A Visible Man 
by Edward Enninful.
Bloomsbury, 265 pp., £25, September 2022, 978 1 5266 4153 3
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In the introduction​ to A Visible Man, the mid-career autobiography of Edward Enninful, the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Enninful describes his work: ‘I’ve always answered the question of what it means to create a magazine differently … to push harder, to dream bigger.’ The rest of the book is his attempt to show what pushing harder and dreaming bigger has looked like in the thirty years since he started in fashion. He was spotted on the Tube as a teenager and began modelling, before working as a writer and stylist at i-D magazine, promoting the looks worn by girls in Shepherd’s Bush, near where he grew up, and in East London nightclubs. ‘I was horrified,’ he writes, ‘by the commercial fashion imagery of the 1980s and all its tacky, contoured make-up and jumping ladies with plastic smiles … a triumph of fakery when what I yearned for was truth.’

Enninful took the top job at Vogue in 2017 and became the first black editor in the magazine’s history. Ending the overwhelming whiteness on its pages was central to his pitch: ‘We would not be exclusive and proscriptive,’ he writes, ‘but inclusive, on every page … Diversity and inclusivity were at the forefront of my mind, as well as shaking up all those outmoded notions of class that plague the UK especially … I was sick and tired of seeing so many people othered. And if we want to get real: I felt that Vogue had played some part in maintaining this state of affairs.’ It was a far different proposal from that made by his predecessor, Alexandra Shulman, whose mother had co-authored a book called Lady Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners. Shulman writes in her memoir that she only needs to ‘put on a Chanel jacket and a pair of heels and immediately I can be seen … as somebody who, at some point, edited Vogue’.

Vogue had, of course, played a huge part in ‘maintaining this state of affairs’. That was the whole point. Since its inception in 1892, Vogue – not only British, but American and French Vogue (or, as it was called for many years, ‘Paris Vogue’, because it could hardly speak to the sad and provincial rest of France), and all the subsequent Vogues, of which there are now 24 varieties – has been the standard-bearer for mainstream ideas about how to look and behave. The inaugural issue announced on its cover that ‘the definite object [of this enterprise] is the establishment of a dignified authentic journal of society, fashion and the ceremonial side of life.’ If anyone complained that this mission hadn’t evolve much over time, the criticism was easily ignored: fashion magazines were supposed to be aspirational, concerned not with reality but a dream. And the dream echoed the culture, which meant that for most of the 20th century it was deemed best to be rich, white, thin and young. In the England of Enninful’s youth, this meant Sloaney blondes with big hair and big shoulder-pads. In America, it was society women with famous surnames and huge clapboard houses on the coast of Maine. Paris Vogue was much the same, just with nipples and cigarettes.

Change, when it came, was barely perceptible. For Anna Wintour’s first issue of American Vogue, in November 1988, she went for something shocking – by Vogue’s standards. She put cover model Michaela Bercu (smiling, skinny, young, white) in a Christian Lacroix jacket and a pair of jeans. During Shulman’s 25 years as editor, black faces appeared on the cover only twelve times, far less than Kate Moss, who clocked up 32 appearances. A going-away photograph of Shulman surrounded by the Vogue staff revealed that every single person who worked there was white. But Enninful arrived just as the survival of glossies such as Vogue was being called into question. His vision for change might turn out be the magazine’s final act.

What was a fashion magazine? I imagine my daughters asking me this when I tell them how I spent much of my working life. There is a box in my basement stuffed with magazines I worked on as a fashion director and contributor. I’ve written zillions of trend reports with bad punning headlines and too many designer profiles to count. I’ve helped to stage elaborate photoshoots in which accessories (big rings, a necklace, a scarf) jostle for space on tables laden with Renaissance-painting piles of fruit. When I notice those old issues now, on my way to get a suitcase or a sled, my first thought is usually ‘God, how irrelevant.’ I divert my eyes from the airport newsstand, embarrassed for the skeletal descendants of the big names I used to work for. They seem so diminished, so desperate – a once-chic auntie shuffling about in a hospital gown, bellowing about what it used to be like to stay at the Ritz.

A fashion magazine at the height of its power was measured by its weight. American Vogue’s September 2012 issue, its fattest ever, was 916 pages and weighed a beefy five pounds. The heft came from the many pages purchased and filled by glamorous advertisers – Chanel, Dior, Vuitton, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Chloé, Celine, Tod’s – who competed for prime placement (the first third was preferred). These ads were sometimes indistinguishable from the editorial pages, which often used the same photographers, models, stylists and clothes. Trips to fashion shows in Paris and Milan are, for magazine editors, as much about meeting with advertisers as they are about seeing the trends. Advertisers tally up the number of credits their brand has received in the preceding months and base future commitments on that number.

Editorial doesn’t pay very much. There are perks, such as handbags at Christmas, discounts at stores and outfits loaned for big events, but working on the staff of a fashion magazine, even Vogue, is never going to allow you to buy the items in its pages or to mimic the lifestyle it portrays. Advertising campaigns and styling for runway shows are much more lucrative, and many editors seek out these jobs. Enninful describes seeing his white colleagues getting well-paid commercial work, while he was struggling to launch his freelance career:

I was under a bare lightbulb at the office [of i-D magazine], writing shopping pages and asking for spare change when I couldn’t pay for my own spaghetti vongole … It was becoming clear to me that fashion’s main players were having a far easier time imagining white women stylists as a fit for the top consulting jobs. I wasn’t trusted in the same ways they were, or included in the same conversations, or seen as the big creative contributor.

Eventually he broke through, with an advertising gig for Calvin Klein – a match facilitated by the creative director Ronnie Newhouse, whose husband, Jonathan, would later give Enninful the nod at Vogue. After Calvin Klein came Dolce and Gabbana, Jil Sander, Hugo Boss, Comme des Garçons, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Lanvin and Valentino. Over the course of his career, Enninful has built a remarkable number of close relationships with the rich, famous and powerful.

With so many people moving freely between the two sides of the business, the line between advertising and editorial is, to put it mildly, pretty blurred. It’s ads, not subscriptions or newsstand sales, that keep the lights on at fashion magazines, and which in headier days paid for the taxis and carbohydrate-free blue-steak lunches, not to mention the extravagant photoshoots in deserts and on glaciers. Advertisers were given as much, if not more, authority than the editors themselves. In some magazines, editorial pages were promised to certain advertisers before the pages were even assigned to writers or editors. When the pages were eventually assigned, the editorial staff knew what they had to do. Make-up artists often arrived at shoots armed with cosmetics from a number of brands, but the credit would go to just one advertiser. The same thing might happen with a neutral piece of clothing – a white T-shirt, say – that could be deployed to satisfy an advertising gap. Sometimes, it would even be a ‘scent’: ‘Model wears Shalimar,’ that kind of thing. You didn’t have to work long at Vogue to realise it was less a journalistic enterprise than a tentacle of the fashion industry.

Newspaper fashion supplements such as T at the New York Times, WSJ at the Wall Street Journal and the bluntly named How to Spend It (recently rebranded HTSI) at the Financial Times leverage older, affluent readers for what print advertising remains. (They are also a safe space for advertisers: imagine spending thousands of dollars to advertise a pair of expensive shoes, only to have the ad appear next to a piece about the war in Ukraine or dire news about austerity and inflation.) The supplement’s editors are often required to a perform a complicated ethical manoeuvre that respects the standards of the parent publication while still participating in the industry standard pay-for-play. Editors are compelled, for example, to refuse and return expensive Christmas gifts but must still count and assign credits.

The first assault on the established system came in the form of bloggers: teenagers and other outsiders who proclaimed their sartorial devotion from their parents’ basements and amassed thousands of online followers. They mixed pictures of themselves and their friends with more aspirational content, responding to the catwalks and celebrity outfits. They were funny and earnest and sometimes subversive. Amateur and off-duty photographers turned their cameras away from celebrities and focused instead on the interestingly dressed people who turned up to fashion shows with no intention of going inside (and no invitation). They were just there to be seen, and blogs such as The Sartorialist and streetpepper made them demi-celebs. Vogue wasn’t happy, and in 2016 some its editors made their displeasure clear at a public forum during which they referred to bloggers as ‘gross’ and ‘like going to a strip club looking for romance … it’s not even close to the real thing.’

The brands were not so discerning, however. They began inviting bloggers to their shows and putting them in the front row next to the editors who had accused them as ‘heralding the death of style’. They began sending them clothes to wear and promote, which was much cheaper than advertising in Vogue and more effective, especially after the rise of Instagram. The long-established technique of ‘seeding’ products – sending out, say, a handbag to a select number of editors who might, eventually, feature it in the pages of a magazine – was accelerated with influencers, whose followers could immediately click on a link to buy it for themselves. One Italian influencer, Chiara Ferragni, has 28 million Instagram followers and contracts with Louis Vuitton and Chanel. She earns close to two million euros a year, as do a number of her peers. American Vogue, the biggest fashion title, in the world, has a circulation of 1.2 million and 41 million Instagram followers, most of whom do not bother buying the magazine in print.

Fashion labels also took greater control over the dissemination of their products by starting to organise elaborate, extra-season fashion shows in exciting locations. While publications typically foot the bill for their editors to make the New York, London, Paris, Milan circuit, the bills for these shows are handled by the brands themselves. Influencers (and some editors) are treated to fancy hotel rooms full of designer goods, lavish meals and parties and concerts featuring Pharrell. There is sound logic behind this mind-numbing expense. Unlike a magazine fashion shoot, which might include only a single garment by any one designer, these occasions allow the brand to push lots of products at once, while remaining in control of the overall aesthetic. Influencers, meanwhile, are equipped to reach more people more quickly than any print magazine, flooding social media in the days after an event.

Plus, the images are incredible. Chanel once did an off-season runway show through the streets of Havana (the extremely turbulent charter flight home was the most frightened I have ever been on a plane). Louis Vuitton showed at a museum outside Kyoto one season, and at the museum of modern art in Niteroi, Brazil, the next. Dior staged an extravaganza at Pierre Cardin’s Palais Bulles outside Cannes, and Gucci organised elaborate pyrotechnics for its show in an ancient Roman cemetery near Arles.

Enninful’s book has its own dramatic contrasts, between his early childhood on a Ghanaian military base, hearing the sound of executions from his backyard, and the glamorous life he leads as editor of Vogue. He also indulges in some Olympic-level name-dropping:

The friend happened to be Idris Elba, the same dear friend who held my hand a year or so later while I cried tears of joy at my wedding … We were in the orangery of Longleat House in Wiltshire … loaned to us by my friend Emma Thynn, Britain’s first black marchioness, and her husband, Caewlin, the eighth Marquess of Bath … Rihanna, who was running late, burst through the back doors in a black lace dress, her pregnant belly resplendent. Through the tears, everyone burst into peals of laughter. Classic Rih.

When he suffers a detached retina, Diane Von Furstenberg steps in to help him skip the queue and secure an appointment with the most in-demand eye surgeon. His OBE party is organised by Naomi Campbell. ‘Naomi had booked a suite at Claridge’s to throw a lunch for my family. It was a Sunday roast but, Naomi-style, there was also jerk chicken and rice and peas, not usually on the Claridge’s menu, but, of course, Naomi can get anyone to do anything.’

Enninful’s mission has been to include people not previously seen in the pages of Vogue, and it’s long overdue. In 1966, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, Condé Nast fired the editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue for proposing that the magazine feature a black model, Donyale Luna, on the cover. Nearly fifty years later I was scolded by a publisher for putting Serena Williams on the cover of a fashion magazine just before the start of the US Open. The advertisers were unhappy, I was told. ‘We all love Serena, of course! It’s just that she looks so angry.’ Much of his success, however, comes down to being a well-connected Fashion Person, and a devotee of its more traditional forms, if not its traditional subjects. He has expanded Vogue’s digital offering, but still produces a very traditional magazine, with a celebrity cover, bitty pieces in the front and big fashion shoots at the back. His headlines – ‘Invest in a Great Black Coat’ – wouldn’t have been out of place fifty years ago, and his editors continue to issue good taste mandates, telling us what culture we should consume in any given month. The celebrity profiles are still fawning: ‘His body language is a joy to behold,’ ran a recent feature on Timothée Chalamet, ‘as he bounces into Champs, a vegan diner in Brooklyn, somehow channelling both a street-style star and Buster Keaton.’ The November 2022 cover feature had the strapline: ‘Sienna Miller has overslept’. Whether the reference to Gay Talese’s famous Esquire piece, ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’, was intentional hardly matters. The line has been used in so many cover stories it has become its own trope.

Despite the big claims and obvious changes, it’s difficult to imagine the print magazine carrying on for much longer in its current incarnation. In 2021, Condé Nast fired the editors-in-chief of six editions, clustering titles under the purview of a few key editors, Enninful included. (Anna Wintour rules over them all, with Enninful reporting to her as ‘European Editorial Director’.) The idea is that the magazines need not produce unique – and expensive – material for each country. The Vogue brand continues to publish a number of print products, but Condé Nast has closed the print editions of some formerly lucrative titles, including Glamour and Allure.

On 12 September​ in New York City, smack in the middle of fashion week, American Vogue staged something called ‘Vogue World’. Billed as a ‘street fair’, it was a bit like a magazine used to be, only now it was live and three-dimensional. Tickets were either free (for the media, VIPs and friends of the magazine) or very expensive: from $130 for a standing ticket to $3000 for ‘front row access’, including a meet and greet with some junior editors. The tickets also included lots of free stuff provided by Vogue’s advertisers, most of it edible. Fendi, who were marking the 25th anniversary of their once popular Baguette Bag (they formed a major plot point in Sex and the City), handed out actual baguettes. Michael Kors ran a pastrami cart (he really loves New York) and a Gucci osteria served cookies. Burberry, playing on its Englishness, offered cups of tea. Banana Republic did banana pudding. And so on. In return, the attendees took endless photographs and posted them on social media. They had paid Vogue for the privilege of doing its press.

The evening opened with Serena Williams (Anna Wintour is a devoted tennis fan and friend of Serena’s) arriving in a floor-length silver Balenciaga gown, accompanied by a phalanx of adorable ball girls, swiftly followed by a street team of BMX bikers wearing Louis Vuitton. Next came the supermodels of the last generation – Shalom Harlow, Amber Valetta, Helena Christensen – and appearances by Precious Lee, Adut Akech, Emily Ratajkowski, Jeremy O. Harris and Imaan Hammam. Mikhail Baryshnikov took a turn, for some reason, and then Lil Nas X, who had been sitting next to Anna Wintour, threw down the toy bear he’d been snuggling all night and performed a wild version of ‘Industry Baby’. The famously opaque Wintour broke into a grin, and even (cringe) bopped her knee.

The whole night was bizarre, and wild, and inclusive, in a sense. All sorts of bodies and genders were celebrated – this was a radically diverse collection for any version of Vogue. The only print magazines on display were a bunch of old Vogues in a newsstand, like props on a set, free for the taking. Supermodels smiled out from the covers: Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss. The controversial 2008 cover of the basketball player LeBron James clutching Gisele Bündchen, which for many at the time called to mind King Kong, was nowhere in sight. That Vogue has been disappeared. That Vogue, at least, is over.

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