Why British Vogue Isn’t Breaking Barriers Anytime Soon
When Edward Enninful took over British Vogue from former editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman — there were great expectations that alighted his appointment, as most regarded his arrival as evidence of the healthy progression, that had been missing under the tutelage of Shulman.
Apart from being the first ever non-White candidate to oversee the historically non-diverse publication — the Ghanaian born British fashion stylist was supposed to present a drastically different agenda for the future of British Vogue — and that was incessantly highlighted when the announcement of his prominent new gig was made public.
Shulman’s twenty-five years of service wasn’t meticulously scrutinized until her imminent departure was official — and then it was fair game. Iconic model — Naomi Campbell who is basically still the only Black supermodel of note — and is now part of Enninful’s team as a contributing editor — was one of the notable critics who condemned the “White reign” of the former editor-in-chief.
For her part — Shulman was unapologetic about her decision to steer clear from the “diversity” trend— as she offered brutal transparency around the pressure to maintain a level of success that couldn’t be achieved by being editorially explorative.
She threw immaculate shade under the veil of praise, for her successor’s choice for his inaugural cover, by pointing out how cover girl Adwoa Aboah was the “perfect mixture of mixed race” which evokes a “sort of posh Notting Hill royalty” that ultimately makes her “the perfect cover star.”
At the time, it was obvious that Shulman was purposely drawing attention to the fact that Enniful ultimately took the safer route by using a model of color, who represents the more viable definition of diversity — as opposed to a dark-skinned model with ethnic features that match Lupita Nyong’s aesthetic.
As the months pile up with Enniful in the driver’s seat — it’s becoming clear that perhaps his highly-anticipated addition to one of the most recognizable and revered brands in fashion — won’t incite the inspiring and inclusive narrative that was meant to break barriers — and appropriately challenge Shulman’s legacy.
Shulman elevated the status of British Vogue by increasing its circulation — which led to a revival that made her a formidable competitor of American Vogue’s Anna Wintour. She was able to achieve greatness by adhering to a formula that requires the nurturing of globally-acceptable templates — that yield expected and profitable returns.
Her ability to deliver what consumers want without fail while fulfilling the specifically White palettes of cosmetic and luxury brands was how she manned her ship — and anything else would have produced catastrophic results.
That explains the calmness during the period of her exit — as she endured the treatment of being vilified for spending her illustrious career habitually avoiding the responsibility of showcasing other variations of beauty — that have suffered systemic under-exposure — due to the negligence of well-positioned trendsetters who have the power to reshape the landscape.
Her stark honesty never wavered under pressure — as Shulman defended the lack of diversity in her staff room, and on the covers and pages of her magazine, by damningly blaming it all on a lack of worthy contenders, and the fear that being too inclusive would drive away loyalists, and fuck up her game.
The assumption was that with Shulman’s respectable retirement — Edward Enniful was now free to boldly go where she wouldn’t dare. He was going to thwart the formula in place, and utilize his expertise in ways that would finally expose the winning characteristics of Black models, who don’t have to resemble the defaults of Beyonce, Rihanna or any of the other reshuffles, that are exhaustively recycled.
But, months later — Enninful’s reign is disappointingly closely related to his predecessor than he might be comfortably willing to admit.
Aside from a highly-touted cover that was geared towards celebrating “trailblazing” models that are primed to attack the industry with their specific brand of ethnicity — the other offerings have remained largely White and bright.
The only and only “diversity cover” features the token “really dark-skinned” face as well as the highly-touted hijab-wearing model. Overall, it seemed to express the editor-in-chief’s desire to expand the possibilities of what is deemed “diverse.”
“When I say diversity, I want to be clear that it is never just about black and white for me.” “It’s about diversity across the board — whether that’s race, size, socio-economic background, religion, sexuality. That’s what I want to celebrate with this cover.”
But, Enninful is still relying on the aesthetic that most in his position consume out of the need to remain in good standing, in an establishment that has no patience for errors. And so we’ve been treated to the standards of perfection that we’ve come to accept as the blueprint — as well as the indication of how fashion has sadly cowered under the strain of predictability.
Gone are the days when model scouts were tasked with recruiting unknowns in far off places for the thrill of discovery, and the tantalization of lenses. It’s all about White faces that belong to socialites, offsprings of Reality TV stars and the lucky few that shut down Instagram with millions of followers.
Enninful has had more than enough time to rewrite the scriptures according to his faith in the religion of Blackness, and how the verses of those features can and should be normalized for the sake of fairness and necessity.
Instead, the first Black man of African descent to ever oversee the operations of fashion’s sacred template — has demonstrated a level of weakness that’s disarmingly off-putting. He has failed in his mission to dismantle the regime of Whiteness with the rebellious aptitude, that was scheduled for a long overdue takeover.
All we’ve managed to garner is the recycled leftovers from other generically-inclined staples with the mandated peppering of diversity, in the form of semi-successful biracial actresses, and the over-lauded icons of color who serve as perfect fillers.
As we head further into 2018 — there’s no way to sugarcoat the reality of Enninful’s fragile state, and to conclude that he won’t be breaking barriers anytime soon. And it’s not overkill to imagine that he may never be able to run this ship on his terms.
It’s a sad state of affairs to witness the ascension of Black professionals in positions of power, and then watch them stumble helplessly within the confines of stringency, as they surrender to the duty of maintaining the comfort level of White consumers at the expense of their own people.
We saw it with Shonda Rhimes — back when a Black woman showrunner for a major network was unheard of, and then once she made her debut — all our questions were answered by the almost all-White cast of characters, and the weirdness of how a Black woman created a highly-regarded vehicle with a White woman as the lead actress.
Rhimes eventually produced shows that starred Black women leads, but the tragedy of how she had to make White audiences happy before catering to Black audiences will always blemish her trajectory in the eyes of her community.
Perhaps, the same script will play out for Enninful as he presently struggles with the complexity of his station as a Black man who needs to uphold the traditions of a very traditional institution — while also living up to the hype of his anointment as the savior who will undoubtedly shake things up with the endowment of an ambitiously diverse tone.
So far, nothing much has changed since Shulman gracefully vacated the premises, and it’s hard not to imagine her relishing in her successor’s very obvious predicament when you consider the somewhat hostile climate that feted her during the new era of mandated “wokeness.”
In many ways, the blame can’t be placed entirely on Enninful, after all he’s merely a fish in a very large and murky pond, who has spent enough time in a direly paralyzed industry to know what his limitations are, despite his very best intentions.
And there’s also the stagnant vibe that’s holding fashion forecasters hostage — as they weather the consequences of their waning authority that stems from the infectious decay of platforms like Instagram — spewed out by Kris Jenner — who basically has the captains of industry on her payroll.
It goes without saying that just like other weathered and uninspiring offshoots of Vogue — the British version will continue to spotlight White celebrities and so-called models with brief interludes of color — that won’t threaten the dignity of a publication that can’t afford to wade into forbidden dark territory.
Even if the overwhelmed hero is an African esteemed editor — and the most successful film of 2018 happens to feature a gallery of Blackness that managed to seduce the globe — there is a limitation on the influence of diversity that is overwhelmingly real.
Edward Enninful might be able to flex his muscles after satisfactorily convincing the Queen’s audience of his unwavering loyalty, but it won’t take long before he’s reeled back into the assignment of magnificently failing those who overestimated his capacity.
The fashion industry is dead and what remains is Whiteworld — and a rapidly growing population that don’t want to be a part of it. That’s the methodically overlooked trend that won’t remain discarded for much longer.
And once the change comes — fashion lives again.