The woman sitting across from me in the photo-paneled boardroom of Vogue House is the first female and the first person of colour to be appointed to the role of Publisher at British Vogue in Condé Nast’s 102-year history. She is also beautiful, disarmingly charming and heavily pregnant.
Born in Kenya, to a Kenyan father and Kittitian (Caribbean) mother, Vanessa Kingori MBE spent her early childhood on the island of Saint Kitts, Caribbean, before her parents moved the family to London one chilly October, when Kingori was seven. “It was grey and freezing,” she says. “It was the first time I had owned a coat. I was all wrapped up in this big duffle!” Kingori remembers the people of Saint Kitts, and their industrial spirit, fondly, but the former model now describes herself as a Londoner through and through. “Although, I suppose I really belong to three places,” she muses.
And the Acton-resident is now one of the most influential women in fashion and publishing, having spent much of 2018/19 redefining Britain’s top luxury title alongside Vogue’s characterful Editor, Edward Enninful.
It is easy to imagine Kingori (or Mama Kingori, as Enninful playfully calls her, after one of the industrious women he was surrounded by growing up – “they were constantly stashing away banknotes in their bras” – Kingori explains, mimicking the action) creating great relationships with brands. Her gentle, friendly manner and humility is arresting. She talks a lot about the luck involved in her career journey – incidental breaks and unexpected progressions– before eventually admitting: “I have worked really hard. Any opportunity I’ve been given, I really try to make the most of it, even if it was unplanned.”
After moving quickly up the ranks in the Evening Standard’s commercial team, Kingori went on to Esquire and then spent eight years at GQ (where she was also the first female Publisher) before rising to her position at Vogue. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. “I faced challenges to do with being first generation,” she says. “No one in my family is interested in fashion or press careers. And when I started, there were so many people [in the industry] who were legacy, which meant that they came at things in the traditional way, whereas I’ve had to figure it out the long way and created my own paths to success.”
Vogue has gone from being this iconic brand and title that represented beautiful things and clothes, to really focusing much more on the women in the clothes
But figure it out she did – moving up the ladder at a young age and at speed. “My career moved faster than other people’s and that sometimes ruffled feathers,” she explains, later clarifying that she began as an ad girl back in the era of the fax machine. “I’m ancient,” she laughs, her ageless skin and bright, doe eyes suggesting the opposite.
Legacy players, ladders and fax machines aside, she has now reached the media summit and is currently blessed with what she describes as her “best working relationship to date” with Enninful. The Editor is hilarious, but hardworking. “He has an immigrant’s work ethic,” she says. “If you know any immigrants or you were brought up in a family like this, there is this sense of seizing the new opportunity.” She also describes Enninful as “disarmingly nice and kind,” (a team mantra, perhaps?) but toughened from his time on the fast-paced New York scene.
2018 was the pair’s first year in situ, and it was a transformative period for the publication. “Vogue has gone from being this iconic brand and title that represented beautiful things and clothes, to really focusing much more on the women in the clothes,” Kingori explains. “When you start looking at who the woman is, you begin to represent women better. I think it’s much more empowering now and much more thought-provoking. Many more zeitgeist conversations are happening now.”
So, who is the archetypal Vogue cover girl, these days? If recent issues are anything to go by, she is a long way from the teenage catwalk models that frequented the covers of the last decades. This month’s magazine features 81-year-old Jane Fonda as its cover star, and is fittingly titled the ‘Non-Issue’. It is a perfect example of how the publication now prominently features those who were previously marginalized: older women, larger women and women of colour. Kingori gives this strategy the tagline “normalizing the marginalized”- a phrase made popular at Vogue by Enninful.
“We had Oprah on the cover and nobody thought about her being 64,” she says proudly (Oprah is high on Kingori’s hero list). “Having women of colour on the covers doesn’t feel in any way odd now. It was really lacking before – it just wasn’t there. Having women who are plus size in the mix, without too much fanfare is also really important” she adds.
Kingori and Enninful have been re-thinking Vogue’s formula in a big way. They are also aware that the concept of luxury has expanded: “the thinking-woman’s luxury” (another of their sound bites) is about more than just glamorous clothes. “Women who like beautiful dresses also like to read great novels, listen to interesting music and think about their future,” Kingori explains. “We still work with the existing luxury brands, but we also work beyond this definition of luxury. There are new luxuries, too: time is one of those luxuries, health is another and general well-being another.”
The pair have also combined this new editorial approach with a greatly enhanced digital strategy. The Vogue “collective”, as Kingori refers to the team, has expanded the brand’s web and social presence, increased the use of branded content, and hugely extended events offerings for brands, all part of a much needed digital revamp. “It [digital] had been an underdeveloped area of Vogue,” the publishing maestro explains.
So, has it worked? In a word – absolutely; the overhaul has significantly increased both magazine circulation and online audiences, with the revenue gained from each platform also on the up. Events revenue for 2018 was up 3,000% on 2017 and the magazine’s digital revenue doubled in that year. “There were many people who thought: I’m not sure this is going to work, maybe don’t mess with such a big brand,” says Kingori. But the numbers speak for themselves; Vogue was clearly ready and waiting to be dragged into 2019’s diverse and digital sphere.
Kingori and Enninful are now steering the biggest household name in luxury towards a bright, progressive future. So how does the pregnant publisher feel about her imminent maternity leave? “It feels great. It is the most powerful I’ve ever felt. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than creating a life,” she says. “This also gives me this great opportunity to show other women and organizations that this can be done. You can be brilliant at your career and you can excel and be a mother,” she adds.
A really strange disparity between the portrayal of men and women has existed for a long time. It is really harmful to both genders, but through the media we can change a lot of that
The Vogue executive is reluctantly aware that she is now a role model – both in the social media sense and more broadly – and that this title carries a responsibility. “I think it’s important that once you reach a position where you have visibility, or sway and influence, that you try to affect change and try to help in whatever way you can,” she says, before clarifying that she is only political with a small ‘p’.
Kingori currently mentors school-age children on career choices (advice she had little access to herself), and is also working to change how women are represented in advertising. The day I meet her, she is giving a talk at City Hall as part of an initiative on seeing women differently in ads. “A really strange disparity between the portrayal of men and women has existed for a long time. It is really harmful to both genders, but through the media we can change a lot of that,” she says.
It’s easy to believe that she will make these changes, and more, given her achievements to date. Kingori’s refreshing, liberal approach and her clearly tenacious work ethic makes you wonder what might be next for the publishing superstar after Vogue. But while she remains at Vogue House, you can be sure that Britain’s biggest fashion title will continue to move in the right direction – breaking down barriers, upholding diversity and acknowledging the ‘thinking’ woman in the clothes. Here’s to Vogue’s exciting new chapter and hats off to Mama Kingori.
What I love is that they are not screaming for attention but they get it because they are beautifully made. People always comment on them.