Black women don’t sell magazines. That’s what Edward Enninful heard from the very beginning of his career in the fashion industry. And for him, that just sounded absurd.
“I [was raised] by my mother, who was a seamstress, and she would make clothes for the most incredible women, women of all sizes and women of all skin tones and ages,” Enninful says. “For me, fashion was always such an inclusive, beautiful thing.”
The reality of the industry was often different. Enninful’s family emigrated to the UK from Ghana when he was a child. As a teenager, he was “discovered” by a modeling agent on a train, but when he went to casting calls, he was often dismissed because of his race.
“I’ll be told I was too dark or that my lips were too big or my nose was too wide,” he says. “I really saw firsthand that being dark skinned or being Black wasn’t so desirable back then.”
At 18, Enninful began to work behind the camera for i-D, a magazine that focused on young people’s street style. As the magazine’s art director and at subsequent publications, he made it a goal to represent the world in all its diversity: “Even when people would say to me, ‘Oh, another Black model on the cover,’ I used to say, ‘Yes, and here’s another one!’ … And I was never really scared because I knew that the world that I saw had to be reflected.”
This insight is one of the driving forces behind Enninful’s three-decades-long career as a stylist, art director and editor for some of the most popular fashion magazines and brands in the world. He’s served as editor-in-chief of British Vogue since 2017, holding the distinction as the first male Black and gay editor in the magazine’s 106 year history.
Enninful writes about his life and career in the memoir, A Visible Man.
On growing up in his mother’s clothing studio in Ghana
My mother had an atelier, about 40 seamstresses, so there was almost like a huge room in the bungalow and the seamstresses were all around sewing. And my mum would be in another room. If you know African fabrics, you know the colors. African women love to dress. There is no dressing down with African women. So I was my mother’s assistant. I’ll be sketching with her. I’ll be literally zipping women into sort of corseted dresses. I’ll be playing with eyelets and I was transformed by what my mother showed me, what those days showed me, and when people talk about today and inclusivity and diversity, I just knew from a young age that, really, beauty for me started with curvy women.
On how his mother’s African fashion has informed his editorial eye
I remember when my mom always loved nipped in waists, always like big sleeves, three layered sleeves and … three layered peplums, [in] African wax prints. And all I remember were those headscarves that would literally touch the sky, and the skirts were always really, really tight, so the women always hobbled along. But it was all about accentuating a woman’s curves, not hiding them. So it was like an hourglass. And I remember those beautiful, beautiful prints — oranges, greens, greens mixed with oranges, yellows mixed with browns, sort of unexpected colors, which even to this day, when I’m putting colors together, people always said, “Oh, that’s a weird combination,” but it works.
On becoming the fashion director at i-D when he was 18
There I was, an 18 year old in charge of this important magazine. So what did I do? I just threw myself into it. I learned everything I could about magazines. I didn’t sleep. I would literally style the covers. I would work on cover lines. I would work on features inside the magazines. I worked on the shopping pages. I mean, it was like a one-man army. And then on top of that, I’d be in the advertising department learning how to sell the magazine. And we had these club nights. So I went to those club nights as well, so we could show the world what we were doing as a magazine and get them to invest. I was in the art department. When you’re 18 and you feel like an imposter, you just learn everything you can learn. So I didn’t sleep. All I did was work and learn my craft. Even though it was quite difficult [for] the next however many years, at that moment in time, I knew I couldn’t fail.
On the importance of empathy in fashion
When I’m working with Rihanna or Beyoncé or an incredible icon, I know from even a little expression on their face if they’re comfortable or even a little wiggle of discomfort. I notice all those things because of my mother’s studio and studying what made a woman feel really comfortable and really feel at her best.
Had I not been around my mum, soaking in women and the beauty of women, I probably wouldn’t have that sensitivity. And really, when I picked up those early days was empathy. … You have to be able to feel what somebody is feeling because, I always say clothing — it’s not just clothing, it’s armor. It’s how you want the world to see you when you leave your house, it’s how you want to be perceived. So a lot goes into it. So you have to really have empathy as a designer, as a stylist towards women, women’s bodies and essentially how they feel.
On the 2008 all-Black issue of Vogue Italia, featuring cover-to-cover Black people, which launched his career to the next level
The Black Issue started [after] I went to what we call the ready to wear collections, twice a year when designers show their clothes to the world. And I just remember sitting there feeling really sad because out of a lineup of 40 models, there wasn’t one Black model. There wasn’t one! … And I remember returning back to New York because I was working in New York at the time on W Magazine and saying to my collaborator, Steven Meisel, who was the premiere photographer for Italian Vogue, he shot all the covers. And I was sitting with Steven and I was being really sad and said, “Steven, there are no Black models for the shows anymore. There are no Black models there, not in magazines.” …
Steven was like, “Let me speak to Franca Sozzani.” … [She] was the editor of Italian Vogue at the time and a real visionary, literally came back and said, “Let’s do an issue full of Black women … cover to cover.” So it was a really incredible moment. I worked on a shoot with Toccara Jones, with Naomi Campbell, but it was incredible to see an issue that had Iman, Beverly Johnson and Tyra Banks as well as all the young models. And it was such an incredible idea and incredible moment. It sold out. And I think they had to reprint, at that time, 40,000 copies. But it showed that Black can sell, that actually the world was waiting or the world wanted it, but they just weren’t being offered it. That’s what the Black issue showed.
On what it meant to receive an award from the British Empire, as an immigrant
I just realized, oh, my God, I had contributed something to my country. And I wasn’t that little outsider who arrived on the plane with my siblings, that I’d been able to take opportunity and really work hard. But while doing that also, I was able to bring people up with me, people of color up with me. … So when I received the award, it was really a wonderful moment, especially also for my father, who literally had to come to a different country, start a whole new life, not be able to work and not have any money and bring up six kids. So for him, it was such a special moment. There was also one of the reasons why I agreed to accept it, because it made him very proud.
On drawing on his imagination while recovering from eye surgery
While I was in the darkness, not being able to be visually stimulated, I dreamt bigger. I saw Technicolor. I saw colors. And I came out of the three weeks in the darkness to create one of my most memorable covers with Rihanna as the Queen for W Magazine. … I may not be able to style if [I lose my vision], but I know that I can withdraw into imagination because in my imagination, I see everything. I see beauty.
On getting ideas from his dreams
Sometimes I’ll be really fighting with myself and not coming up with an idea and I’ll go to sleep. And then I’ll wake up and I’ll see all the images. I’ll see the model, I’ll see the location, I’ll see the hair, I’ll see the makeup. And for years, I thought that was cheating. [It was] my mom who said, “That’s actually a gift,” because I didn’t know … what a gift was. “It’s a God given gift and you have to really look after it.”
Ann Marie Baldonado and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Our guest, Edward Enninful, is editor-in-chief of British Vogue and European editorial director for Conde Nast. In 2020, Time magazine called him the most powerful Black man in fashion. One of his missions has been making the fashion industry more inclusive. He’s the author of a new memoir called “A Visible Man.” Enninful spoke with our guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast “Truth Be Told.” Here’s Tonya.
TONYA MOSLEY, BYLINE: Black women don’t sell magazines – that’s what Edward Enninful heard from the very beginning of his career in the fashion industry. And for him, that just sounded absurd. Growing up in Ghana and the U.K., Enninful watched his mother, a dressmaker, transform women’s lives. And he saw how women of color not only influenced street and high fashion, but served as tastemakers, influencing the very pages of the magazines they were shunned from. This insight is one of the driving forces behind Enninful’s three-decades-long career as a stylist, art director and editor for some of the most popular fashion magazines and brands in the world. For the last five years, Enninful has served as editor-in-chief of British Vogue, holding the distinction as the first male, Black and gay editor in the magazine’s 106-year history. He’s written about his life and career n a new memoir titled “A Visible Man.” Edward Enninful, welcome to FRESH AIR.
EDWARD ENNINFUL: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
MOSLEY: Pleasure to have you. So you first got into the fashion industry as a model, 16 years old, discovered on a train. And from the very start, you felt othered. You could see clearly, as you write in this book, that you were entering what you called a racist, classist industry. How did that show up for you in those beginning days as a model?
ENNINFUL: I mean, you know, I remember we moved over from Ghana to London. And in Ghana, you know, everybody was Black. It was a Black country. And I came to England and realized that I was a minority, which in itself was quite strange. So anyway, one day I’m on the train. And I was 16 years old. And there was a gentleman staring at me on the train. And, you know, I was quite sheltered, you know, my family kind of, you know, religious. And I wasn’t very worldly. And this man was staring at me. And after a few stops, he got up and gave me his card. And his name was Simon Foxton. And he was one of the premier fashion stylists in England at the time. And he worked for i-D Magazine and another magazine called Arena.
So I remember going home to my mom, you know, my Ghanaian mom, and I said, you know, Mom, I was stopped on the train to be a model. I mean, I didn’t think I could be. I was so lanky and tall and with very dark skin. And for me, models never looked like that. So anyway, my – I wore my mother down after two weeks. And then I really started realizing what the industry was really like because I’ll go to castings and I’ll be told, you know, I was too dark or that, you know, my lips were too big or my nose was too wide.
And to be honest, thank God I had great friends who would shoot me for magazines. But when it came to paid jobs, that was difficult. You know, I really saw firsthand that being dark-skinned or being Black wasn’t so desirable back then. And as a young kid, as a 16-year-old, 17-year-old, that’s quite a hard thing to take on because, you know, I believe people can say what they want about your work, but when they sort of criticize your being and how you look, it goes deeper. So I remember modeling when I was – and thinking, this is not going to be what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
MOSLEY: You knew.
ENNINFUL: I’m going to go behind the cameras. So I started learning.
MOSLEY: You started learning. This is interesting, though, because there is that dichotomy between you understanding that you weren’t the desired look. But then also, this scout, this photographer, Simon, seeing something in you, what did you understand that to be at the time?
ENNINFUL: I mean, at the time, I just – I realized that, you know, the world was kind of changing. The modeling world was changing. The fashion industry was changing. But it was changing on a sort of street level. So magazines like i-D Magazine and The Face were changing the face of fashion by scouting people off the streets and not your classic looking sort of models, you know, the blond, blue-eyed aesthetic. So it was a really daunting time, but also a thrilling time because in – sort of in magazines, really, people from interesting, diverse backgrounds started to appear.
MOSLEY: For those listeners who don’t know, can you describe what i-D Magazine was back at the time in the ’80s and ’90s when you were there, and what place did it have in the fashion world?
ENNINFUL: So i-D Magazine was the first magazine to document street style in the U.K. And it was run by young people for young people. And it was started in 1980. When I joined in sort of the early ’90s, you know, it had gone through a whole ’80s sort of era of punk and music. And I had to sort of usher it into the ’90s, which was sort of about minimalism and supermodels and a whole new era. But it’s really about street fashion run by kids for kids. So you had Vogue, you had Harper’s Bazaar, you had Elle in one corner. And in another corner, you had i-D, The Face, Blitz magazine in another corner all about youth culture.
MOSLEY: You took on a pretty big role at a very young age. At 18, you became what was the youngest art director at the time for i-D Magazine. And it was there that you asserted this power that you had to do things like hire Black models. What was it like to be 18, among established stylists and fashion magazine veterans, pushing something that they had never considered or was pushing against, which you had seen firsthand as a model?
ENNINFUL: I mean, I remember – I knew my modeling days were over when I was – I would pay attention to photography and to the lighting and the clothes. And so from modeling, you know, I started assisting a bit while going to, you know, I’d be going to college. And then eventually, I got given the role of fashion director at i-D when I was 18. And there I was, an 18-year-old in charge of, you know, this important magazine. So what did I do? I just threw myself into it. I learnt everything I could about magazines. I tell you, I didn’t sleep.
I would literally style the covers. I would work on cover lines. I would work on features inside the magazines. I work on the shopping pages. I mean, it was like a one-man army. And then on top of that, I’d be in the advertising department learning how to sell the magazine. And we had these club nights. So I went to those club nights as well, so we could, you know, show the world what we were doing as a magazine and get them to invest. I was in the art department.
And when you’re 18 and you feel like an imposter, you just learn everything you can learn. So I didn’t sleep. All I did was work and learn my craft. So I’m really, you know, even though it was quite difficult sort of the next however many years, at that moment in time, I knew I couldn’t fail.
MOSLEY: There was also quite a bit of code switching. You write about this in the book. What did code switching look like for you back then? And how was that in contrast with the real you?
ENNINFUL: I mean, code switching – I mean, as you know, immigrants are very good at code-switching. And so are gay people, Black people – I mean, you know, whatever you want to name, anybody who has been othered. So for me, you know, even as far back as when we first moved to England, I always say when I was at home, I was in sort of Ghana, Africa with the food, the clothes, the smell, the languages. Then, when I left home and went to school, I was in England with the school uniforms – speak, you know, with my friends, always, you know, eating fish and chips. So I always got used to this idea of duality, you know, almost like being two different people.
So when I got this job, it was really – yes, it was about code switching, this time being an adult, being almost – you know, when – anybody who starts working at a young age, you know, you’re not fully realized as a human – you know, as a grown-up. So you become what people want. So, you know, I’m going to be a grown-up today. You know, I’m going to, you know, be the one that is tough – even though I was so shy, you know? I’m going to be this person that I’m not really, you know? I’m – you know, I was so creative and sensitive, but I tried to hide all that.
MOSLEY: You tried to hide it, but you also asserted yourself and your aesthetic in the choices that you made. So you were being subversive in that kind of way. What was that in you that really pushed you in that direction? It sounds like it started with the grounding with your family.
ENNINFUL: Yeah. I mean, you know, I grew up sort of by my mother, you know, who was a seamstress, and she would make clothes for the most incredible women, like – and, you know, women of all sizes and women of all skin tones and ages. So for me, fashion was always such an inclusive, beautiful thing. And I loved beauty, and I loved beautiful – the beauty in women, you know? So when I started i-D magazine, for me, it wasn’t even a case of making a statement. I just knew that the magazine had to reflect the world we lived in. It had to reflect the world in all its diversity. So even when people would say to me, oh, another Black model on the cover, I used to say, yes, and here’s another one, and do three back-to-back. But at that age, I just knew that fear wasn’t an option.
MOSLEY: If you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. In 2020, Time magazine called Enninful the most important Black man in the global fashion landscape. He’s written a new memoir about his life as a model, stylist and magazine editor titled “A Visible Man.” More after the break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KRISTINE BLOND SONG, “LOVE SHY (CLUB ASYLUM REMIX)”)
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Tonya Mosley. And today, we’re talking with Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. He’s written a new memoir titled “A Visible Man.”
You mentioned that your family migrated from Ghana to the U.K. in the early ’80s. You were 13 years old at the time. But before moving to the U.K., your mother, as you said, she was this successful dressmaker, and you were her assistant. What was her dress studio like? And what kinds of things would you do to assist her?
ENNINFUL: So my mother had an atelier. She had about 40 seamstresses. So there was, like, almost, like, a huge room in a bungalow, and the seamstresses would sit all around, all around sewing. And my mum would be in another room. And, you know, if you know African fabrics, you know the colors. You know, the – you know, African women love to dress. There is no dressing down with African women. So I was my mother’s assistant. I would be sketching with her. I would be literally zipping women into sort of corseted dresses. I would be, you know, playing with, you know, eyelets. And I was in a – I was transformed.
But what my mother showed me, what those days showed me – and, you know, when people talk about today and, you know, inclusivity and diversity, I just knew from a young age that – really, beauty for me started with curvy women. Because growing up in Africa – you know, well, my sister was very skinny, and people would say to her, are you OK, thinking she was ill. So in my – that’s what I grew up with. So I didn’t need to embrace. I didn’t need to sort of go against the tide. Really, it’s what I saw, the beauty of these powerful women.
MOSLEY: Your mom’s clientele was pretty impressive. She would make clothes for presidents’ wives. Do you remember what types of dresses she made for them?
ENNINFUL: Yes. Oh, my God. I remember that my mum always loved sort of nipped-in waists, all these, like, big sleeves, you know, sometimes three-layered sleeves, and then, you know, peplums, about three-layered peplums, but African bright orange prints, you know, African wax prints. And all I remember were those headscarves that would literally touch the sky. And the skirts were always really, really tight. So the women always hobbled along. But it was all about accentuating a woman’s curves, not hiding them. So it was almost like a – kind of an hourglass. I always remember – and I remember those beautiful, beautiful prints, you know, oranges, greens, greens mixed with oranges, yellows mixed with browns, sort of unexpected colors, which, even to this day, when I’m putting colors together, I always – people are always saying, oh, that’s a weird combination, but it works.
MOSLEY: This aesthetic is something that impacted your aesthetic as a stylist, too.
ENNINFUL: Oh, my God. Yes. I mean, I just knew that – you know, I always loved when women looked super glamorous, when they look the best version they could ever be. And also, learning from those early days when my mom sort of really enforced – when I’m working with, like, you know, Rihanna or Beyonce or an incredible icon, I know from even, like, a little expression on their face if they’re comfortable or even a little wiggle of discomfort. I notice all those things because of my mother’s, you know, studio and studying what made a woman feel really comfortable and really feel at her best.
MOSLEY: So, you know. You can tell, when you’re working with a woman, if she loves what you’re doing. Even if she’s smiling, even if she’s like, oh, this is great…
MOSLEY: …You actually know the truth.
ENNINFUL: There’s this little thing that – you know, there’s a little wiggle of discomfort sometimes, even if they’re smiling, or a little flinch that I’m always looking for. You know, I’m always looking out for it. And I can always be like, oh, this is not the right one, is it? And eventually, they’ll be like, OK, yeah, let’s try something else. But these are little things that I picked up from such a young age. Had I not been around my mom soaking in sort of women and the beauty of women, I would – I probably wouldn’t have that sensitivity. And really, what I picked up those early days was empathy, you know? Very important.
MOSLEY: Your work gained worldwide attention in 2008 when you were part of the styling team for the all-Black issue of Vogue Italia. Cover-to-cover, every shoot, every page was a celebration of Black people, and it was called the Black issue. And the original run of the issue sold out in the United States and the U.K. within 72 hours. I just want to go with you to that moment because in a way, it was vindication. For many, many years, you had been told that Black women don’t sell magazines. You’d been saying for years, though, that there is a market for this, that Black women could be on the cover and sell magazines. How did it feel in that moment to see the success of that in that way?
ENNINFUL: I mean, the Black issue sort of started off when I went to what we call the ready-to-wear collections – you know, twice a year when designers show their clothes of the world. And I just remember sitting there feeling really sad because out of a lineup of 40 models, there wasn’t one Black model. There wasn’t one. And I’m not even exaggerating when I said there wasn’t – zero. And I remember returning back to New York – ’cause I was working in New York at the time on W magazine – and saying to my collaborator, Steven Meisel, who was a – you know, the premiere photographer for Italian Vogue – he shot all the covers.
I remember sitting with Steven, and I – being really sad. I said, Steven, there are no Black models at the shows anymore. There are no Black models. They’re not in magazines. You know, I’m doing – we’re doing what we can. But they’re nowhere. Steven was like, you know, let me speak to Franca Sozzani, the great Franca Sozzani, who was the editor of Italian Vogue at the time and a real visionary – literally came back and said, you know, let’s do an issue full of Black women – like you said, cover-to-cover. And it was such an incredible idea, an incredible moment. It sold out. And I think they had to reprint sort of at the time 40,000 copies. But it showed that Black can sell, that, actually, the world wanted it, but they just weren’t being offered it.
MOSLEY: What were some of the most memorable parts of conceptualizing and producing the Black issue?
ENNINFUL: I mean, it was really crazy because, you know, I was – Steven would go, OK, what models haven’t we seen? What models have we seen? You know, Naomi – we wanted Naomi to be part of a group story, but you – like, you can’t really group Naomi Campbell with other models. So she had to have her own story. And then, I knew he did a story – he wanted a story based on YSL, Yves Saint Laurent, the great Yves Saint Laurent, who had sort of – all his models were Black, so he dedicated one story with – to her. Another story was based on Grace Jones, you know, the eternal icon. And then, I did a story – I mean, of course, I had to do a story with Toccara Jones. And I don’t know if you remember Toccara. She was sort of the first…
MOSLEY: Yes, yes.
ENNINFUL: …Curvy model. And we called the story “Champagne Furs.” And it was Toccara looking so beautiful, wearing diamonds and furs, and really proud of her body and her figure. So really, it just literally covered all different shapes and sizes and skin tones. It just showed how diverse we are as Black people and through the lens of high fashion. It wasn’t street fashion because then, that’s what they expected to see from a lot of, you know, Black culture. But it was high fashion. It was designer wear. It was the – you know, the best high fashion could offer. And that really was a turning point in the industry.
MOSLEY: And that distinction, streetwear versus high fashion, is important, too, because women of color had been relegated to street fashion up until that point.
ENNINFUL: Yes. Up until that point, you know, women of color had been celebrated through street fashion, which is fantastic in itself, through hip hop you know? – you know, Missy Elliott, sort of – you know, Salt-N-Pepa – that was really great. But in the space of high fashion, the fashion model was dying. The Black model was dying, which is ironic. Because if you went back to the ’70s, you had iconic models like Iman, Beverly Johnson, Naomi Sims. And even in the ’80s, you know, you had such incredible Black models – you know, Mounia, Katoucha.
And then, the Black models disappeared. So for me, it was really important to bring the Black model back into the context of high fashion, you know, alongside street fashion. You know, street fashion was there, and it was great. But we had to also show the versatility of the Black model. That was really what was important to me. We needed to show that Black models could also be – and were and always had been – high fashion.
GROSS: We’re listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Tonya Mosley, recorded with Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue and author of the new memoir, “A Visible Man.” We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEREOLAB SONG, “METRONOMIC UNDERGROUND”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Edward Enninful. He’s the editor-in-chief of British Vogue and is the first Black person and first male to hold that position in the magazine’s over-100-year history. He spent the first few years of his life in Ghana, where his father was in the Ghanaian military. After a series of coups, the family moved to London. Although he felt like an awkward outsider, he became a model and a fashion director for a magazine when he was still a teenager. He rose up in the fashion ranks and is credited with diversifying the industry from both behind and in front of the camera. Enninful’s new memoir is called “A Visible Man.” He spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley.
MOSLEY: It’s really interesting that you talk about the diversity that we saw in the ’70s and ’80s to a certain extent in the ’90s. You write that something happened in the magazine and fashion world in the 2000s. Black models were disappearing from catwalks. There was a regression in diversity. Why do you think that was?
ENNINFUL: I mean, I just felt like, you know, the ’90s sort of was heading that way anyway. You know, there was the grunge movement. And if you don’t know what grunge is, it’s that – sort of the real aesthetic, where photography had to be real, you know, situations had to be real, settings had to be real, hair had to be real. There was no fantasy. So that led into the early 2000s. And for some reasons, you know, with the appearance of the casting director, the model – historically, the model and the designer had always had a close relationship. But when casting directors stepped in between the model and the designer, slowly the Black models started to disappear.
And really, that – yeah, it was the early 2000s. It was a real watershed, you know. And I just saw it went from having one model in the show, one Black model in a lineup of 30 or 40 to none. But, of course, I was still doing my shows and just putting as many Black models or, you know, models of color as I could in them. But yes, that really was the norm. And everyone thought it was OK, but for me, that wasn’t OK.
MOSLEY: A few things you’re saying here. First off, I actually didn’t – I had never heard that definition of grunge as reality. I think we think of grunge oftentimes as like that grunge rock kind of raw look.
ENNINFUL: Yes. I mean, the beauty of grunge was, you know, in London, there was a group of friends, you know, we grew up in sort of west London and would shop from secondhand stores. We didn’t have money to buy designer clothes, so we’ll customize our clothes. We will, you know, add, you know, safety pins to jeans or bleach jeans. You know, you really bought secondhand clothes and you made it your own. So that became the aesthetic. And out of it came a model like Kate Moss, you know, who was really the face of that.
MOSLEY: Right. And you mentioned Kate Moss, who was also your muse and one of your dear friends. She was the it model in the ’90s as part of that supermodel group. As someone who holds such high regard for women of all shapes and sizes, what was your mindset like back then when the anorexic look was the look?
ENNINFUL: I mean, I remember they used to call it heroin chic, basically, call it heroin chic. And I just remember that, Kate, you know, was always tiny. She was always skinny, you know, freckles on the nose, like your little neighbor’s kid, essentially. So she became the face of grunge. But for me, there were also amazing girls like, you know, Naomi Campbell, you know, Tyra Banks, you know Beverly Johnson – you know, women who are also not a small but could also be a reflection of that time. But Kate, I remember at the time, you know, became the face of a movement. And she was really criticized always for being too thin. And that was just how she was built, really.
But grunge – the grunge period really did try to sort of emphasize that skinny was better than, you know, any other size. But I just carried on as usual with i-D Magazine, just showing all different sizes and all different kinds of women through grunge. So sometimes, I found grunge quite alienating because as a Black person, it just felt a little like, OK, you know, this aesthetic can be all white. And so we tried to counterbalance that with other models like Lorraine Pascale (ph), who was really famous in London, and I write about her, and just sort of create a narrative that was more inclusive.
MOSLEY: Edward, in the book, you write about these beautiful moments with your parents and your five brothers and sisters in Ghana – living in tight quarters, sharing beds, but feeling so much love and comfort in the home. But there were also these outside realities that forced your family to migrate to the U.K. You’d actually hear the sound of firing squads, so much so that you became immune to the sound.
ENNINFUL: Yes. My father was in the army. He was a major in the Ghanaian army. And they were essentially the Peace Corps. So they would go to countries like Liberia, countries with conflict, and sort of try to, you know, help. So we lived on a military base called Burma Camp. So, you know, we lived in Africa, but we didn’t really live in a town. We lived on a military base, sort of beautiful bungalows, fresh-cut grass. And then opposite the house was the sea. And before you got to the sea were these sort of mounds with sticks and sort of poles on them. And every weekend, you know, people would be marcher up there, people who had, you know, spoken up against the government or, you know, people who had – I don’t know. We were so young, we didn’t even know the reason. But people would be marched up there and shot.
And as a child, we just internalized it. We’re like, you know, it’s firing squad day. And we didn’t even know what death was essentially, but we knew that it was firing squad day. And then, of course, there was a revolution. And the president, who my father was aligned with, President Acheampong, was overthrown. And a new president came in, Rawlings. And we had to flee.
So my dad, you know, my dad literally had to flee for his life. So he, you know, he went off to England. And then a year later, we all joined him. And we had no idea of what to expect. We had no idea. You know, we’d been in Ghana, where we were just so happy to be together. And then we were in another country where we were a minority. And, you know, I remember looking around and all these brutalist buildings and the cold weather and thinking we were on this huge adventure, thinking we were going to be so loved.
MOSLEY: Oh, when you were going to England. Yes.
ENNINFUL: And we landed in, you know, 1980s England. And that was a different time.
MOSLEY: It was a different time.
ENNINFUL: It was a different time. Margaret Thatcher was, you know, the prime minister. And there were the Brixton riots literally down the road from my aunt’s flat where we moved. So when we arrived, there was already a sense of tension in the air. And I remember when we went to school, my dad would tell us to come straight home. And we would come, and he’d be screaming at the TV. You know, and then they introduced something called the sus law, which I talk about in the book, where the police could stop and search people, so you know, cousins, brothers would be stopped and searched. So we knew we’d come from one sort of place which was unstable to a new place where we weren’t necessarily, you know, favored, so to say. So that was really difficult as a 13-year-old to get your head around.
MOSLEY: You know, I’ve been thinking about you as I was reading your book. And of course, the world is mourning the loss of Queen Elizabeth, who died this month at the age of 96. As someone who once felt like an outsider in the U.K., you then just a few years ago received a special award from the British Empire for your services to diversify the fashion industry. When you received that award in 2016 from the British Empire, you say that it was the first time that you felt maybe seen, that you didn’t feel like an outsider.
ENNINFUL: I mean, I felt like all those years – you know, when you leave one country to another, you know, when you leave your home to find another home in a foreign country, and it takes quite a while. And I spent so many of my years sort of traveling – you know, I moved to New York. And then given this award while I lived in New York, I’d go back, and I just realized, oh, my God, I had contributed something to my country. And I wasn’t that little outsider who arrived on the plane with my siblings, that I’d been able to sort of take opportunity and really work hard.
But while doing that, also, I was able to bring people up with me, people of color up with me, and I wasn’t happy being the only one. So when I received the award, it was really a wonderful moment, especially also for my father, who literally had to come to a different country, you know, start a whole new life, not be able to work, not have any money and bring up six kids. So for him, it was such a special moment. That was also one of the reasons why I – you know, I agreed to accept it ’cause he – you know, it made him very proud.
MOSLEY: There’s a moment in the book where you talk about a celebration you all had, and you see your dad off to the side, so happy for you. And he’s dancing, and Madonna’s next to him, and he has no idea…
ENNINFUL: Naomi on the other side.
MOSLEY: …Who these people are – Naomi on the other side.
ENNINFUL: Yeah. And he’s a good dancer, too.
MOSLEY: Yeah, it sounded like a beautiful moment, but hard fought because you all didn’t have a great relationship growing up. He didn’t want you…
MOSLEY: …To be in fashion. He didn’t want you to be gay. He actually told you he’d slit your throat if he found out you were gay. You all are cordial now.
ENNINFUL: Yes. Yeah. I mean, you know, like I said, you know, I was just sort of the spacey, quiet, artistic child. And I always kind of stayed out of his way. My brothers would always sort of get into trouble, but I would always just hide. I was so petrified of him. And then, you know, I guess he must have known that I was different or special, as they say. And we didn’t have a very, you know, good relationship. And then when I was 16, you know, I got into fashion, and I was supposed to be going to university when I was 18. And I enrolled, of course, with the university, but I really was not interested in university. I was interested in fashion. And one day I decided to tell him the truth, that I hadn’t been going to school and that I wanted to be in the media. And so he threw my stuff out, and I was, like, out of the house. So I left, and we didn’t make contact for a lot of years. And then, you know, my mother got ill, and I watched him just look after her and be sort of this incredible husband, essentially, and really cared for her for a lot of years before she passed. So that’s when, you know, our relationship started getting better.
MOSLEY: Do you think he sees you now?
ENNINFUL: I think he does. But there’s – I mean, you know, there’s always this thing of you always think to yourself, if I didn’t do what I did, if I didn’t have this level of success, will I still be seen? And I’d like to say yes. I like to think yes. But, you know, it still plays on your mind sometimes.
MOSLEY: If you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. And 2020 Time magazine called Enninful the most important Black man in the global fashion landscape. He’s written a new memoir about his life as a model, stylist and magazine editor, titled “A Visible Man.” More after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
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MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Tonya Mosley, and today we’re talking with Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. He’s written a new memoir titled “A Visible Man.”
Edward, you’re a self-professed workaholic. This is an issue I wanted to talk with you about, too, ’cause I’m the same way. You call it psychological shelter. In what ways was overworking like a psychological shelter for you? That phrase really stuck with me.
ENNINFUL: I mean, I worked to not have to deal with the world or personal life. I just worked into the ground. I worked through health issues. I worked through not having to deal with my life sometimes. And self-care back then wasn’t really what the story was about, you know? We were so young. We’d go out, and then we’d come back to work, and we’ll work – and work was everything for me. But I also found out, as I was growing older, that there were instances where I should have said, you know, I need to take time out. You know, when I had surgeries on my eyes, it was very tough, but I would go straight back to work. And my eye – I had retinal deduction (ph) detachments, and they’ll keep detaching. So if I could speak to my younger self, I would say, you know, look after yourself.
MOSLEY: You mentioned your eyesight. You found out many years ago that your retinas were detaching. How are you doing now?
ENNINFUL: I mean, you know, this was the scariest moment of my life when my retina started to detach. And I had to run to a hospital. And they had to operate sort of – apparently, within 48 hours or there would be permanent damage. But then it kept detaching. Every few months, it’ll detach again, you know? So I’ll spend months in a dark room sort of staring at the ground because you have to stare down for your eye to attach. And, you know, I found a great doctor in New York, the best, Dr. Cheng (ph). And now my eyes are pretty good. I went from sort of going for checkups every day to every three days, to once a week, to once a month. And now it’s every six months, so – touch wood – it’s doing OK. And I also don’t fly as much, or I don’t travel as much, you know? I try to – yeah. And I look after myself better. But it’s OK now. Thank you for asking.
MOSLEY: This is a hard question to ask, but have you thought about what you would do, what your role might be in this world of fashion, if you lost your vision?
ENNINFUL: Oh, my God. I mean, I always say that’s my biggest fear, you know? But I also know that while I was in the darkness, not being able to be visually stimulated, I dreamt bigger. I saw technicolor. I saw colors. And I came out of the three weeks in the darkness to create one of my most memorable covers, with Rihanna as the queen for W magazine. I don’t know if you remember that. She had the crown on. She had a gold eye.
ENNINFUL: So my imagination – I may not be able to style if that did happen. But I know that I can withdraw into my imagination, because in my imagination, I see everything. I see beauty. So you know, let’s touch wood. Let’s not – let’s, you know – I don’t want it to happen. But if it happens, you know, I’ll find – I’m sure I’ll find a way to deal with it, as most people do.
MOSLEY: Yes. It’s so interesting when you talk about your imagination and just that quiet and that stillness, because you also have this rare talent of being able to style an idea in your sleep. Like, you come up with ideas while you’re sleeping.
ENNINFUL: (Laughter) I know. It’s a funny one, isn’t it? I remember growing up, and I said – you know, a lot of stylists will go to shows. And they’ll pick out the green dress. And they’ll shoot the green dress. But I couldn’t do that because – I just couldn’t do that. I just had to have a character. I had to have a sense of a character. She had to have an inner life. She had to – I had to have a fully rounded character, you know? Who was she? Where did she live? Where was she from? – before the clothes would come in. So I remember sometimes, I’ll be really fighting with myself and not coming up with an idea. And then I’ll go to sleep. And then I’ll wake up. And I’ll see all the images. I’ll see all the images. I’ll see the model. I’ll see the location. I’ll see the hair. I’ll see the makeup. And for years, I thought that was cheating until, I think, you know, I said to my mom, who said – you know what? – that’s actually a gift, because I didn’t know that was what a gift was. She said, that’s what – it’s a God-given gift. And you have to really look after it.
MOSLEY: How has your aesthetic, your fashion sense evolved over time?
ENNINFUL: I mean, my fashion sense has really been – (laughter) I mean, I said I got it from my dad, you know? The classic T-shirt. A classic black shirt, white shirt, flat front pants, a gray coat. I’ve always dressed like that. And I remember at the time living – my book is called “A Visible Man.” It’s about me wanting to be seen despite being Black, being gay, being working class, being a refugee. But in my dress sense, that’s the irony. I wanted to be invisible all so I didn’t have to think in the morning when I had to go style somebody. I didn’t need to sit there for an hour figuring out what I was going to wear before I went up to dress people. So I just jump into my uniform. So I’ve always had a uniform, which makes me invisible when I have to style. So it’s not about me, it’s about whoever I’m photographing, whether it be, you know, Taylor Swift or Oprah or whatever. It becomes about them and not about me.
MOSLEY: Edward, thank you so much for this conversation.
ENNINFUL: Oh, I really enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Edward Enninful is the editor-in-chief of British Vogue and European editorial director of Conde Nast. His new memoir is called “A Visible Man.” He spoke with guest interviewer Tonya Mosley, host of the podcast “Truth Be Told.” After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review a new series he loves. It’s called “Reboot.” This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER’S “IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.