For Christmas in 2012, my uncle gave my sister and I subscriptions to Vogue, Teen Vogue, and W magazine. I was 19 and in my second year of design school, already a keen observer of the fashion industry, devouring everything from Fashionista and Business of Fashion to the old Style.com (may She rest). But, despite my efforts to immerse myself in the stories I felt so connected to, I never felt like I was part of the conversation. Which is why when Edward Enninful was appointed Editor-In-Chief of British Vogue, and became the first African leading a major fashion publication...ever!—I felt that overnight, my life too, had changed.
I am a child of Nigerian immigrants, living in Cape Town, Africa. Cape Town is beautiful but it’s also a complicated city that’s been home to a long and violent history of racial discrimination, apartheid, and now, the first real, conscious efforts to confront deep divides across race and privilege. Democratic, post-apartheid South Africa is younger than people think (23 years) and so is its media, a mix of small home-grown brands, and local editions of international titles. We’ve only seen a measurable difference in representation for black women in magazines in the past few years here and abroad [in the titles whose influence reaches us]. So, no, I didn’t really see women who looked like me on the pages of Vogue, or any fashion magazine.
Looking at the mastheads of these international publications, I could count on one hand the number of fashion-centric editors who were women of colour, including Elaine Welteroth at Teen Vogue and Eva Chen before she had decamped to Instagram. Even in South Africa, where I currently work and where black people are the racial majority, we are still underrepresented in the local fashion industry. In the seven years I’ve been in the business, I haven’t been on a single editorial photoshoot that included a black photographer or a black makeup artist. So in April when they announced there would be a new Editor in Chief taking over British Vogue, I would never have predicted that they would be the ones to add another name to my PoC Editor in Chief list. And just like that, a door to a completely new world was opened for me.
Like my parents, Edward’s parents are also West African immigrants. In my case, we moved to Lesotho when I was three, and then again to South Africa when I was 12. There’s a particular internal struggle that comes with moving, especially as you reach an age when defining your identity becomes central to everything. To see someone whose experiences were so similar to mine, but see the international success Enninful has achieved at such iconic publications like i-D, W, and now British Vogue isn’t just encouraging, but validating. Like, maybe there is space for a global citizen like me to have a voice in discussions on cultural identity. The fashion industry likes to think of itself as liberal and open-minded, and yet for years I’ve never felt like anyone was making work with someone like me in mind, let alone inviting me to make it with them. And I often wonder if Enninful felt that way, too, growing up.
Since his role was made public, much has been written about him; a native of Ghana and a venerable industry darling since the ‘80s, who launched his career first as a model, and then an assistant to Simon Foxton at i-D. Some of the press has be focused on how his new appointment reflects a shift in thinking across seats of power in British fashion, something The Evening Standard called a ‘post class revolution.’ But, most of it has been about how an entire world of young black people like me, or, really anyone who’s ever felt other, different, or forgotten, are hoping that from such an important and visible seat, he can do more to reveal a clearer and more relatable image of who fashion magazines are actually made for. It’s a heavy weight, but it’s definitely part of the package when you are one of the ‘first.’ Especially this particular first, in an industry that ushers in a first far less frequently than we’d like. No one can know what he’ll face, taking that on, but I hope he at least tries to burn a few houses down. Maybe more than a few.
Seven months and one issue in, the Enninful expansion of diversity and the dialogue around it at British Vogue is already underway...and visible. His choice to put model Adwoa Aboah on the cover is not just about recognising black beauty. Through her work with her organisation, Gurls Talk, Aboah has come to represent positive, progressive ideas and values that empower women, too. This is exactly the kind of representation we need, an acknowledgment not only of our physical beauty, but a reflection of what’s important to us.
Enninful’s appointment is the beginning of something great, but there are still so many voices, from so many different parts of the world, that deserve a seat at the table. Voices that should be coaxed out of corners to be heard on a global stage. Voices whose talent, tenacity, and message deserve to meet opportunity. Every win provides a little more hope for that, and this particular win gave me a lot of it. A 21st century dream made real...finally.