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A look at Edward Enninful’s ‘Herculean task’ of shifting Vogue from celebrity to authenticity

Edward Enninful, formerly of W and i-D, is British Vogue's first black and male editor

If British Vogue’s announcement of its new editor is anything to go by, Edward Enninful has a long road ahead in pivoting the global fashion bible away from a world where celebrity trumps authenticity.

From painting white model Lara Stone black, dressing Karlie Kloss as a geisha in its diversity issue, to photoshopping able-bodied models to appear as though they have disabilities for a Paralympics special, Vogue’s nearly 125-year history is steeped in diversity missteps across its global iterations.

Where before it could brush off criticisms for being culturally insensitive as a product of its environment in its early years, it will need to show greater sensitivity to cut it with a 21st century audience.

So when British Vogue announced it had appointed a Ghana-born fashionista as its first black and male editor this week, the hire had all the promising hallmarks of a publisher finally facing up to its diversity problem.

But did it undercut a landmark appointment by falling into the trap of placing greater prominence over the editor’s ethnicity rather than his achievements?

In the first line of the press release announcing the news, Vogue publisher Condé Nast wrote: “Edward Enninful, an acclaimed magazine fashion director who immigrated from Africa to London as a child...”

It goes on: “Born in Ghana 45 years ago, one of six children, Enninful was brought to London as a child and grew up in the city's Ladbroke Grove area.”

Critics including Jane Austin, founder of Persuasion Communications and former journalist, have questioned why Enninful’s ethnicity was given such prominence over his myriad achievements in the fashion world.

"Seriously, is Edward Enninfil’s ethnicity important?" questions Austin. "It wouldn’t be the first line I would use in a press release, but clearly it’s a hook and has got a lot of press coverage because journalists love a back story. The fact that he is black shouldn’t be a big deal in 2017, but it is – at least in the media."

Derek Walker, founder of Brown and Browner Advertising, said it’s not Vogue’s accentuation of Enninfil’s diversity in question, but rather the wider image the magazine has projected for so many years, that has tainted the appointment.

"The problem is that people have long memories, and they will project those feelings on how they see Vogue's action. Maybe the question is has Vogue done enough prior to this to address their diversity insensitivity so that Mr. Enninful's hiring is not tainted by questions about Vogue's commitment to diversity? I would say, ‘no’."

Equally noteworthy, Austin claims, is the fact that Enninful is a man appointed to lead a women’s magazine. While Enninful’s appointment has been heralded by many diversity advocates as one of Vogue’s more progressive moves, Austin represents a group who take umbrage with the fact that a man will be highly influential in determining what women wear.

“Personally, I don’t see it as progress to have a man editing a magazine aimed at women. I’m fed up of fashion being presented to me through the male gaze, just like I don’t want Karl Lagerfeld telling me I’m too fat for his designs,” Austin opines.

“I’m sick of fashion policing itself in this way – saying that it’s okay to have size 6 models on the runways as that’s just the way it is as they make sample sizes only that size, or that airbrushing is fine as that’s just the way it is, and that they rarely feature BAME or disabled people or any diverse people on the covers of its magazines. No other industry seems to get away with being so elitist and undiverse does it really?”

The concept of a man deciding what is vogue in women’s fashion is certainly not a new trend, given that most of the global fashion houses are run by men, including Gucci, Versace, Hermès Louis Vuitton, Prada and Chanel, which was founded by a women but is now owned and run by two men. But that doesn’t mean a man is incapable of doing just that, merely because of his gender.

The “double-standard” nature of the argument begs the question: If it were a women running a men’s fashion brand, or editing a men’s fashion magazine, would the issue be highlighted in the same way?. For instance, British Vogue’s most recent editor Alexandra Shulman was former editor of Conde Nast’s male counterpart GQ.

“There has always been a sort of double standard,” says Walker. “And yes, this is a problem with the idea that there is one diversity agenda. For the record, I believe diversity should not be segmented - either we all rise together or we fail. We cannot celebrate the success of one group while another suffers. Well, we can but it isn't right.”

While Vogue’s audience is still primarily female, that split is equalising as opposing genders find a common ground in things like fashion, which knows no borders. According to ComScore figures, between July and December last year one fifth of British Vogue readers were male. After all, Vogue - the ‘fashion bible’ - is first and foremost a fashion magazine.

“If this was the a woman editing a man's magazine, men would not be saying the same thing - not as a whole. But this is the world we live in,” Walker adds.

Perhaps the appointment is a glimpse into a future Vogue where gender will feature less in the magazine in the place of fashion for all, an approach its online rival i-D - whose female/male audience is split almost perfectly down the middle - has proven works. Enninful’s 20-year history at i-D as fashion director, a role he was given at just 19 years old, proves it’s not an unrealistic prophecy.

Also noteworthy in Enninful’s appointment is it marks the first time a creative has taken the helm of editor-in-chief, a role previously reserved for journalists. Critics have argued the magazine’s editorial could falter under a creative leadership.

“Looked at one way, he is a visuals person in an editor-in-chief role, not a words person, although the two are not mutually exclusive,” says Austin.

But if his history is anything to go by, one which saw him head up Italian Vogue’s best-selling all-black issue, British Vogue’s in line for a much-needed refresh, not an overhaul.

"That we are even talking about Vogue's past diversity issues show that this hiring, while warranted, is not enough to erase the past trespasses. This is a first or second step to a long journey that Vogue needs to make," says Walker.

As mixed as the reaction has been to Enninful's appointment, it could be a boon to the publisher's commercial offering given the appetite for brands that stand for something more.

The advertising industry is awash with evidence - both theoretical and empirical - that people are willing to pay more for purposeful brands. This is shown by a 2015 study by IRI and Boston Consulting Group that found responsible consumption brands experienced almost double the growth rate in a two-year period than conventional products, and were able to command a higher price point.

Debbie Klein, chief executive for Europe and Asia Pacific at Engine, in an interview with The Drum in January, said: “As people are increasingly concerned about post-truths in advertising and news coverage, brands that can cultivate and maintain a meaningful relationship with their customers are the ones that are going to win in 2017 and beyond.”

For all the talk of Enninful’s suitability for the coveted role, his own belief as an advocate of diversity is that it shouldn’t matter who you are or where you have come from, meritocracy trumps tokenism. Is that not what readers, publishers want versus a pedigree of Vogue staff?

In a final point, Austin says: “He’s vocal about diversity in fashion and hopefully his appointment will begin to change attitudes and inject some common sense. Who knows he could put an end to stupid, crass fashion shoots that Vogue thinks are ‘witty comments on society’ or some such bollocks.”

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

All by Jessica