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Vogue magazine’s complicated relationship with diversity

Edward Enninful with model Naomi Campbell. Justin Lane/EPA

Vogue magazine’s complicated relationship with diversity

Edward Enninful is finally taking up the helm at British Vogue after months of anticipation. The new editor-in-chief has a proven track-record of foregrounding diversity that many hope will be the start of an overhaul of the global Vogue brand.

The initial news of Enninful’s appointment came with a flurry of approval from the fashion industry, media and readers alike. The current editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, Edwina McCann, opined that appointing Enninful is a bold move that will be very well received by the industry, and “hopefully” by readers too.

Enninful has a talent for blending high fashion with thought-provoking social issues, earning an OBE and the Isabella Blow award – given to an inspiring member of the fashion industry – for his efforts.

Enninful is not afraid of making a statement. In March, he responded sublimely when US President Donald Trump nominated Supreme Court judge Neil Gorsuch, who allegedly does not care much about civil rights; Enninful styled a shoot for his then employer, the New York-based W magazine, in which a range of ethnically diverse models climb the stairs of an imaginary “Supreme Court”. In February, after Trump initiated a much-debated immigration ban, Enninful put together a video showcasing the various fashion celebrities who have immigrated into the US.

Even before his first official day in Vogue’s Mayfield offices, Enniful had hired two English superstars of Jamaican descent in an attempt to diversify the team. Model Naomi Campbell and make-up artist Pat McGrath both share Enninful’s aim of championing fashion as a force for social change.

Fashion statements

Born in London, Enninful started his career as style director of i-D magazine. Founders Terry and Tricia Jones, who hired him at the tender age of 18, told how he contributed to supermodel diversity from the very beginning, and say that his office was “always a mecca for ideas”.

Not stopping there, Enninful later took his powerful ideas to the self-proclaimed “fashion bible” Vogue. In 2008, as a contributing editor of Vogue Italia, Enninful put together an issue which featured solely black models. This was a statement so powerful that Enninful is repeating the move for the 2018 Pirelli calendar – a publication more often thought of for its scantily-clad models than blazing the trail for ethnic diversity, thought it has in recent years been moving in a new “artistic” direction.

It was while working with Vogue Italia that Enninful developed a mentor relationship with Franca Sozzani, the late editor-in-chief. The Vogue brand claims to “define the culture of fashion for a global audience”, and Sozzani did a stellar job from the time she became editor in 1988.

Sozzani understood that as editor-in-chief of one of the world’s most influential fashion magazines she could help change the conversation, and nurtured this passion in Enninful too. Until her death in December 2016, Sozzani pushed for a more representative publication: black models Alicia Burke and Hussein Abdulrahman electrified the cover of her penultimate issue. The online hubs Vblack, Vcurvy and LGBT+ are also part of her legacy.

Passing the buck

Unlike Enninful and Sozzani, the previous editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, notoriously tried to dodge responsibility for ethnic diversity in 2012, writing that: “In a society where the mass of the consumers are white and where, on the whole, mainstream ideas sell, it’s unlikely there will be a huge rise in the number of leading black models.”

Consumers and readers can’t be the only ones to blame for the lack of diversity in the magazine: a brand and its audience are developed through cross-pollination. The responsibilities of any editor-in-chief – and the fashion industry at large – exist independently from, and without prejudice to, those of consumers.

The global Vogue brand’s relationship with diversity remains, however, complicated. While it claims to be curious about the new and different, unworldly attitudes among Vogue editors seem to be not yet “out of Vogue”.

Speaking after Enninful’s appointment, Vogue Nederland editor-in-chief Karin Swerink naively passed the lack of ethnic diversity buck to models of colour and their agencies. She said:

There is currently only one dark skinned top model in the Netherlands, a favourite of Vogue. It concerns Imaan Hamman … There is absolutely not a lack of goodwill. I consider mainly if [the model] is contemporary and fits in the story that we want to tell. I don’t consider if someone is white or black. That is so unimportant when making a magazine. We keep an eye on some dark girls, such as Nirvana Naves. But, I think that she just has not the potential yet.

A sobering message indeed. Swerink received a major backlash, and appears to be experimenting with more diverse editorial policies now. Naomi Campbell graced the cover of Vogue Nederland’s 2017 special edition “The Book”, for example. Putting Vogue friend Campbell on the cover will hopefully keep the conversation going – especially now Swerink can turn to her colleague Enninful for advice.

One can only hope that Enninful’s appointment is not a mere blip, but a move in the right direction on a long road to diversity for the global brand. Such a responsible and inclusive attitude should be a necessary characteristic for any Vogue editor-in-chief worth the title. It could very well be that Enninful is the first in a new generation of editors who understand the power they have to change the whole fashion industry.