, whose work gets scrapped for not living up to Anna Wintour’s high standards. “Where’s the glamour?” she is seen demanding in one scene. “It’s Vogue, OK? Please, let’s lift it.” (Wintour called Enninful’s British Vogue appointment a “brilliant choice”.)

But Enninful also had plenty of triumphs, often with Meisel, from their famous plastic-surgery send-up to Italian Vogue’s history-making 2008 Black Issue, featuring only models of colour, for which Enninful was one of a handful of collaborating stylists. A growing number of models and celebrities were impressed by his warmth and ease (products, his collaborators say, of intense preparation and research). “Most times people in his position, they’re pushing a brand on you or pushing an agenda on you,” said musician Pharrell Williams. “The only thing Edward ever pushes is the best part of who you are to come out, to be photographed and to take charge. The most presidential section of your essence – he knows how to find that. That’s a unique talent.”

In 2011, Enninful left i-D and Vogue to become fashion and style director of W magazine. The British Fashion Awards gave him the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator in 2014, and he was awarded an OBE in 2016. “I was so terrified I was going to be late for him, I set the clock an hour ahead of time,” said Campbell, who has a famously self-determined approach to punctuality. She accompanied him to the ceremony and co-hosted a celebration for him afterward at Mark’s Club, attended by Kate Moss and Madonna.

The honour was intended in part to recognise Enninful’s service to diversity in the fashion industry, a cause that is both personal and long-standing. In 2013, he addressed the issue head-on, when he tweeted his displeasure at a seating assignment during the haute couture shows: “If all my (white) counterparts are seated in the front row, why should I be expected to take 2nd row? racism? xoxo”. It quickly went viral. In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Enninful declined to identify the designer whose show he had left and said: “Change always takes time. The fashion industry needs to breed a whole different way of thinking. We need more diverse people working in all facets of the industry.”

But more often he has expressed his commitment to diversity through his work, in particular by championing models of colour in his photo shoots and fashion shows. “There are so many girls that have had an opportunity because of Edward,” said designer Brandon Maxwell, a former assistant of Enninful’s. The truth is, there is scarcely more diversity in fashion today than there was when Enninful was a model in the late 1980s and, indeed, maybe less, as the London scene from which he emerged drew voraciously and promiscuously from the intermingled worlds of music, art and club culture as well as the narrower milieu of fashion. 

Enninful with his Prada Iconoclasts collection during the 2014 Milan Fashion Week (Getty)

“In today’s media, we often see tokenism and gimmicks, what I call forced diversity,” said Joe Casely-Hayford, a long-time London-based designer, who is black. “What Edward stands for, he’s in a league of his own when it comes to championing diversity and different notions of beauty in a consistent, relevant and authentic way.” Casely-Hayford credited this to Enninful’s education at i-D and to his own background. The standard-bearers of London fashion in the 20th century, he said, ticking off Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, “came with a fearlessness that you couldn’t find in the leafy suburbs”.

“I think Edward is cut from the same cloth,” he continued. “In order to progress, we need to challenge the status quo. This is something that Edward will bring to Vogue. It’s the real essence of fashion – it’s fashion, not frocks. Nowadays, you see pages and pages of frocks.”

This is perhaps particularly true of British Vogue, which, despite its eminence, has lagged behind in both the reach of its US cousin and the boundary-pushing radicalism of its Italian and, to a lesser degree, French counterparts. It is seen by many in the industry as a quainter, more commercial and prettier, but less pathbreaking, magazine than some photographers would like. Across the board, photography in particular has suffered. Compressed shooting schedules, budgets and pressure from advertisers have bred timidity from editors and compromised the more creative work of years past. “I think for a long time in Vogue magazine you haven’t seen a real support for fashion photography,” Knight said, “which is sort of odd, because fashion photography is the reason Vogue magazine exists.”

Enninful, on the other hand, is devoted to the photographers he works with (besides Knight and Meisel, they include Steven Klein, Craig McDean, Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott and Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, among many others) and is beloved by them in return. His shoots are intensive, baroque productions – Rihanna as a queen in peace and in war, Moss as an enameled nun – and he represents, his collaborators hope, a return to a more photography-driven British Vogue. “He’s someone who’s primarily concerned with the picture being amazing,” van Lamsweerde said. “He really is the best collaborator I know.”

In an industry still haunted by stereotypical devils, tyrants and snobs, Enninful leaves an unusual trail of good vibes in his wake. Still, even to his friends, news of his appointment was a happy surprise. The rumour mill had been churning, but Enninful’s name was usually mentioned after current and former British Vogue staffers – among them Emily Sheffield and Jo Ellison – whose profiles more closely fit the established archetype. “We went bowling on my birthday just recently, and he didn’t tell me,” said Marc Jacobs, a close friend, who was with Enninful the day before the announcement was made. “He said, ‘I didn’t want to take away from your day’. That sums up what kind of person he is.”

Enninful’s original collaborators said they were delighted by the news. “Over the years, I’ve seen his career trajectory, and now it seems almost inevitable,” Foxton said. “But back then, if you’d told me? I wouldn’t have believed you.”

© New York Times