Image: CC BY-SA 3.0
Monday night saw the Oxford Union take a fashionable turn. Out with Barbour jackets and battered loafers. In with neon faux-fur and statement trousers. Of course, this aesthetic shift was all a result of the arrival of British Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Edward Enninful OBE. Towering over his interviewer and dressed in black from head-to-toe, Enninful carried a presence that is not commonly felt. Even his sunglasses, which remained on throughout the evening, gave the impression that he was someone just beyond our reach – or an extra in The Matrix.
Despite some dubious questioning, Enninful was engaging throughout as he provided an overview of his life and career. Enninful is one to make anyone feel humbled by his achievements. Scouted at sixteen, he became a model and then a stylist, finally becoming fashion director at i-D at eighteen making him the youngest fashion director of an international publication in history. He soon moved on to contributing at Italian Vogue and American Vogue, before becoming director of W Magazine. Finally, in 2017 he took up the helm of British Vogue. With such a wealth of experience it is unsurprising that Enninful made such a good interviewee. Calm and tranquil, I couldn’t help but feel rather underachieving as his achievements were so casually laid out before the chamber.
Beyond the material success of his career, Enninful has undergone his own transformation and in doing so attempts to influence similar changes in the industry. He described how being raised in an African household but experiencing childhood and adolescence in London meant he always “straddled two worlds”. A “duality” and “empathy” was instilled in him as the outsider which he finds can be applied readily to fashion. He stated that for much of his career he has attempted to challenge the idea that “diversity doesn’t sell”. But he has done more than just challenge it. With Italian Vogue’s ‘Black Issue’ (published July 2007) he proved it false and celebrated black women and models. The piece sold out in Britain and the USA in under 72 hours. It is covers and issues like these that make some criticise Enninful for taking Vogue into the political sphere when it is traditionally a fashion magazine. When questioned on this criticism, Enninful countered that while we react to fashion, fashion equally reacts to us. Fashion provides a narrative of our times, a means of “reflection, projection, and documentation”, it does not find inspiration from nothing.
On the topic of Vogue as an institution, Enninful was reverent. He sees the magazine – with its heritage, fame, and influence – as a platform for leading the way in diversity and sustainability. He approaches it from the aspirational but accessible perspective that “if you can see it, you can be it”. To him, Vogue needs to be a place where “real women see themselves” and can associate with those featured. Vogue is not a place of unattainability anymore. Saying that, Enninful still reveres the aura that surrounds the magazine. In the age of social media he notes that the monthly issues – with their front covers, weighted paper, and packed features – are still the “haute couture” of the publication. The magazine provides a distilled, clarified Vogue. An image of the world that is “always through the Vogue lens, always elevated”. No matter how many previews or articles you place on Instagram or Twitter, the ultimate form will always be the magazine.
When asked about how to get into the fashion industry, or how to make a name for yourself, Enninful was as characteristically vague, as most successful people are. Buzz phrases like “be fearless”, “never lose your creativity”, and “do not lessen yourself” were tossed out to the nodding and bizarrely grateful crowd. While his advice wasn’t exactly helpful, this is no surprise given how much the industry has changed since he started. Enninful was notably better on how to approach the end of a career than the beginning. When asked how he knew it was time to move on from each respective role he paused and jokingly stated, “you know when you have overstayed your welcome at a party”. Then blithely confirmed that it is your “duty to leave” – no one wants to be forced out, we all know how bitchy Meryl Streep got when put under threat in The Devil Wears Prada. Much of his reasoning comes from his belief that “Vogue is bigger than any editor”, it was successful before he arrived, it will be successful after he leaves. As in life, all we can do is “do better” and while previous Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman had an “amazing point of view in her time”, his time is different, and the time after that will be different again. All of this culminated in his description of the best piece of advice he has ever received: “never rest on your laurels”. He described the fashion industry as so changeable and fluctuating that there is no time to stop and reflect until the moment has passed, instead the moment is now, and we must act on it.
As the hour drew to a close the ultimate fashion question was asked: “who are you wearing?” After some meandering about trying to wear exclusively British designers Enninful sheepishly revealed that in fact his boots were Yves St Laurent (French); his trousers, MR PORTER (Italian); his jacket, Prada (also Italian); his shirt, ‘the’ Gap (American). It cannot be said that in all things he isn’t diverse. Even in this moment of closing levity, I could not forget what a force in fashion Enninful represents.