The fashion world is just that — an entire world that exists within our greater society. So by nature, it’s an extension of this world that we all inhabit. Discrimination within the industry, of race, body type, age, class, disability, and more, are all reflections of the discriminations that persist outside of it. That’s precisely why, in the right hands, the fashion industry has the ability to be a catalyst for change beyond the beautiful clothes and images. British Vogue editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, has been a reflection of that influence, as his new memoir, A Visible Man, tells the story of how he has leveraged his various identities — Black, African, immigrant, and gay — to find his voice, and use it to make change. In a world that time and time again has tried to make people like him invisible, he has refused to shrink. Instead, he has stood in the spotlight while making room for other underrepresented communities to shine and be seen as well.
Enninful’s memoir is not the tell-all he could likely write — having worked in fashion for over 30 years and, in 2017, becoming the first Black editor-in-chief of any Vogue magazine in its more than 100 year-history. It’s more of a guide for those who wish to follow in his footsteps and blaze their own trails. “My hope is that I can do something for the future if I tell the story of my past,” wrote Enninful. And he does just that. Taking readers on a journey, starting with his introduction to the vibrant world of clothing and fashion via his mother’s dressmaking business while living in Ghana. We’re then taken to London, as we learn about the moment Enninful was approached by stylist and i-D men’s fashion editor, Simon Foxton, while riding the tube as a teen — an encounter that would change the trajectory of his life. From there, we get a behind-the-scenes peek at the various experiences that followed, leading him to his present-day history-making role at British Vogue.
We also learn that Enninful is no stranger to making history and shaking up spaces in media. At the age of 18, he went from modeling to becoming i-D magazine’s youngest fashion director. “For me, authentic reality included and often centered on Black women. So whenever it made sense to me, I cast them,” wrote Enninful, of his time at i-D. “A few people around the office would say, ‘Oh, another one?’ when they’d see a beautiful Black woman on the cover. Yes, another one. And another. There was endless Black beauty in the world that deserved to be on our covers.”
His centering of Black beauty, despite being told, early on, that “Black women don’t sell magazines,” has had an immeasurable impact on the industry. Enninful’s dissatisfaction with the lack of Black models spearheaded the conversations that led to the 2008 all-Black issue of Vogue Italia, which he styled. “It sold out. And I think they had to reprint, at that time, 40,000 copies,” he said. “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.”
Creating such impactful, influential, and innovative work came with its challenges. For Enninful, like many “firsts” and “onlys” in spaces that are occupied by predominantly white and privileged people — he knows all too well about overworking and overextending oneself. “Work was my upbringing and nature. And it was a psychological shelter,” he wrote, “In busying myself with inspiration, on a quest to push forward new ideas of beauty in our time, I also found a constructive outlet for the nervous tension caused by my insecurity and impostor syndrome.” As he writes, that need to work persisted, even while he faced obstacles in his personal life that threatened to impact his vision — figuratively and literally.
“When you’re Black, you’re gay, you’re working-class, you’re a refugee—you’re literally meant to be invisible. My whole life has been about making myself visible, making myself seen,” Enninful told W Magazine, “The irony is that I have very bad sight, very bad vision—but [having] a vision and creating imagery is my world.”
Despite the cutthroat and real-world depictions of the fashion industry as being cold and harsh, Enninful has expressed how important empathy has been for him and his success. “You have to be able to feel what somebody is feeling because, I always say clothing — it’s not just clothing, it’s armor,” Enninful told NPR. “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.”
Perhaps, it’s that empathy that led the well-known, but as he calls himself, “private by nature,” figure to let us into his world. “Fashion is a mirror — sometimes a funhouse mirror, granted — of the world at large. The people who have found themselves on its outskirts here have usually found themselves on the outskirts elsewhere,” wrote Enninful. “It has been a personal mission of mine to change that. It is a mission that is by no means over.” He’s working toward that mission through the work he’s done and continues to do within the industry, and by sharing his story. Because with Enninful, his memoir is more than a reflection on his life — it’s a blueprint for those who have gone unseen for far too long, and are ready to show the world what they have to offer.