LONDON — He may have been born in Ghana and spent long stretches in the U.S., and on the international fashion trail, but Edward Enninful’s sense of humor, and self-deprecation, is thoroughly British.
His memoir, “A Visible Man,” (Bloomsbury), which was released on Tuesday, is packed with witty one-liners in anxious situations. It’s full of agony, and ecstasy, and Enninful owns it all.
Having fled Ghana during the bloody political unrest of the 1980s, the teenage Enninful and his many siblings land at the airport in London, without their mother (who’d stayed behind to wrap up her dressmaking business), or the right immigration papers.
“Upon arriving in the U.K., all together like the West African Jackson Five with baby Janet, we were stuck until our father could come out on the train to present what paperwork he had,” writes Enninful.
One of their first observations of the British capital — which they were so excited to see — was that it looked nothing like Ghana. “My brothers and I were struck over and over by how strange it was. ‘Oh my God,’ we said to each other. It’s all white people.”
The humor persists throughout, even when Enninful, editor in chief of British Vogue and the European editorial director for Vogue, describes the incident, a few years ago, when a white, female security guard profiled him as he walked into Vogue House in London.
“She looked right through me and bellowed, sternly: ‘Loading bay.’ Excuse me, what did you just say, I asked her? ‘Deliveries go through the loading bay,’” she says again.
“Not today, Satan,” writes Enninful, quoting “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Bianca Del Rio.
The book is terrific, and straight-from-the-heart, although the multitalented (and tasking) Enninful made the decision early on to swap the written word for the photograph, preferring to be an imagemaker, rather than a fashion writer or critic.
His journey is well-known: He’s worked in the fashion industry since he was 16, first as a model (under the laser beam of his mother’s eyes), and later as an editor. After dropping out of Goldsmiths College in London, he became fashion director of i-D magazine, his home away from home, at 18 years old.
A frenetic, globe-trotting — and lucrative — career in magazines and freelance styling followed, with top jobs at W Magazine, and later at British Vogue. All the while, he fulfilled his own image-making dreams, and pushed for more diversity in the industry — on magazine covers, fashion pages, studio floors and C-suites.
“Diversity has to start from behind the scenes. There needs to be more people of color — Black, brown, Asian people — behind the scenes at brands and companies. That’s what we’re still missing,” Enninful said during an interview at The Langham hotel here.
“Black people can’t do it on their own; gay people, women and trans people can’t do it on their own. Allyship is so important,” he said, adding that he wrote the book chiefly for younger generations, to show them what is possible, and the importance of hard work.
“I wanted people to see that here’s a successful Black man, a gay man. I also wanted them to know there’s a story, and that I didn’t just get here, that I had failings and successes, and that you have to also be fearless. I lost everything, I was kicked out of home. I really had nothing to lose,” Enninful said.
The memoir caps a long career — and coincides with his turning 50 last February and five lively years at the helm of British Vogue. During those years Enninful was also promoted to head of the international editions amid a wave of change, consolidation, and some big question marks about the publisher’s future.
Enninful is tipped to replace Anna Wintour, eventually, as editor in chief of American Vogue and oversee content at Condé Nast worldwide. But that may or may not happen.
“When I started here in 2017, I was dealing with a magazine. Today, I’m dealing with a brand that includes print, digital, audio, video and podcasts, which is so exciting for somebody who’s so forward looking. That really excites me. At the moment, I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. I never plan for whatever the future brings, whether it’s in this industry, or another. I’m open. Anything’s possible,” he said.
An early adopter of Twitter, and a tech lover, Enninful said he’s particularly interested in the intersection point of fashion, technology and retail. “This is what fashion is really dealing with now,” Enninful added.
The immediate future is bright for the British Vogue editor, who describes the October issue of the magazine, out next week, as one that will “shock the world. It’s a big one,” he said, without offering any more details.
Queen Elizabeth II, who is marking 70 years on the throne this year, could be the cover star. She’s someone whom Enninful admires, and whom he’s wanted to photograph for the cover. She doesn’t pose for cover shoots, so it would certainly make waves.
Enninful’s bonds with the British royals are strong: he collaborated with Meghan Markle on the 2019 “Forces of Change” September issue; has interviewed Prince Charles about his sustainability efforts in fashion, and serves as a global ambassador for the Prince’s Trust charity, which helps vulnerable young people with job training and education.
In 2016, before taking up his job at British Vogue, he also accepted an honor from Queen Elizabeth. Enninful was named an OBE, or Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for working to diversify the fashion industry.
“Even if, like many of my fellow Black Britons, I have complicated feelings about the British Empire’s history, I have always been proud to have become an Englishman,” writes Enninful about accepting the OBE.
“This was a historically racist, colonialist institution dragging itself bit by bit into the light, and it was now choosing to reward people like me, who were working to make it a fairer and more open place,” he adds.
As for Enninful’s future, friends and collaborators are already talking about the possibility of the book being turned into a film or series.
He finds this amusing, and thinks maybe the Jamaican-born actor and former model Michael Ward could play him as a young man. “He really looks like me when I was a teenager,” Enninful said.
Other hot tips include Jared Leto as Steven Miesel, and Tom Hardy as Enninful’s new husband, and partner of 20 years, Alec Maxwell.
In the meantime, Enninful is trying to keep it real and sell fashion dreams in scary times of spiralling fuel costs, soaring inflation, geopolitical and environmental crises.
“You have to show a way forward,” he said.
“This ethos of buying better, buying less really is not what folks stood for — and now we have to embrace it. But I also know that through difficult times, we also have to offer fantasy. So it will be about bridging reality, and escape. This is really what Vogue has been about for the past 106 years.”