If you have ever wondered how it feels to have your magazine guest-edited by the world’s most-watched royal, here is a rough guide. Travel to Kensington Palace alone, in secret, many months before publication. Agree a plan over mint tea. Assign said royal a code name, known only to your innermost circle, and distract the rest of your staff by having them work on a completely different issue. (This may be used later, or even written off as a loss leader; it’s a price worth paying for the impact the project will have.)
For Edward Enninful, who morphed from Vogue editor to covert agent when the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, expressed an interest in guest-editing his magazine, the deception was the hardest part. “Every single day we were having secret meetings in my office,” Enninful tells me, speaking on the phone a fortnight after the magazine reached newsstands. “We were just grateful for each day that went by without a leak.”
There were no royal visits to Vogue House (too much of a giveaway) but Enninful and Markle kept in touch by phone, email and through meetings at Kensington Palace. “When the magazine came out, I spoke to everybody we’d kept in the dark, explaining that it wasn’t personal,” he says. “But I understood that the fewer people who knew, the better. For the people in the know, they couldn’t even tell their partners. Having to keep it quiet like that didn’t compare to anything I’d done before.”
When the time came, the final proof pages of the magazine had to be transported from Vogue HQ to the printers face down. But perhaps the most challenging step in the process came afterwards – when Enninful revealed his secret to the world, and the culture war began.
Enninful and Markle’s collaboration, the cover of which was a grid of 15 women jointly selected as “Forces For Change”, quickly became a proxy battle about modern, diverse Britain. Its ferocity was not something the editor saw coming. “I was so engrossed in these women, and in the magazine,” he tells me. “We were not trying to create an issue that was shocking – we were shining a light on incredible women, some who are not famous at all.”
The September Vogue, which Markle has described as having her “thumbprint” all over it, reportedly sold out in just two weeks, and is currently being auctioned for more than five times its £3.99 cover price on eBay. The very fact of its publication became a news story around the world, generating interest and an audience that went far beyond Vogue’s usual constituency. “For a magazine like Vogue to still cause a debate, especially at a time when it’s supposed to be ‘the end of magazines’ – it’s pretty incredible,” Enninful says. “I just can’t believe that so many people wanted to talk about it. That’s what magazines did best when we were growing up, back in the day.”
But the backlash was equally loud. Markle was, according to critics, being unduly political, “divisive” for celebrating transgender women, and “leftwing” for supporting progressive causes. One entertainment writer even professed to know the inner thoughts of the monarch, claiming: “The Queen will think this is an absolutely idiotic, ridiculous decision, as do I.”
After the dust settled, Markle’s noisiest rightwing critics – Melanie Phillips and Sarah Vine among them– moved on to their next target, leaving only the trolling dregs. “Was the criticism racist? Some of it, yeah,” Enninful says. “Actually it was more than racism,” he adds. “I thought it was personal – attacking someone you don’t know, attacking her.”
The double standard at work was hard to ignore. While Enninful and Markle’s collaboration prompted sneers, Prince Charles’s two-time guest editorship of Country Life magazine, and stints by Prince Harry at Radio 4’s Today programme and Kate Middleton at Huffington Post, had been quietly praised at the time. Many of the criticisms aimed at Markle – she was branded “uppity” for assuming the role, and accused of being “anti-white” for focusing on diversity – are familiar tropes aimed at people of colour who enter white spaces and fail to seek white approval, or who celebrate their heritage and diversity.
Enninful says that Markle’s first email to him proposing a collaboration – which he describes as being signed somewhat cryptically with a single “M” – suggested that they would have “lots in common”. And it’s true that, besides their shared love of fashion, literature and photography, both have experienced controversy simply for daring to occupy the space they are in. While Markle’s entry to the royal family prompted endless comment – much of it openly hostile – about her biracial heritage, self-made career and feminist values, Enninful’s appointment was also regarded as provocative: the first Vogue editor in the magazine’s 103-year history to represent a departure from white, female privilege. This 47-year-old, gay, state-school-educated Ghanaian immigrant is, it’s fair to say, a serial offender when it comes to the crime of editing while being black.
Enninful and I sit down for the first time six weeks before publication of the Markle issue, in his bright and uncluttered office, high up in Vogue House. Although the pages I’m about to see being finalised are the product of the Duchess of Sussex’s editorship, I don’t know that yet; the cover and letter she has written to readers have been quietly left aside. Instead, at Enninful’s desk, his own life story is laid out before me in pictures, as told through a sample of old i-D magazines, spanning a period of 20 years.
“This is where it all started for me,” Enninful says, as we examine photographs of his first modelling shoot in 1988: a sultry-looking teenager rocks a grungy camel hat and coat, shirt nonchalantly tied around his waist. It’s an intriguing glimpse into the earliest phase of Enninful’s fashion career, just days after he was spotted by Simon Foxton, a stylist for i-D magazine. At 16, Enninful oozes all the edgy cool and quirk of a London teen, despite having arrived in the UK only a few years earlier. His father, CK Enninful, a major in the Ghanaian military, had moved with his wife and six children to London in 1985, and his mother, Grace, a seamstress, was on her way to becoming a fashion force herself.
“When we lived in Ghana, my mother had been busy making clothes for everyone in high society,” Enninful tells me, proudly. “But once we got to London it went to another level. I was her favourite – a sensitive creature, the gay one. We were always sketching together, and I learned how to construct clothes.”
It’s an origin story that is an irresistible departure from that of the stereotypical British Vogue editor: a larger-than-life seamstress whirring away at a seemingly endless production of figure-hugging outfits in bright lace, cotton and wax prints with her youngest son at her side, immersed in a world of hooks and eyelets, peplums and sleeves. Enninful’s mother, he says, gave him his love and instinct for style. “I learned my sense of colours from her. I learned to build characters. We would ask: ‘What kind of woman wears this dress?’” he explains. “I think that’s what’s made me a bit different from other stylists. I have to know the woman, put her in a location, know her character, her inner life. If I don’t have a character, I can’t style.”
After being spotted by Foxton and shooting his first commercial, Enninful rose quickly through the ranks of i-D magazine, becoming Foxton’s assistant and then, remarkably, fashion director at just 18. Founded in 1980 by former British Vogue art director Terry Jones and his wife Tricia, i-D had by then established itself as the home of alternative style, nurturing new talent and treating street culture as serious fashion. Enninful had stumbled into the perfect home.
“At 13, I arrive from Ghana. I don’t really know anything about England,” Enninful says. “At 16, I’m modelling. At 18, I’m editing!” The Vogue editor is still surprised at the unlikeliness and speed of his ascent.
Enninful’s family had left Ghana in a hurry. His father’s military service, including peacekeeping missions to Egypt and Liberia, meant that Enninful and his siblings grew up on an army barracks at Cape Coast, Ghana’s one-time colonial capital. It was a “sheltered” life, as Enninful describes it, until it wasn’t. By the late 70s, General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong – a military dictator who had seized power in a coup – lost power in a second, and was executed in a third.
The instigator of what is now remembered as one of the country’s most unstable periods was a charismatic Ghanaian pilot named Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who assumed the leadership in 1981. “I remember when Rawlings came in; I remember the shouting!” Enninful recalls. “I remember that some people loved him – to them, he was like the saviour of the world. But not to my father. He wasn’t going to work for Rawlings.” Such was the enmity between Enninful Sr and the new president that the family left the country.
“It was all a blur,” Enninful says. “I’m sure it was a disaster for me, leaving my friends, and I had my big glasses and my afro. I didn’t even realise we were leaving Ghana for good. One minute we were in Vauxhall staying with an aunt, the next we were whipped off to Ladbroke Grove…”
When Enninful led a trip of notable Ghanaians back to the country of his birth in 1991, alongside Naomi Campbell and designer Ozwald Boateng, his father forbade him from meeting President Rawlings. “My dad was very clear: you cannot meet that man,” he says. And on that occasion, he obeyed his father. At other times, there was conflict – especially when, aged 18, Enninful quit his degree course at Goldsmiths, University of London, to work full time at i-D. “My dad was a disciplinarian, a traditional Ghanaian and a military man,” Enninful explains. “My mother knew that I was this gay, creative child, and she gave me her blessings. But my father kicked me out. I had found fashion, but I had to grow up quickly.”
Reconciliation with his father came gradually, Enninful says, culminating in his decision in 2016 to accept an honour. “I took the OBE for Dad,” he says. “He cried, apparently, and I was glad to give him that. I had a party afterwards, and he was dancing with Madonna. The man who once kicked me out became so proud.”
Later that day, I sit in on an editorial meeting with Enninful’s team, reviewing the final stages of the forthcoming issue. He has been keen to explode any preconceptions of a work environment straight out of The Devil Wears Prada, the film in which the staff of a magazine closely modelled on American Vogue are depicted as stressed-out, neurotic and harassed, while at all times dressed to kill. “We do have a lot of work to do, it is stressful,” Enninful says. “But the way I work best is to be surrounded with people who are quite joyful, and to keep everything light.”
We begin in the newsroom, reviewing the website’s performance for the day so far. It is hard to concentrate at first because – I’m afraid to say – the staff are distractingly well-dressed. The digital director is wearing a hot pink catsuit, and the fashion director an elegant ensemble of black summer pleats. Enninful is clearly in charge, standing at the helm of the open-plan workspace as staff offer contributions from their desks on the floor, his tone businesslike and expectant.
The meeting races through the day’s stories: Zendaya has revealed her new Spiderman suit, Heidi Klum has joined Naomi Campbell on a Project Runway spin-off, Emma Corrin (who plays Princess Diana in the fourth season of The Crown) is writing an exclusive Glastonbury festival diary for the Vogue website and Kendall Jenner has offered an online Q&A.
In more traditional royal fashion news, Kate Middleton’s reworking of a pair of Princess Diana’s earrings has been a huge success. I nearly choke on my cup of tea when I hear the words, “Let’s re-social all of our other classic royal jewellery stories, and think about how we can lean into the jewellery community on this,” wondering if the meeting has veered into parody. But royal jewellery stories, it turns out, are very serious business; this is Vogue, after all. But it’s a relief to discover Enninful’s team are not above sending themselves up. As we turn to the print edition, an editor says, “OK, yes, we have done a feature on breathing. It’s very now. It’s a must!” I’m not the only one laughing.
There is also a lively debate about what Love Island tells us about racism, conducted with an ease that I can’t help but link to the diversity in the room. And with each story, Enninful wants to know how it is performing, and why, and what’s next. He is an old hand at this, and the collection of i-D magazines back in his office has aged well. In 1995 he styled a “future of fashion” edition featuring a dark-skinned black model, her luminescent eyes made up by Pat McGrath, a member of Enninful’s original 80s squad of friends who, alongside Kate Moss, Campbell and Steve McQueen, went on to superstardom. There are Birkenstocks, the return of bumbags (the last time around), patterned knitwear and velvet, all of which would look right at home this decade, if not this season.
I tell Enninful I once met a former i-D journalist, who worked at the magazine in the early 00s and whose job it was to get hold of Enninful. She described him as a whirlwind of activity, who had “about 10 different phones and was still almost impossible to reach”. He laughs. “It’s true! At that stage, I was always working. I found out I love to be nonstop.”
Being i-D fashion editor was a big beat; Enninful did everything from styling the shoots to writing articles, sourcing clothes for shopping pages and dealing with advertisers. “I was fearless,” he says of his younger self. “I didn’t have any role models, anyone to show me how it was done, so I had to be. I had a duty to reflect the world I saw around me, growing up in Ladbroke Grove. People said it was edgy, but for me it was normal – it was literally what I saw.”
He was not afraid to criticise his own industry. On being missed off the guestlist for a John Galliano show in 1995, he wrote: “Who knows: maybe next year the people who have supported Galliano since leaving college will be privileged to join the ranks of those allowed to see his collection. Still, that’s fashion. Plus ça change…”
It’s reminiscent of a tweet Enninful posted decades later, in 2013. By then fashion director at W magazine, he wrote from a New York fashion show: “If all my (white) counterparts are seated in the front row, why should I be expected to take 2nd row? racism? xoxo.” His pointed comment was widely shared, but Enninful won’t discuss this specific incident now. “I never let racism question my confidence. I don’t shy away from it. But I always let my work speak for itself.”
One of Enninful’s last acts as creative director of W, in February 2017, was a YouTube video, I Am An Immigrant, inspired by his anger at Trump’s travel ban. At British Vogue, he has published the first cover of a model wearing a hijab – the diminutive and dazzling Halima Aden.
But despite working at the top of the fashion world for three decades, his appointment as Vogue editor in April 2017 was met with scepticism. There was the barely veiled attack on editors who are “less magazine journalists and more celebrities or fashion personalities with substantial social media followings” from departing editor Alexandra Shulman, and the frequent assertion that Enninful was some kind of fashion “outsider”.
“That really made me laugh – how am I a fashion outsider?” Enninful cries. “I have been in fashion since I was 16. The suggestion that I was unknown, or, ‘How can he edit a magazine when he’s just a stylist?’ Anna Wintour was a stylist! Franca Sozzani was a stylist! Diana Vreeland was a stylist. I am under more scrutiny than other people,” Enninful admits. “But that’s nothing new.”
The magazine remains a platform for unattainable affluence and luxury, and some have criticised a particularly celebrity-heavy approach under Enninful, making its world appear even further out of reach. But he sees his work with celebrities, most of whom he styles himself (“I like to roll my sleeves up [and] style a lot of the covers”) as a form of subversion.
“Diversity doesn’t mean downmarket – high fashion can be applied to all races, sizes, religions,” Enninful explains. “They said black girls don’t sell magazines, so I put Rihanna on the cover, and I styled her myself. And they told me two things you can’t do is have a black-and-white cover, and a cover model who is not looking at you. So I did a cover with Madonna that was both,” he says of his June 2019 edition, sold on a monochrome shot in which the pop superstar gazes away from the viewer over the side of a bathtub.
“It’s aspirational – just look at Oprah!” he declares, referencing the August 2018 cover. “She was dripping with diamonds. You couldn’t think of a more high-fashion image. That’s Vogue! But my work always involves documenting what’s around me, and to keep normalising the marginalised. Every month I can put my hand on my heart and say it’s all there: the black woman, the curvy woman, the Asian woman. We don’t even think about it. It really bothered me that Vogue was seen as a magazine that is only for a certain type of woman,” he adds. “Why shouldn’t it be for everyone? Why shouldn’t a woman who is black, or Muslim, or gay, or a refugee, or plus-size, see themselves reflected in what we do? Our job is simple: to keep moving the needle.”
If Enninful’s passion for styling came from his beloved seamstress mother, I can’t help but wonder how much of his lifestyle is inherited from his military father. His daily routine, he tells me, involves waking up at 5.30am to meditate, then working out at BXR – the state-of-the-art gym founded by boxer Anthony Joshua – where he likes to use the gruelling VersaClimber machine. He eats, he says, “very, very well. I love jollof rice,” he continues, speaking wistfully of the traditional West African dish, “and Jamaican rice and peas. But I gain weight easily, and these days I don’t eat it too often.”
He still lives in west London, with his partner Alec Maxwell, a film-maker to whom he has been engaged for 14 years, and their dog Ru, a black-and-white Boston terrier, whose Instagram account (14,600 followers) shows him sandwiched between Claudia Schiffer and Donatella Versace. But Enninful says he makes plenty of time for work, fortified by his early-morning regime, a healthy diet and a disciplined attitude towards parties – “I dip in and out.”
There is, after all, a lot of work to do. The market for women’s magazines is tough, with some Vogue rivals – such as Cosmopolitan, whose circulation dropped by a third between January and June this year – clearly struggling. This month, it was announced that the British edition of Marie Claire would cease print publication after 31 years, while Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, stopped Glamour’s monthly print edition in 2018. Last year, however, Condé Nast turned 2017’s £14m pre-tax loss into a profit; sales of Vogue have remained stable at 192,212, while its digital revenues have risen by 40%, year-on-year. The magazine is still selling more copies than its rivals – more than double the circulations of Vanity Fair and Tatler.
Meanwhile, it is the editions with a strong Enninful stamp that seem to have fared best on the newsstand; last year’s September issue featuring Rihanna, and his Ariana Grande cover last July came close to selling out; the Markle Forces For Change edition overtook the previous September issue after just 12 days on sale. Perhaps this is an endorsement of Enninful’s approach, which is unapologetically crowd-pleasing. “For the covers, we just figure out who represents the zeitgeist – women we love who are making some kind of a statement, and women who are having an impact on culture,” he says. “What links the cover images is a sense of classicism, modernity, and a certain throwback aspect.”
And he seems to love a good throwback. In his office, there is one more magazine he wants to show me: a 2017 edition of the men’s style magazine Arena Homme. The photographer Juergen Teller shot Enninful for it sitting on an ornate chair before a marble table, manoeuvring a piece on a chessboard. “Can you see what he did? The black versus the white – his pictures are so loaded,” Enninful says, admiringly.
For him, however, the most powerful image in the shoot shows him standing in front of a Burger King. Despite his long career, Enninful still revels in the improbability of this state-school-educated, gay, black immigrant ending up as the editor of British Vogue. “This is where I could have ended up,” Enninful says, pointing at the fast food restaurant. “That could have been the alternative.” It’s an image he cherishes – not because of where he is, but because of how far he has come.
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