HomeLifestyleFashionEdward Enninful reflects on closeted upbringing and finding freedom in fashion

Edward Enninful reflects on closeted upbringing and finding freedom in fashion

Editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Edward Enninful, has revealed the challenges he faced while coming to terms with his sexuality as a young man from a religious background.

Writing exclusively for The Independent during Pride month, the Ghanaian-born British former model turned stylist and journalist, has described the years in which he began to embrace his identity as a gay man.

Enninful, 51, has been responsible for shifting British Vogue’s creative and editorial output towards representing people across the spectrum of LGBT+, disability and race. In turn, the media mogul has been credited for influencing representation in the fashion industry as a whole.

He has announced he is stepping down to take up a new position as editorial advisor to British Vogue and global creator and cultural adviser to Vogue.

Enninful recalls the first time he ever encountered someone who was “openly” gay, when he was aged 16, in 1980s London but laments that he feared the prospect of ever coming out himself.

“I was 16 when I encountered the first person I’d ever met who actually called themselves gay,” he writes. “I was a sheltered Ghanaian immigrant – a good, Christian schoolboy who kept his head down, worked hard and always had his father’s words thundering in his ears: ‘If any of those gays come into this house it will be over my dead body.’”

He observes that fashion changed not only his career prospects but allowed him to express himself in a way he never thought would be possible.

“Suddenly, I was a teenager in London and meeting gay and trans people everywhere; photoshoots, parties, gigs, clubs,” he says. “But did I feel pride? It was probably more complicated than that.”

Enninful writes that he was “petrified” of coming out as gay, especially given his religious upbringing, and feared “enernal damnation” if he revealed his sexuality.

“The fire and brimstone that would rage in church seemed so real that I genuinely thought I was going to hell and that a life – and afterlife – of eternal damnation awaited me. This is the way for a lot of young LGBT+ people still today, especially in religious communities. The feelings are terrifying and real seeming.”

At the age of 21, Enninful told his mother he was gay, and was thankful for her reaction. Eventually, he writes, his father “came around” to the idea of him being gay.

“I was extremely fortunate to have the mother I had,” he writes. “She loved me – I knew that always – and when I eventually told her I was gay at the grand old age of 21, having returned to London after a romantic epiphany on a New York dance floor, there was no question of me being exiled by the family,” he writes.

But in London in the Eighties and Nineties, he says, others were not as “lucky” as he was.

“I saw friends and relations in my community thrown out of their family homes. Meanwhile, the infamous AIDS adverts, with their looming tombstones and terrifying iceberg visuals, were everywhere. Gay London – gay life – felt like it teetered on a knife’s edge.”​

Throughout and beyond Pride month, British Vogue, under Enninful’s leadership, will represent different LGBT+ stories, including pop star Janelle Monae, British-Australian actor Miriam Margoyles and The Last Of Us actor Bella Ramsey, exclusively revealed here by The Independent.

Throughout Pride month, British Vogue will represent different LGBT+ stories, including Janelle Monae, British-Australian actor Miriam Margoyles, and Rina Sawayama. The covers are being revealed exclusively in The Independent, the official news partner of Pride in London. See the full feature in the July issue of British Vogue, available via digital download and on newsstands from Tuesday 20 June

(British Vogue/Tim Walker )

“In the July issue you’ll find exquisite fashion and thoughtful portraits and interviews with everyone from raconteur supreme Miriam Margoyles to Janelle Monae, Rina Sawayama, Emma D’Arcy and Bella Ramsey, to the residents of the Tonic Housing, the UK’s first LGBT+ residential home for older people, and Rose Ruth, who, now 90, transitioned in her 80s, and who I adore,” Enninful writes.

Despite the celebration of Pride being widely embraced by a new generation, Enninful points out that the world today “remains unsafe”, especially for the more marginalised people in the LGBT+ community.

“Transphobia abounds, hate crimes are on the increase and a scary establishment pushback seems wholly unable to grasp the idea that people are who they say they are. That gender fluidity is not new,” he says. “That the only difference now is that we are finally able to talk about it a bit more.”

In recent months, Enninful has released a memoir, A Visible Man, sharing how as a Black, gay, working-class refugee, he found solace in fashion.

  • The Independent is the official news partner of Pride in London. See the full LGBT+ feature in the July issue of British Vogue, available via digital download and on newsstands from Tuesday 20 June.
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