Edward Enninful’s memoir gives the impression of someone in perpetual motion. He has, after all, made the journey from refugee to the hallowed offices of Condé Nast, becoming the editor-in-chief who brought true diversity to the pages of British Vogue. Make it past the preface, notable for the number of names dropped in one particularly glitzy passage, and you’ll find a text more intimate in tone and easier to relate to, emotionally at least.
The story begins with his middle-class childhood in 1980s Ghana. We’re given fascinating, deftly sketched insights into the experiences of a dreamy, imaginative boy growing up on an army base in Accra under the stern eye of his father, a major in the Ghanaian army. Enninful’s mother, an enterprising and talented dressmaker, is the comforting counterweight. He credits time spent in her studio and visits to measure clients for new gowns with teaching him how to talk to women about style and how to empower them to experiment.
Political instability in the country prompted the family to seek refuge in the UK, first in south London and then in Ladbroke Grove, west London. On their arrival in 1985, they found that they had “landed into another kind of war zone”, a nation divided by “Thatcher’s cruel and repressive policies” and episodes of racial unrest. The Brixton uprisings and the immigration status of Commonwealth citizens in the UK shaped his sense of fashion’s social responsibility, and in these passages he show he’s able to distil complex debates without forgoing nuance.
He’s a good pop cultural historian, too, leading a whistle-stop tour of the influences that shaped his adolescent creativity, including the punk energy and diversity of late 80s/early 90s Ladbroke Grove and beyond. Kensington Market, Boy George, Whitney Houston and “Buffalo” style fired up his imagination. It is during this period that, on the tube, stylist Simon Foxton spots the teenage Enninful, scouting him for a modelling job. He soon shows unusual promise, not just as a model, but as an adventurous stylist too. That promise is realised just a few years later when he’s offered a job as fashion director of the era-defining i-D magazine. Aged 18, he was the youngest person ever to hold that position.
Celebration of Enninful’s stratospheric rise through the fashion ranks – from i-D to styling at Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana to working at American Vogue and being awarded an OBE – dominate the book. But though there are plenty of tales of jet-setting, glamour and debauchery to enjoy as he ascends, the autobiography shows its worth when Enninful makes himself vulnerable. While this is broadly a triumphalist account of enormous success, it is also the record of a man who has lurched between periods of great difficulty. Though “emotional display is not a prized quality in Ghanaian households” he opens up about his alcoholism. Conflicts with his homophobic father taint his feelings of self-worth even as the world throws garlands and prizes his way. He struggles with sickle cell disease and impaired vision. He is candid about the function of overwork, of “unthinking forward motion” as a way to avoid confronting painful feelings of outsiderhood and low self-esteem: “At its best,” Enninful tells us, “fashion is all about truth, but it can also be a brilliant place to hide.”
• A Visible Man by Edward Enninful is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.