Following the twenty-five year reign of Alexandra Shulman, Conde Nast made a savvy decision. Edward Enninful was appointed as the new editor-in-chief of British Vogue just last year. Sales had stagnated and Enninful’s mandate was to open the publication out and out to reach a wider, more diverse audience. In doing so, it was planned the magazine would leave behind its predictable reflection of the privileged white world and, so it seemed, the establishment.
A copy of British Vogue has clunked into my post-box at the beginning of the month, every month, since January 2011. So compared to the skincare, exercise and hair removal fads which have ebbed and flowed with the predictable fluctuations of Brexit developments, Vogue is the only routine to which I’ve stuck these eight years.
So it’s fair to say we’re old friends, Vogue and I. I’ve watched her shimmer in the sunlight, I’ve watched her embarrass herself and, perhaps most significantly, I’ve watched the planes of her pages undergo seismic change like a sheltered teen acquainting herself with the real world. As for the last part, I’d like to think we’ve done that together.
So to see that Enninful has handed over the reins to the Duchess of Sussex, as guest-editor for the weighty September issue, surprised me. Was not the point of his introduction of ‘new Vogue’ to eschew the publication’s ties with the ‘posh cabal’ that Shulman denied in an interview after her departure? Had it taken just a year for Enninful to relent on that imaginative war-cry for diversity which Adwoa Aboah represented only a year ago? Why was a member of the royal family back on the front cover, so soon after readers had come to expect Enninful’s all-inclusive Vogue? The leopard, it seemed, was not making an authentic effort to change its spots.
You see, not long ago, just last year in fact, the Duchess of Cambridge appeared on the cover of the centenary issue. The moment the embargoed information was made public, news of the coup was slapped across Instagram stories of fashionistas, fashion writers and fashion editors alike. This would mark a significant chapter of Shulman’s various last hurrahs, documented in her accompanying diaries. But the Duchess of Cambridge’s inclusion in such a significant issue of Vogue offered a key explanation as to why Shulman was stepping down. Vogue had become synonymous with the white establishment and it was long overdue a makeover.
Compared to interviews awash with all-white public school alumni and covers to match, Enninful promised positive discrimination and the active establishment of diversity within the publication. The discussion of body positivity, fatphobia and less-privileged backgrounds by the interviewees, the interviewers and, crucially, the readers has made British Vogue a more relatable place. Further, easily digestible short reads (compared to the long-form interviews Shulman championed), the inclusion of influencers and, most recently, the inclusion of a mixed-race guest-editor add to the sense that one of the most recognisable magazines in the world is experiencing the update for which it was gasping. It does not go unnoticed, either, that in being given such a wide-reaching platform, the Duchess of Sussex has offered the space to other female voices rather than exclusively her own – an example, surely, in using your privilege to share the podium rather than standing above and alone.
Thankfully, Vogue’s ubiquitous whiteness is packing the family photograph, the pot of pens and the pendulum and heading out of the door. Vogue continues to glitter but in a kaleidoscopic kind of way, less homogenous and less silvering than before. The difference between Shulman and Enninful is the difference between the world a few years ago and the world today. The former made a covergirl of the Duchess of Cambridge, for the centenary issue of the magazine, while the latter has just recently has acknowledged the newly mixed-race face of the royal family. There is, obviously, a stark disparity in the identities of these two Duchesses. The Duchess of Cambridge is the poster girl for English public school privilege. Her position within the most famously establishment family in the world is assured. She is married to and mother to the future King of England. While the latter, a mixed-race American woman, has fallen in love with Prince Harry and in marrying him, brought compassion, diversity and a little more reality to the British royal family.
So while it seemed a strange decision on Enninful’s part to welcome the royal family back on to the front cover of this September issue, I now understand his thought process. Yes, in including another Duchess on the front cover, Enninful raised alarm bells. The trailblazing editor-in-chief seemed to be going back on his word, echoing his predecessor. But in acknowledging the Duchess of Sussex on the front cover, Enninful is not necessarily complicit with the establishment of which Vogue used to be a part. Rather, he is celebrating the changing face of the establishment as told by his place at the helm of one of the most famously exclusive publications and the Duchess of Sussex’s position in the apex of one of the most privileged dynasties in the world. Besides, Enninful is clearly a canny man and the ‘Meghan effect’ can’t exactly hurt September’s sales figures.