It would be easy to flatten out the many revolts of Edward Enninful down to the phrase people have uttered about him since 2017: “first Black editor-in-chief of British Vogue.” His new memoir from Penguin Press, A Visible Man, gives ample evidence that Enninful’s gift is in his unique way of thinking, and his best-known accomplishments are merely the sum of these. Other amazing little phrases in even the shortest of biographical notes could not fail to mention that he still holds the title of youngest ever fashion director for an international publication when i-D promoted him shortly after his 18th birthday, or his spearheading of the iconic “Black Issue” for Vogue Italia as a contributing editor, or his complete financial revival of W as style director there in the 2010’s.
These are well-earned rewards for a person whose intersectional and international perspective as a Black gay immigrant has always given him the momentum to zig where others might zag. A Visible Man lays bare the profit and loss sheet of Enninful’s workaholism and the decision calculus of his values in a way that will surely be of interest to any stylist, designer, or artist hoping to achieve something iconic and impactful in their chosen creative field.
In a series of eight chronological chapters, Enninful tells the story of his swerves as straightforwardly as possible. His voice is that of a normal human, warm and smiling—a tremendously odd thing in the company of other greats like designers Diana Vreeland, Gurley Brown, or Anna Wintour. He is often willing to laugh at himself or his circumstances, mashing up gay campiness to cope with immigrant fish-out-of-water feelings, as when explaining how jarring it was to finally set foot in the London of his dreams as a young man. “I trust that it will not be a newsflash that Black people who grew up in Africa usually have a different relationship to white people than Black people who grew up in places where their ancestors were held by white people in bondage.” He could delight in going to the supermarket weekly for groceries, an experience he compares to wandering around in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. But he had landed in the working-class neighborhood of Vauxhall in the care of his strict, military father. He was greatly missing the two more formative places of his youth in Ghana, his mother’s dressmaking business at home and his aunt’s beauty salon in the lobby of a high-priced hotel.
Participating in the cool streetwear aesthetics of the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood as a teenager, Enninful took on some modeling jobs alongside his friends and eventually parlayed that into a stylist position at i-D. Cue Neneh Cherry’s song “Buffalo Stance”.
Founded by Terry Jones in 1980, i-D‘s issues went from fanzine to street fashion to cornerstone of youth culture to fashion arbiter in the blink of an eye, thanks especially to the youthful punk and club kid energy of the staff. It was as he steeped in this nonstop creative awakening that Enninful also realized he was gay—now he had two big secrets from his father, who still thought his son was dutifully going to college to enter some useful profession. And here we have the classic scene featuring a parent who “flew into a savage rage” and began tossing his child’s gorgeous, expensive, carefully acquired, and preciously stored fashion-forward clothes out the window and onto the lawn. “There was nothing I could do, nor did I want to,” Enninful recalls. “I had had it with his lectures and bullshit. I was pursuing a dream, encouraged by successful and sometimes even moderately responsible adults.” Though he be at rock bottom, he can’t resist cracking a little joke.
That was the same day he became the youngest ever fashion director for an international publication. In another instance of severe yin and yang much later in his adult life, the same day he is told his retina is detaching so that he may go blind and be unable to carry on in his profession, he goes back to work to film the interviews for a retrospective on the first 25 years of his career featuring eight of the world’s most famous supermodels.
Ever the workaholic, as one is tempted to constantly keep at it when one love’s one’s work so completely, Enninful reflects upon the timeline of his mother’s death and how he wishes he had made more consistent time to be with her over the intervening years. He may have lived the nomadic life of a stylist, going from one suitcase and hotel to the next, but he also presided over fashion’s wave in the grunge movement in the 1990s and became instant best friends with Naomi Campbell. The author reflects on these simultaneous delights and terrors: “It was an ego-boost for me and a relief to my colleagues that I could take so much on my shoulders, but it had an adverse effect on my mind and soul. When you can do all things for all people, and well enough to be consistently rewarded for it, especially from a very young age, you have a harder time landing on what actually makes you, yourself, tick.” Young creatives, consider yourselves warned.
Then Manhattan came calling, so off he went to do big, fancy advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein. Complications of New York life yielded a reunion and business partnership with his sister Akua and placed his faith in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. A Visible Man may have a lot to say about Enninful’s faults and the inroads he’s made into patterns of bad behavior, but it is not a tell-all. For example, Enninful worked extensively with one of the most illustrious photographers in the fashion industry, Steven Meisel. Besides a reputation for controversial political layouts, Meisel is well known for not giving many interviews or allowing himself to be photographed. To work repeatedly with such an influential photographer is itself a masterclass, or as Enninful says, “Once you have matriculated as Meisel, you are fully formed.”
Enninful manages to devote an entire chapter to Meisel yet remains focused on what he learned about the profession and his feelings about what the work entailed—highly valuable information about future emotional landscapes for a fledgling fashion student but perhaps of little interest to a Vogue subscriber in search of gossip. Readers looking for that will have to go back to André Leon Talley’s 2021 memoir, The Chiffon Trenches.
That’s also a good memoir, and it was a bestseller, but it is a far cry from the type of accolades usually bestowed upon Enninful, which have weighty words like courage, global, changemaker, and trailblazer in their titles. Using British Vogue as his megaphone for the better part of a decade now, Enninful leverages his power on behalf of the twin missions of diversity and sustainability within the fashion community. He does not want his creative enterprise to wreck the earth or exclude anyone based on their national origin, race, gender, sexuality, or class status.
He owns an unbelievable number of firsts in part by breaking with many narrow traditions that were at risk of hardening into rules. It used to be easy to wave off interesting ideas by saying, Well, British Vogue would never do that. If you know Edward Enninful—and you surely will after reading A Visible Man—there’s no telling what British Vogue might or might not do next. Its chief is no mere contrarian; he’s a professional innovator who is at once authentic and futurist.