"A visible man" by Edward Enninful

"A visible man" by Edward Enninful

The first time I saw the cover of this book was in Dua Lipa’s Service95 newsletter, back in September 2022, when the memoir was published. I wrote down the title but moved on, ignoring this masterpiece. But who knew that, a month later, after reading an abstract of the book in Vogue Italia, I would instantly change my mind: I needed to get my hands on it! I’m sorry in advance if this article will be a spoiler after spoiler but believe me when I say that what I’m about to teel you is just a small part of the richness of this memoir.

I did know who Edward Enninful was but I did not know that he had to go through some rough roads to get to where he is now, struggling to fit into the fashion system as a black immigrant and gay man in times where the system was not at all a happy island for marginalized categories. It is thanks to him too if now the fashion world is more open, able to represent every kind of person without discriminations and categorizations, free from the old dictacts of rich, canonically beautiful people’s standards.

Vogue’s abstract was from the first chapter of the book, the one where Enninful talks about his life in Ghana, where he was born and raised before moving to London with his family when he was a teenager. Born on the 22nd of February 1972, in Takoradi, a Ghanaian port city, his name is Kobina Kweku Enninful. Edward is his Christian name, Asiamah his nickname, which means “blessed child”: blessed him with his creativity and capacity to see beyond the boundaries, blessed us to live in his fashion times.

Since he was a child, he was naturally drawn to fashion thanks to his mother and aunt. His mother started as a seamstress for the important ladies of her village, and when rejected by a fashion school ‘cause “she already knew it all” she moved to North Ghana to open her atelier, becoming one of the most requested tailors. Edward used to spend time with her in the shop, learning from his mother's love and attention for fabrics and the power of a nice tailoring, but also the capacity to empathize with the client, creating a deep understanding bond. It is to his mother Grace that Enninful dedicated the book.

His aunt, on the other hand, had a hair salon: there he started reading fashion magazines and, watching his aunt, learned the beauty of natural black people's hair, how to style it to emphasize its uniqueness.

Moving to London when he was only fifteen, he was scouted on the subway by I-D’s men fashion editor, and designer, Simon Foxton. So, he started, in secret from his family, to model for I-D magazine: little did he know it was only the start of a brilliant career in fashion. The model days did not last long, as just two years later 18 years old Enninful was named as chief editor by Terry Jones, I-D’s founder and director, after Beth Summers. I-D’s aesthetic was a punk, grungy one, finding its bigger source of inspiration in street style.

Living in Landbroke Grove road and being a big fan of Nottingh Hill carnival, Enniful knew very well how much a source of realness and identity expression for young Londoners fashion was, expecially the discriminated ones that tried to fit in, rather in the mass or as indie kids. Enninful style was still a little green at the time: he took most of his inspiration from his brothers Crosby, Luther and Kenneth, who loved good jeans and jackets, looking beautiful and at peace with themselves, something that Edward could only imagine. He was insecure, about his looks, how much space he could reclaim as a socially rejected kid that had unconventional passions ``for a man” and struggling to embrace his gay sexuality: epiphany that it’s okay to unapologetically be whoever you are will come for him in New York, in 27th street Sound Factory, dancing among many people and feeling free and happy to love a man. That night was the night before his first shooting as a stylist for Calvin Klein.

I-D was Enninful’s trampoline: he started going back and forth from London to New York, attended his first Paris fashion week, where he met many important people of the field. Working on set, he met his longtime friends and activism supporters, such as the iconic 90s models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, one of Mandela’s most loyal activists, and too soon lost genius designer Lee Alexander McQueen.

His life was not free of struggles at all: being on bad terms with his father (don’t worry, they will reconcile!!) for choosing fashion over university, he had to leave his house and saw his family not so often. He started drinking heavily, having to come to terms many years later with that as an addiction he needed to get rid of to smile again. He suffered several health problems. Along with all these private matters, he had to fight teeth and nails to get his work recognized, breaking the wall of racist stereotypes that many people saw in front of him.

High point of his career was 1998: that year, he met in Milan Franca Sozzani, at the time Vogue Italia editor in chief, an amazing fashion Visionaire that loved Enninful’s idea of fashion as a way to give voice to the ones the system wanted to shut up. They met backstage at Alessandro dell’Acqua show, curated by Enninful too, and Sozzani was so lovely, telling him she loved his work. Like that started a friendship and creative duo that gave birth to Vogue Italia covers such as “Makeover Madness” in 2005, “The Black issues” in 2008 and “Belle Vere” in 2011, all shot by legendary fashion photographer Steven Meisel, with whom Enninful collaborated many many times.

The Black Issue, still iconic to these days, was the turning point for Enninful's mission of bringing black beauty to high fashion. If with I-D he has always created editorials and shooting that enhanced the beauty and uniqueness of black, queer, curvy models, seeing such a cover as Vogue Italia dedicated to beautiful and fierce black women, such as the models Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez and Jourdan Dunn, made him realize that the path to visibility had opened and he had to surf the wave.

Enninful is some King Midas of fashion magazines. In 2006 he was chosen by Anna Wintour herself as a contributor for Vogue America, the Vogue of all Vogues. In 2011 he was assigned to W-Magazine and brought it back to life from a time of recession, creating fresh and politically engaged covers. Rihanna was a big start of those covers, as another brilliant woman who became friends with Enninful and shared with him her over the edge creativity.

In 2016 came for Enninful the most meaningful award he could receive for his work: attending the ceremony with his family, friends and lover of a lifetime, Alex Maxwell, he was appointed by Prince Carl (now King) into the order of the British Empire for his services to diversity in the fashion industry. He is also part of the Global Ambassadors delegation of Prince’s Trust.

Today we all know Enninful to be editor in chief at Vogue’s Britain: that position came for him in 2017 and he has not failed us, showing in every cover his hard work and passion for activism, common people that turn small gestures into revolutions, and urge to show the world how much beauty every person holds, no matter the skin color, gender, age, job. His mission to put at ease in the field to people who have found themselves in the outskirts before is by no means over!

Keeping in mind how he started his job when just a kid, Enninful has huge respect and curiosity for the work of young people. One that has been on his side many times is Rafael Pavarotti, whom he calls “an old soul with a visionary mindset”. Born in 1993 in Brazil's Amazonian Forest, Pavarotti is now a famous photographer that would like to bring attention to social and cultural problems, such as the underrepresentation of black and indigenous people. Pavarotti’s pictures are known for their unique color technique, using bold colors, like red or blue. He was the one to shoot Enninful’s book cover, using blue to emphasize the beauty of Edward’s ebony skin, in the simplicity of a black turtleneck and a pearl grey background.

In the preface of the memoir, Enninful says that he has been asked many times to write his story but has always been skeptical about it, too shy and insecure about the power of nostalgia. Then pandemic came, and a few months after that came a moment that shook our consciences: the unjust death of George Floid, along, thankfully, with the rising of Black Lives Matters movements all around the globe. And so, Enninful understood the urge to write a book about his path, to reassure everyone that changes are possible, and fashion is changing to be more open and richer of diversity:

“I’m not normally given to revealing myself. I’m private by nature, especially when it comes to the difficult stuff. But My hope is that I can do something for the future if I tell the story of my past. I’ve always told young people who asked about my life and career: “If I can do it, you can too.” It’s important to me to inspire them, because the world as it is isn’t set up to do that – it’s quite the opposite in fact. And yet, we need young people coming into the world as empowered as they possibly can be. They are the ones who will help us all get somewhere better than we could have done alone. More than anything, I have written this book for them.”

[ all picture credits of this article go to A visible man by Edward Enninful, Penguin Press, New York, 2002 & Vogue Italia October 2022 issue]