When it comes to muses, Edward Enninful certainly has his pick of the litter: Starting from when he was named fashion director of i-D at just 18 years old and continuing up to his current role as creative and fashion director of W Magazine, Enninful has worked with some of the biggest icons in modeling. So, one would think that when it came time to narrow down his model muses to those that best represented his 25 years in the industry — which is precisely what he was asked to do for his new film with Nick Knight and Beats by Dre celebrating this milestone achievement — it would be an easy task. But when asked, Enninful buried his head in his hands as though he can't bear to think about it.
"Oh my God, that was probably one of the hardest things I had to do," he lamented. "Imagine 25 years! Models that I've loved — that was tough!"
He got there in the end, of course. He picked eight girls to portray the seven deadly sins: Naomi Campbell as Pride, Kate Moss as Lust, Karlie Kloss as Greed, Karen Elson as Wrath, Jourdan Dunn as Envy, Mariacarla Boscono as Sloth and Lara Stone and Anna Ewers as Gluttony (which naturally required two models). Directed by Knight and narrated by Travis Scott, "The Seven Deadly Sins of Edward Enninful" is both visual and sonic as each sin has its own color and track).
Tucked away in the Presidential Suite at The Surrey with the film playing on a big flat screen, Fashionista got the chance to sit down and chat with Enninful about the project and how his muses have influenced his career. A lot has changed in the last quarter of a century — not least of which being the rise of the "Instagirl" — but Enninful isn't phased by any of it. Check out his full film at SHOWStudio, and get Enninful's take on the fashion industry today.
How did this project come about?
I was approached by Beats by Dre to work on a collaboration, and I've always been an admirer of Beats by Dre. So I was very, very excited, and I remember thinking, well, I don't want to do something that was looking back on old work. Even though we were celebrating 25 years, I wanted to do something that was forward-looking, something in digital media and something that took my work to a broader scale, because everyone is so used to seeing my work in magazines, or iPads. When I heard they had the biggest billboard in Times Square, I thought it would be a great way to bring alive the story I had to tell about the digital age and the seven deadly sins.
It's got religious backgrounds, but that wasn't what it was about. It was a tribute to the eight models that had inspired my whole career, wearing designers who'd inspired my whole career, and the idea was to get them to tackle the seven deadly sins in the digital world. They were really, really excited by it!
How did you pick your muses?
That was a tough one. They're my friends — we hang out — so when someone is quote-unquote a muse, you don't just work together. I thought of each sin and thought, who could best embody that? That narrowed everything down.
Your relationships with models have been so central to your career. How did those develop?
I started following models as a teenager; I don't know whether there was a sense of rejection I always felt back then, [but] I always had a real sense of what models go through. When you get someone like Naomi or Kate, who just gets your mind working overtime and wanting to create, it's very rare! There are a million models out there, but there are few that you can actually call muses. I've tried, in my whole career, to base fashion stories around characters. I would never say, 'We're doing a red story.' I would say, 'I want to do a story based around Kate, based around Karlie, based around Jourdan,' so I always started with the idea of model as a muse and then everything fell into place. I've always placed the model on a very high pedestal, and by doing that, it's more of a conversation.
What have you seen in those girls that made them stand out?
When Karlie was 14, I was working at American Vogue, and we couldn't wait for her to be 16 to work with her! I remember the first time we worked with her, it was with Craig McDean, and even though she was so young, she had this almost otherworldliness. Naomi's got the same thing. You know what these girls have got in common? You almost want to grab a hold of them, but they just slip through your fingers. Does that make sense? They've got this sort of otherworldliness where they're all around and you want to own them, but you can never — they belong in their own sphere, and I think that's what they all have in common, you can never quite pin them down. That's why the whole world gets obsessed.
Do you feel it's different now with the Insta-famous girls?
I think what's changed is that a model like Gigi [Hadid] or Kendall [Jenner] can come to a company with their own followers, with their own market research. When companies book them, they're booking not just the model, but the following that they bring. So that's definitely different from when I started. Back in my time, you had to really, really toil away without anybody really knowing what you were doing. There are some great models that have come out of social media that I love, but I feel like they're more savvy now. They're not just waiting to be booked. They're like, if I come to your company, I bring this with me. It's a new kind of supermodel, and I'm very excited by it.
Do you feel if these models are sharing that much, whether on Snapchat or Instagram or whatever, that they can still have that "otherworldly" quality?
I guess what we've lost is that sense of unreachability there. "What does she do in her spare time?" — that's gone a bit, but I feel like that's a sign of the times. This is very much the generation where everyone wants to know everything and see everything. I think it also brought a rise in models having some power. Maybe before they were more disposable, apart from the few, and now I feel they have their own currency to bargain with — and good for them!
How else have you seen the industry change in 25 years?
I've seen — God! — so many changes! I feel like a relic. I've seen it go from little industries in London, Paris, not really having access to one city, to being just one global thing. I can see what a young designer is doing in Paris now with a click of a button. Our cultural heroes are changing; a skateboarder from Georgia can become a national icon. I feel there's a lot of information shared, which we didn't have back then. You worked in your own city, and then every fashion week you would meet somewhere else and go back, but now it's information overload. It's more accessible now.
What about the designers that have inspired you?
I feel like the designers that I love, they'll always be great. Miuccia [Prada], John [Galliano], they'll always be great designers. But I feel like maybe now ways of selling and ways of presenting are changing. Before we had the shows twice a year, and then the journalists' reports, but I feel that all that is changing and we're going to see more of that in the next couple of years. Because of social media, people see things and want to buy it now. The designers will always have their talents, but I think the way they present to the world will change.
Do you think the traditional fashion show model still has a place?
I think it does, because I feel each city breeds a different kind of language. In London, there's a sense of fearlessness that will always be London; New York, there's a certain urgency that will always be New York; Milan, there's a certain mix between business and fashion that will always exist; and Paris is something that will always be the top. So I feel it's important to still have those identities. If not, it's just one big marketplace, and nothing against that, but I feel each country defines the personality of the designer — in the beginning, anyway.
You've built a reputation in the industry as being a very nice person; do you think that's been the key to your success?
Oh, I think my work has something to do with it. [Laughs] I just didn't ascribe to the idea of being an ogre to get ahead. I surrounded myself with people I really like and grew up with, like Pat McGrath, Craig McDean, Steven Meisel; people I've known for a really long time, people who are really encouraging, and through my whole career I've really been encouraged by them. Franca Sozzani, Terry Jones, Anna Wintour and Grace [Coddington] — I've had people really championing me, so that's what I like to pass along to the next generation, to my assistants or [whomever]: That there's a way to work in this industry and to be nice and be who you are, really. I never had to be anyone else, so I wouldn't really know [different].
Looking back at 25 years, do you have favorite photoshoots that you've done?
They're all children, aren't they? There are good ones and bad ones. There's so many good ones! I love all the stories I did with Steven Meisel, those big, epic, whole issues of Italian Vogue, like the plastic surgery story, or the paparazzi story. I love all my early i-D, '90s stories; there was a certain naiveté to those stories, finding your way in the world and wanting to say something. I love what I do now at W with Steven Klein and Mert and Marcus. I feel like I've had phases of my career and I've learned from each phase, but the stories I really like are those big narratives, where we're able to go on location and come back with something magical. I've been lucky to do quite a few of those.
How do you think the relationship between digital and print will progress?
If your print magazine has a great digital, people will come! W has an amazing dot com, so I feel the magazines that have incredible digital platforms, they'll survive. They'll feed each other. I think that's really exciting, actually. That's one of the things that didn't exist 25 years ago. It makes you want to work harder on your print and your digital to make sure it keeps people's attention all the time, but I think they definitely feed each other — if you're good!
Is there anything you've wanted to do in the past 25 years that you haven't been able to do?
There are certainly photographers that I never got to work with. Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Herb Ritts, [Richard] Avedon: That's my one regret, I wish I'd been a little earlier! I'm such a big fan of photography. But on the other hand, I've been able to work with the best of the best of my generation.
What do you hope to be doing the next 25 years?
Hopefully doing what I do now and being passionate about it. I take it a day at a time. If you told me 25 years ago I'd be sitting here, I would have thought you were joking! Twenty-five years is a long time, you never know what's going to be happening.
This interview has been edited and condensed.