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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Donal Lynch Twitter

Vogue editor Edward Enninful leans on style over substance in this self-aggrandising memoir

Edward Enninful is no prose stylist

I have to confess I didn’t know much about Edward Enninful before reading his new memoir, A Visible Man, and what I had seen didn’t exactly stoke my interest. He’s credited with bringing a new diversity to the pages of British Vogue, which he edits, but to a certain sensibility – mine – that merely looked like using unattainably beautiful women of colour to sell the same old fashion fantasies.

In an era when the biggest stars can co-opt the press, and thus escape any real self-reflection, he has allowed Beyoncé and Meghan Markle to guest edit their own editions of Vogue – yuck. And reports on his management style have depicted him as more Anna Wintour than Anna herself. Well, perhaps that could be entertaining, especially if he goes full André Leon Talley and settles old scores with the book.

My heart sank a little at the introduction, as a friend – quickly revealed to be Idris Elba – dismisses Enninful’s idea of writing a tale of “a boy from Ghana making his way in a racist classist industry” and urges him to focus on the “glamour and swagger” and not highlight the race element.

Enninful begs to differ, describing the “ceaseless struggle” of someone who “overachieved while others rested” as part of paying it forwawrd to the next generation. But over the following couple of hundred pages it’s clear Elba’s words rang in his ear a little more than he thinks.

He’s given us a little of what both wanted: A lot of woke politics, victim drum banging and shameless self-mythologising, all wrapped in the cellophane packaging of incessant name dropping – he has oodles of celebrity friends and doesn’t stint on the fabulous details.

The early part of the book rather flies in the face of my notion that fashion is instead of style and that the fashion pages merely make the poor feel poorer. Growing up the fifth of six children of a military man and a dressmaker, Enninful was nurtured by their glossy promise. A shy, creative boy, he was fascinated by the curve-accentuating style of local women and was his mother’s assistant as she created dresses for hoity toity Ghanians.

The backdrop to his early childhood was military unrest in Ghana and, feeling unsafe, the family moved to London. This is the jumping off point for some of the best bits of the book. Enninful paints an evocative picture of a vibrant immigrant community struggling in Thatcher’s Britain and of how his own nascent sense of style helped him to move from “dorky immigrant to interesting and exotic”.

Ironically, given his later career, he was adept at shoplifting fashion magazines and was soon to be beamed up into their world. At 16 he was spotted on the street by i-D magazine’s Simon Foxton and introduced first to modelling (which he found dispiriting; he recalls feeling jealous of Kate Moss’s early success), and then to styling. At 18 he became the youngest ever editor of i-D (and indeed of any major fashion magazine) and he was on his way.

Enninful writes well about the nexus between sexuality – he was still in the closet then – and the self-expression of fashion, but you feel at heart he’s much more about the right image than the right word. Compared to, say, Tina Brown – another famous editor who wrote her memoirs – it’s clear that a prose stylist he ain’t.

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The descriptions of racism are stark. He recalls being asked by police to show his ID after a show at Paris Fashion Week, a request that made him go from “dauphin to a street rat in a split-second”. He also repeats the now notorious anecdote of security guards refusing to let him into the Vogue offices after hours.

But given that he had by then risen to the pinnacle of the industry it’s hard to work out in what sense this prejudice disadvantaged him. 

There are loads of starry titbits – Rihanna bursting into his wedding just as they were doing the ‘if anyone here knows any reason…’ bit; Naomi Campbell having Sunday roast with him at Claridge’s – but it’s disappointingly light on bitchy score settling.

A formidable black diva who cut him dead goes unnamed and he’s tamely politic in his comments about Wintour and Grace Coddington. The one notable broadside is reserved for Alexandra Shulman, his predecessor as editor of British Vogue. The magazine had “languished… creatively and tonally” during her reign, he writes, Shulman had previously criticised editors who were “less magazine journalists and more celebrities or fashion personalities with substantial social media followings”. And, from what I’ve read, he’s doubled down on this in interviews to promote the book.

The jacket blurbs from his welter of famous friends are unintentionally hilarious. Moss’s brief and vague “what fun!” has overtones of Quentin Crisp’s boilerplate praise: “Feel free to quote me saying anything which will aid the sales of this no doubt fine book.” But really it’s just an OK book: fun in parts, interesting to a point, but in the end about as descriptive and deep as one of his editorials.

‘A Visible Man’ by Edward Enninful, Bloomsbury, €20

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