Edward Enninful’s long awaited British Vogue cover has arrived, and it promises a more ‘open’ Vogue, a porto-feminist covergirl, and a more diverse and politically charged future for the fashion Bible. 

The success of commercial fashion has long turned on the desire of its consumers to appear ‘in’ and stay relevant. At the top of that industry is UK Vogue, weathering the challenge of maintaining its hold as the institutional authority on what we wear, and how we wear it, in a market increasingly dominated by Instagram influencers and private individuals. Take Chiara Ferragni, the Italian student whose home-grown street style blog has garnered followers up to the 10 million mark, and earned her £14,000 for a single post. Her choice for front row at Dior Haute Couture? A tee bearing the slogan ‘We should all be feminists’. The ability of these disrupters to sell for big brands lies in their championing of individualism, the promise of curating our own identity in a world where private lives are for public consumption, and where the viewers demand a high level of sartorial, cultural, and political engagement.

British Vogue had seemed – in true monarchical tradition – to shy away from fashion’s newfound political activism.  In 2016,  fashion director Lucinda Chambers was able to tell us (somewhat resignedly) that the strategy was still that of dictating what was ‘in’: ‘making things redundant all the time and making things relevant all the time, but in a very superficial way’.

Adwoa Aboah on British Vogue Cover

Adwoa Aboah on Edward Enninful’s first British Vogue cover. Photograph: Steven Meisel/Vogue

With the debut of Edward Enninful’s first cover for the fashion bible this week, the continued dominance of that mantra looks doubtful. We have no ‘It Girls’, the Kate Mosses and Victoria Beckhams whose power lay in their ability to spark covetousness on the part of the reader. Once readers wanted to be like them, swathes assumed their ‘look’, whether nineties waif with the fixed stare, or noughties POB and Hermes tote. Enninful, an editor coming of age in our era of individualism, abandons that strategy. His debut letter promises a more ‘open’ Vogue, and it delivers. The magazine’s December issue instead bears the image of Adwoa Abodah, Ghanian – British model and founder of Gurls Talk, an online platform dedicated to discussion of women’s issues. She is not instantly recognisable to the regular reader: a supermodel, yes, and with society connections, but without global celebrity or billboard advertising presence. There is no reference to her status on the cover, and no promises of glimpsing into her private life or sharing in her beauty regimen. Her front page position is attributable not solely to her beauty, but in her political and social engagement.

There is substance in the art too: wearing Marc Jacobs silk, and millinery by Stephen Jones,  Abodah’s image is more reminiscent of a Studio 54 photograph than a studio cover. Yet the past is not wistfully sought: it is employed to serve the present, Enninful striking upon a trend particularly strong among the millennial readers whose attention has become so valuable for the industry. Increasingly, making cultural reference through one’s style has cache. By doing so, we display (so the wearer hopes) the intellectual and artistic depth which individualist culture prizes. There is no nostalgia, no sepia tint in Pat McGrath’s vinyl red lip and glittered eye: their clarity and punch are distinctly modern. The symbolism: knowledge, intellect, participation in higher culture is for use in crafting a strong identity for ourselves.

Edward Enninful, British Vogue Editor

Editor of British Vogue, Edward Ennifnul. Photo: Kevin Trageser/Redux for New York Times

The message from Vogue as 2017 draws to a close is distinctly political, a recognition at the top level of the industry that ‘fitting in’ is no longer ‘cool’, nor an effective sales driver. What is? To stand for something: for diversity, artistic value, a ‘Great Britain’ which bears the face of a woman, and a mixed race woman at that. Enninful has understood that the educated, socially mobile reader wants material which speaks to her political and social engagement – which acts as inspiration but not dictator – as she curates a meaningful social, cultural and sartorial identity.

In Richard Macer’s BBC documentary ‘Absolutely Fashion: Inside Vogue’, Enninful’s predecessor Alexandra Shulman pondered how the magazine could reconcile its traditional ‘distance’ with the increasing democratisation of fashion’s dialogue. The show proved to be something of a PR disaster for the publication: aloof, inaccessible, and struggling with the rise of ‘identity’ in a sphere where its diktats had enjoyed almost canonical respect.  Vogue’s December cover is indication that the authoritarian of the fashion world is bowing its head to this revolution.