How Edward Enninful Made Himself Seen

Edward Enninful. Photo / Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott

Seven years after teenage me, armed with wild-eyed enthusiasm and those bicycle shorts, first touched down in New York with Simon to consult for Levi’s, I found myself once again in Manhattan, strutting through Midtown, straight into the doors of Calvin Klein HQ. Well, I say ‘strutting’  in truth, I was as nervous as hell.

This was the moment I’d been waiting for, the sort of job that could take my career to the next level. But I also felt like I was coming full circle.

My teenage self had been flattened by the sight of that ginormous Calvin Klein poster of Kate on the side of a building as I had crossed the 59th Street Bridge, and now here I was, in the then-undisputed centre of fashion power, on the way to make it happen. If it all went well, my work would be on that wall. My heart was in my throat.

Two years before I walked into my big meeting, Calvin Klein had launched CK for younger consumers. The fashion trade calls this kind of side brand a ‘bridge line’ because it’s supposed to be a gateway to buying into the company’s higher-end offer.

Often this means a watered-down message, but Calvin had put massive creative and financial resources into CK’s design and communications, funded by the influx of cash from having sold his highly profitable jeans and underwear businesses.

Photo / Edward Enninful
Photo / Edward Enninful

At the time I walked through the doors, business-wise and creatively, Calvin was at his peak. He was one of the most successful American designers in the history of fashion, dominating the conversation of the moment through his clothes, and also especially his advertising, always right on point and laced with plenty of controversy.

The job I was called in for was to style a series of CK advertising campaigns, for which Kate was, again, the face. I’d be shooting with Craig, with Pat doing makeup and Eugene the hair: a creative safe space, even if I was still quietly furious at Craig.

I was walking in with Ronnie’s support  she was Calvin Klein’s advertising and creative director.

Her dry humour and sharp focus put me at ease from the first time I spoke with her. She knew and loved London, was friends with many of the original i-D crew, the furthest thing from square or corporate, and she was vocally a fan of my work.

But whatever I did would need the blessing of Calvin himself.

I remember what I wore on that first day we met. I did my signature Fashion Director in jeans, a V-neck sweater with a white T-shirt underneath and a camel-hair coat from English Squire. Low-key but with a bit of polish. (When you’re outside talent booked to consult, you’re not expected to dress like everyone else, but you want to be more or less on the same planet.)

Here I was, finally making a proper rate of thousands a day, like so many of my peers had been doing for years. I had been dying for this break and I knew I could deliver. There is, however, another factor on days like these.

I was well turned out, I had the experience and my preparation, as always, was nothing short of obsessive.

Yet I also carried with me a different anxiety, a brand of anxiety that Craig or Eugene or Melanie Ward could never feel: a cloud that always hovers over a Black person in a new setting, especially one that is wealthy and white.

An apprehension that is always just . . . there. Even if I was clearly in the minority at i-D, we were a scrappy little family with no money, and I was a central cog, known and trusted by everyone.

Photo / Edward Enninful
Photo / Edward Enninful

Still, if I hadn't experienced overtly ill treatment at i-D, I had by this time lived for over a decade in the UK, where I'd had plenty of experience seeing people on the street clutching their bags when I walked by, or teachers dialling down their expectations of me in class, or men pigeonholing me in gay clubs, or colleagues assuming I was of lower professional status at designer showrooms and fashion shows where they didn't know me on sight, or police giving me the once-over.

Yes, there had been many moments of joyful professional validation, and I knew that I benefited from breaks that no one, Black or white, had ever had. But on any given day, my life had been contoured by suspicion, hostility and double standards in ways both egregious and subtle.

And now I was in New York, where police violence against Black men was even more extreme than what I had come to know in London. Rudolph Giuliani had been elected mayor in 1994 on a tough-on-crime platform that any Ladbroke Grove resident would have clocked in a second.

The most outrageous incidences of racist police violence in New York  against Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond  were yet to come, but with the city and its financial industries on an extended sugar high, Giuliani had given aggressive, entitled white people permission to discriminate. New York was having a moment, but it was not a great vibe for Black people.

I waltzed into all this to get my big break at an iconic temple of American whiteness. CK was making waves with advertising that was ethnically diverse and gender fluid.

But before that initiative, Calvin’s iconography was as white as his staff, which mostly consisted of tall, bony, beautiful WASP girls with thick eyebrows and low ponytails.

I could count the Black people inside the building on one hand, and they were almost all security guards. Otherwise there was one Asian producer. Quite a rainbow coalition.

In fashion, as elsewhere, establishment companies, almost all of them owned and run by white people, don’t have to have an over-the-top, overtly racist culture for a Black worker to feel panic and fear upon arriving. It’s an instinct we develop over a lifetime of being unfairly judged, and then gaslighted if we actually take the enormous risk of simply talking about our experiences.

We know all the stereotypes about us intimately, and jump through hoops  social, psychological, emotional  to counteract them on the job.

We know them because one of the most crucial survival skills for any Black person in a white space is to intimately understand how institutional white psychology works. In addition to knowing our own minds and hearts, we have to absorb the dominant culture, how it thinks and reacts.

Photo / Craig McDean Art + Commerce
Photo / Craig McDean Art + Commerce

To go into any white space without that comprehension is like walking into a sword fight without a rapier and a shield. You just don’t do it. You have to master the mindset.

Look, don’t get me wrong. Starting a new job is stressful for anyone, yet in contrast, white colleagues can at least show up more or less unburdened by preconceived notions of being lazy, crass, undereducated, unrefined, dishonest, shady, a diversity hire, short-fused or dying to accuse everyone else of being racist.

Black people know, both by way of advice from our elders and our own experiences, that even from well-meaning white people we rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt if a conflict arises.

We know that we’re often the first to be blamed, and more quickly and harshly punished than our white peers.

If there was ever a question of an item of clothing of jewellery to go missing at any job where I wasn’t intimately known to the client, I’d be the first one they suspected, even if they liked me, because there’s an unconscious tripwire in most white people that says, when it comes right down to it, Black people do not belong.

And God forbid I get visibly angry about it. Or express any of my natural fear and insecurity. This emotional and psychological reality is exhausting on its own. Now combine it with knowing that you’ll always need to work twice as hard to keep rising. Being Black in the workplace is not a recipe for inner peace.

There was another dip in this emotional rollercoaster for me. In America, I would get a bit more of a pass than my Black American peers, because my Englishness seemed ‘classy’. To Americans, it associated me with stately homes, tea parties and the British Royal Family  clichés that operated outside the corrosive, centuries-old dynamic of America’s own homegrown racist system.

(The ‘exotic foreign’ thing works in reverse too. Black American artists like Ralph Ellison, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and James Baldwin were spared some of the racism in France that people of colour from that country, or its colonies, experienced daily.)

Edward Enninful and Oprah Winfrey. Photo / Getty Images
Edward Enninful and Oprah Winfrey. Photo / Getty Images

If only the people complimenting my accent or telling me I was somehow different knew what Black people in the UK went through, and how not-different it all was.

If only they saw that the Jamaicans who came to the UK dealt with the same kind of discrimination as the ones who came to the US.

I also knew that even with this odd good fortune, my God-given talent and my ambition to make something out of it, if I screwed up on anything it could all disappear in an instant.

As it pertained to my industry, I was both privileged to have so many opportunities to shine at such a young age, and also underprivileged because of my accent and the colour of my skin. A mind fuck.

So I arrived at Calvin Klein simultaneously thrilled, eager to please, and trepidatious, like a soldier in a war zone, knowing that even if the space was outwardly welcoming, no matter what I did, it was going to be far more of a minefield for me than it would have been for someone white.

It is what it is, I said to myself. I’m one outside consultant; I have no power to change this corporate culture.

Suck it up, keep going. And so I did, and it went well. But I swore to myself then, and have done so many times since, that once I was in a position to give opportunities to others, I would give other Black creatives the space and permission to flourish and stretch themselves on their own terms.

When people are able to apply the best of themselves to their work, free from outdated, harmful prejudice, we get a much better result.

The world is in too dire a need of creativity, of original thought, to hold anyone back who may have the next great idea, who could be helping us move forward together.

Edited extract from A Visible Man © Edward Enninful (Bloomsbury, $34.99)

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