Edward Enninful: a “Barrier Breaking” Choice

The media coverage of the newly appointed editor of British Vogue Magazine, Edward Enninful, declared him a groundbreaking choice because of his various identities. Vanessa Freidman of the New York Times says he is “barrier breaking,” because “he is a black man, born in Ghana, raised in London and working in New York.”[1] He is the first African American, the first male, and the first openly gay chief editor of British Vogue. He also comes from an immigrant family, and a lower socioeconomic background. In a neoliberal individualist sense, his appointment does break barriers in the elite fashion industry.

Enninful actively speaks about race and gender in the fashion world, bringing much needed perspective and conversation into the industry. He rejects the prevailing attitude towards race, of “filling the quota,” countering, “No, it should be a continuous conversation. It shouldn’t even be an issue as far as I’m concerned. Beauty’s beauty.”[2] He questions the preferencing of Western beauty, highlighting that beauty exists beyond racialized space. He can use his new position of power and his own agency to continue these conversations.

But, his appointment is framed as a continued push towards the globalization of fashion, which continues to obscure forms of oppression through neoliberalism. Enninful is portrayed as bringing a “global viewpoint” to the industry.[3] Because of his background, he is perceived as having a global focus, and he understands himself this way as well. He believes that digital media “offers real opportunities for democratization,” saying, “The brilliant thing now with social media is that the industry is so globalised.”[4] By seeing fashion in the digital era as “democratized” and “globalized,” he and others in the industry obscure the continued perpetuation of Western beauty norms by the fashion industry, which leads to exclusion and barriers.[5]

Appointing a man as editor of British Vogue can also be seen as a male takeover of a powerful space for women. The media is now questioning what it means to have a male editor of a woman’s magazine. This particular event highlights structural gender inequality that has already existed for a long time. But maybe it also helps diminish the gender barriers put in place by the rise of the modern beauty industry that so strongly tied women to beauty.[6] When men can also create and embody beauty, maybe women won’t solely be seen through the lens of beauty. We know that much of the beauty industry has been male-dominated since the 1920s, from Hope in a Jar.[7] And Kathy Peiss highlights how the male takeover was hidden by “illusions of woman-owned businesses.”[8] Now there are more women in positions of power, but there is still gender inequality in the fashion industry. Enninful’s appointment repeats the takeover of a traditionally female space, but does it visibly, allowing us to think through its meaning. It seems important that Enninful as a talented artist, as a person of color, and as a person who brings up important conversations about race and inclusion occupies a leadership role in a top fashion magazine, but at the same time his appointment could be seen as a representation of gender inequality in the industry. How can we make sense of oppression and intersectionality when they conflict?

Notes

[1] Vanessa Friedman, “Edward Enninful as British Vogue Editor: A Barrier-Breaking Choice,” New York Times, April 10, 2017 accessed April 11, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/fashion/edward-enninful-british-vogue-race-gender-diversity.html.

[2] Paul Flynn, “British Vogue’s new editor Edward Enninful on working with Kate Moss and race in the fashion industry,” April 10, 2017 accessed April 12, 2017.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/people/edward-enninful-on-working-with-kate-moss-and-race-in-the-fashio/

[3] Paul Flynn, “British Vogue’s new editor Edward Enninful on working with Kate Moss and race in the fashion industry.”

[4] Paul Flynn, “British Vogue’s new editor Edward Enninful on working with Kate Moss and race in the fashion industry.”

[5] Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body (New York: Routledge, 2016), 3.

[6] Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar, (Pennsylvania: First University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 166.

[7] Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 106.

[8] Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 117.

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