The outgoing Vogue editor's claims to be a trailblazer don't stack up
After six headline-grabbing years, Edward Enninful is leaving British Vogue. His 2017 appointment as editor-in-chief catapulted him to mainstream fame, and he lost no time using this platform to broadcast how his Vogue would break new ground. But did it?
Enninful’s “manifesto”, as he called it, revolved around representation. The spotlight would shine bright on diversity and inclusion and, in doing so, would show us the radically unseen. Subsequently, he accrued several landmarks. Timothée Chalamet was the first man to have a solo cover; another front-page star was Dame Judi Dench, a supposedly pioneering move because of her age. Both, though, were and remain Hollywood A-listers.
If putting celebrities on the cover doesn’t scream revolutionary, one can cite the magazine issues which garnered Enninful the most coverage, like the edition guest-edited by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Yet Kate, now Princess of Wales, graced the cover of the centenary issue in 2016, while Princess Diana was a fixture in the magazine in the 1980s. Royals — even mixed-race ones — didn’t really flip the script during Enninful’s tenure.
His lauded first cover wasn’t quite what it seemed, either. Enninful featured British-Ghanaian model Adwoa Aboah — an important step, it was stressed, because his predecessor used so few black cover stars. In gushing tones, Aboah was described as a model “and feminist activist”. Less remarked on within the pages of Vogue was that she is the granddaughter of a viscount, the daughter of globally influential talent agents, and the goddaughter of Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, whose husband is the billionaire chairman of Vogue’s parent company. Another godparent is Enninful himself. So much for the fight against elitism.
The spectres of nepotism and cronyism loom still larger behind the scenes. In the course of researching a book on Vogue published in 2021, I found that between Enninful’s appointment in 2017 and 2020 there were only two covers shot by a photographer under the age of fifty. Laughably, the Guardian claimed his first cover as “further evidence that Enninful’s Vogue will be unafraid to make bold statements” because he chose the photographer Steven Meisel.
Meisel is a veteran who, in his glory days, had a $2 million per annum contract with Condé Nast. He has worked for the publication for some three decades. Other favourites of Enninful’s Vogue are Mario Testino (who’s worked with the magazine for two-and-a-half decades), and Juergen Teller (ditto). It is hard to imagine these older white men as part of Enninful’s diversity and inclusivity mission, but since photographers are less visible, why not pick the ones with whom you hang out?
Nonetheless, Vogue’s outgoing editor is not shy about taking credit for changing the industry and redeeming the magazine’s tarnished reputation. “I look at magazines that are now so much more diverse, and I realised nobody was having this conversation,” he says, with characteristic modesty. Clearly, he didn’t brush up on his Vogue history before taking on the role.
At British Vogue in the 1920s, the entire genre-bending magazine was run by Dorothy Todd, an openly homosexual woman whose office was largely staffed by lesbians and gay men. Daring stuff back when homosexuality was still illegal, and she did eventually get sacked for it.
As far back as 1966, Vogue Paris editor Edmonde Charles-Roux was fired because she wanted to put a black model on the cover and wouldn’t back down when management tried to bully her out of the idea. And as recently as 1994, editor-in-chief Colombe Pringle lost her job for putting Nelson Mandela on the cover to raise awareness for apartheid. These sacrifices have been buried, all while Enninful crowned himself the game-changer and the media colluded.
Enninful seems to miss the whole point. His magazine was only possible because identity politics is fashionable right now, and he would not have been glorified otherwise. We have hard evidence that shows what happened to previous editors who tried to champion a cause. Enninful, who is seldom pictured without supermodel best mates Naomi and Kate, could never live as an outsider.