Vanessa Kingori MBE is nothing if not extraordinarily impressive. Are you ready?
In 2016, in recognition of her incredible career, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. She’s the first female publisher in British Vogue’s 103 year-long history (she’s the commercial counterpart to the magazine’s first male editor, Edward Enninful). She has a degree in management and sociology. She’s worked everywhere from Matches to the Evening Standard to GQ (where, in fact, she became the youngest and first female publisher of GQ, and Condé Nast UK’s first black publisher). She was named one of Britain’s overall Most Influential Black Britons for the past five years by Powerlist magazine, and she was appointed to Sadiq Khan’s Brexit Expert Advisory Panel.
Yet, before all of this, Kingori says the only role she was ever sure she wanted was to be a mother (her own mother is a celebrated midwife). Yet, her journey to motherhood was not without its challenges. She suffered a series of miscarriages, at a time where her career was taking off, and she suffered in silence. It wasn’t until her son Charles, now 14 months, arrived, that the full impact of her grief was felt.
Kingori is our guest this week on The Grace Tales Podcast, in conversation with our founder Georgie Abay. Here, we share some of our favourite moments from the Podcast, along with the images we recently captured of Kingori with her son in London. There are so many fantastic takeaways from the episode, and one of them is the importance of meaningful, impactful work. And no one is more placed to talk about this than Vanessa, who alongside Edward, has transformed the Vogue business, championing more diversity and inclusion, both within the office and on the pages of the magazine.
Perhaps one of the most warming things about Kingori, is that nothing feels off-limits. Whether you’re talking about the big issues – leadership, anti-racism, making real change – or the little things like avoiding a toddler’s puree covered hands when you’re trying to get out the door to work, she’s an open book. This is one of our favourite episodes to date.
You were born in Kenya to a Kenyan father and you spent your early years in St. Kitts in the Caribbean where your mother was from, before moving to London at the age of seven. What do you remember about those early years of your childhood and how did it feel arriving in London?
I certainly remember feeling different everywhere. In Kenya, my father marrying my mother was extremely unusual. He went off to London and came back with this wife from a different place and whose family were very traditional and had expectations of him marrying quite differently. So we were really unusual there and then when we moved to St. Kitts, my sister and I had Kenyan accents and there is not a huge amount of immigration in St. Kitts, particularly at that time, so they would call us, “African girls.”
We were kind of exotic there and then by the time I moved to London at seven, our accents were completely screwed up. You couldn’t place them anywhere. We were quite used to being different and, on reflection, I do think that it has prepared me quite a lot for my life now and entering into new spaces as a woman, as a person of colour and not feeling uncomfortable with being different. I also just remember being incredibly happy growing up, particularly in St. Kitts where I spent my formative years and I could run, walk free and wild.
You had a fabulous university job working part-time at Matches with Tom and Ruth Chapman. What did the Chapmans teach you about business?
I worked there for several years after I left university and it was brilliant. The way that they ran their business was so revolutionary. What they really emphasised was the power of great relationships, internally and externally, so well before the e-commerce revolution, they were talking about building relationships. We had a great database of our clients and knew not only what they had shopped and liked, but also what their favourite drink was, what colours they liked… We would offer customers coming in their favourite champagne, their favourite coffee and so on before they even started to shop.
It was such great fun because I was working with my best friends and our clients became great friends as well because we knew each other so well and that model has really stayed with me, the idea that relationships underpin all great business and that I think work should also be really enjoyable for all parties involved. Of course, sometimes it’s going to be tough and intense, but by and large, it should be about meaningful interactions. I learnt this that without ever realising it and I hadn’t realised how much it was in my subconscious in the way I worked until relatively recently. I think probably when I was at GQ, which was the third of my big media jobs, I realised that my approach to building and maintaining my client relationships was quite different to others around me and that probably came from them.
You then went on to work at the Evening Standard as the co-head of magazines. What did this experience teach you?
National press is extremely fast-paced and male-dominated. It’s a daily paper and I really think that working at a daily paper helped me in the digital age and how fast things move digitally. On a monthly, for example, we feel that things are moving really fast but ultimately you have a lot of time to turn things around and move things about. It was shouty, loud, boisterous and extremely masculine and I had to reset myself very quickly. I had gone to an all-girl Catholic convent school and then to university with friends and I was very much a girl gang kind of girl and then suddenly, I was in this very boisterous, very male environment that moved fast and required you to be agile and I was just absolutely different in every way there, but people embraced me and I enjoyed it. The head of magazines was going on maternity leave and asked me to step up, to head up the magazines with another person, which when I look back on it, was completely insane because I’d been there for months and I had no media experience, but I just really took to it. It was incredibly fast learning, there were lots of mistakes made but it was so much fun. I loved it.
You are the first female publisher in the 103-year history of British Vogue. How did it feel stepping into this role and do you think you approach it differently as a woman?
I do think I approach it differently as a woman, although I try not to stereotype based on gender. I definitely feel that there was this unwitting idea that a male businessman is a safe pair of hands and I don’t think people know that they think that, but the types of figures who had been the publishing directors before me were kind of ex-military types who wore suits and were of an age that seemed learned, I suppose. My predecessor was 74 when I took the role. On GQ, my predecessor was ex-military. He was in his 50s. He wore grey suits every day and he looked like he could read a spreadsheet. So there I was in my, city streetwear, and people just could not compute. It didn’t fit with their understanding or stereotypes of what a business leader looked like.
There was a lot of work just to inspire confidence, even though my track record at GQ was, I’m not embarrassed to say, pretty exceptional. There had been big business transformations. The good thing about the business side of what we do is that the numbers don’t lie. I was definitely qualified for the role.
I have never been interested in being pigeonholed by anyone else. So I think it almost made me go into slightly more elaborate outfits and if I want to wear miniskirts, despite the fact that I’m a business lead, I will, and it’s your job to take me seriously. I have to do the work, but it’s your job to have your misconceptions challenged, not my job to change who I am and how I operate in order to make you more comfortable.
Your mother taught you not to expect things to be fair but to work towards them being fair. What has your experience been with fairness?
It’s quite a controversial thing in some ways for a mother to say to me, but it’s been one of the best armours for me. The world isn’t fair at the moment and we’re in a moment, where isolation and social distancing and so on has given us space to really think about, how can we level playing fields and make things better? Because the truth is, they aren’t level. It’s a human desire to want things to be fair.
If you look at little kids, you’ve got two kids and if someone snatches the other’s toy, the first thing they say is, “Mummy, that’s not fair.” So it’s easy for us to go into all situations wanting them to be fair but if they aren’t, and that can’t be easily corrected, it can really play on your mental health and that’s what she meant. I now don’t have the expectation that I will be treated fairly in every situation and every room. That doesn’t mean that I tolerate it, but it means that it doesn’t hurt to the same degree and there isn’t an element of surprise when things are not a level playing field, but by no means does that mean that I’m willing or happy to accept it.
In the last few years since Edward took the role of editor-in-chief, there's been a shift towards bringing more diversity and inclusion into the business and into Vogue, both within the office and on the pages of the magazine. What has it felt like to be part of this evolution of British Vogue?
It has felt like everything I’ve ever wanted throughout my career has just finally happened. Edward and I were on the same page about not wanting to create something that looked different, but that was different, where many different viewpoints were celebrated, and we could create this amazing cocktail of different perspectives. What we wanted to do was potentially quite controversial, which was dispelling a lot of myths that had long been held in magazines, of what wouldn’t sell and so on. To do that, we needed commercial success. The only way that people would really understand that these moves and having more diverse content and covers and people of difference, was if it translated into better sales, higher revenue and so on.
In recent times, British Vogue has shattered some longstanding myths such a magazine won’t sell if it has a person of difference is on the cover…
I’ve been in countless cover meetings and magazine meetings where these myths would be discussed and as a person of difference, as the only person of difference in the room sometimes, you would just say, “I’m just not sure.” And this is not just in women’s magazines, by the way. To be in a position now where we can dispel those myths is incredible. Women and people over 50 really work on covers, because most people are looking for life inspiration. We just had Judi Dench on the cover of British Vogue as our oldest cover star and that was a smash hit. Why? Because people want to know, what’s the formula of her life? Is there a blueprint in there for me?
One of the things I remember being told is that a black woman can look at a white woman and see that she’s beautiful and aspire to be like her in some way, but no white woman would ever look at a black woman and aspire to be her and that’s why you don’t have very many black women on the covers of magazines. I just thought that’s mad. To prove that wrong, Rihanna was our first woman of colour on a September issue for British Vogue in the history of the magazine and at that time, it became the best-selling September issue ever. It’s just really incredible to see that the public are so much smarter, more nuanced and inquisitive than perhaps our industry has given them credit for.
Right now, there's a lot of information on anti-racism available. What are some of the key messages that you want to see pushed more?
It’s really amazing what’s happening at the moment and I really truly hope that there doesn’t become fatigue around this anti-racism conversation, because the conversation is really difficult for everyone to have. It’s tiring and often they don’t make either party in the conversation feel great. Nobody wants to feel that they’ve unwittingly been making mistakes for their career and much of their lives and on the flip side, it’s hard to open up and explain some of your negative experiences. For me, the biggest thing is that I would love there to be more open conversation and understanding. For far too long, the conversation around race has centered so much around language and not enough around action, improvement and empathy and so what I’ve seen is this fear and defensiveness on both sides.
I really feel like white communities and white friends are so scared of having conversations about race because they’re so scared of getting it wrong, of using the wrong terminology and being cancelled because they didn’t say the right words, but they meant the right thing. That is really debilitating because if people can’t have a conversation, we can’t get to the bit where we learn and I think for black communities and for people of colour, we’ve been taught for so long that it’s just not going to make you popular to talk about race, you’re not going to progress. I was taught that it’s more important to progress and to create space for new people than to sound out prejudice and to call it out. The change comes when you get into different spaces. It’s been quite counterintuitive to me to speak really openly about race because you’re scared of being accused of playing the race card. You’re scared of it hindering your opportunities because people don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable in your presence and so for both sides, it’s very difficult, but we have to facilitate conversations.
The really promising thing is that in my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. There have been protests in the past and moments that have sparked an awakening of the consciousness but nothing like this where people are coming out and saying, “I’ve got it wrong. I’m so sorry.” Where people are coming out and saying, “What else can we do?” For me, this is just really amazing. It’s exciting and I just am praying to all of the gods that we just continue in this vein.
I know that a lot of your work is on future-proofing the Vogue brand and continuing to move past print and when you came on board, some people said that you had an easy job. You pointed out that nothing lasts forever - tell me about future-proofing such an iconic brand...
We’re so emotionally connected to magazines and every time I hear about a magazine closing, even if they’re a “competitor” or what have you, I just feel so sad for the legacy of that brand and, of course, for the people who pour so much of their energy and their lives into creating them but for me, future-proofing is about creating agility and new ways of thinking. I do talk about something with my team and do something with my team called continuous learning. So back in the day, there were quite hierarchical structures in magazines, particularly in the publishing side of magazines where you had the boss who I explained before, usually straight, white male, suited, reads the FT and pours over spreadsheets and they had built the knowledge to run the brand throughout their careers and now they, top-down, told the rest of the team how to do it. For me, that doesn’t work anymore because you never finish learning, now more than ever. There’s always a new platform. There’s always a new way of communicating. There’s always a new trend with brands and so on and so this is where the whole idea of diverse perspective is so important.
It’s about having people around the table who can tell you new things, who can bring new ideas because they haven’t all gone to the same schools, they don’t all holiday in the same place, their family structure is not the same, their hobbies are not the same, their outlook on the world is different. Diversity of perspective thing is really integral for the future-proofing and I think just agility, this whole feeling of, we’re doing this now but tomorrow this may not be as important, and there might be something else.
The other big element around future-proofing Vogue is one of the mistakes I think that lots of media brands have made, who are legacy print brands, is the fight between print and digital, where digital is the future and print is the past and you have to choose one. So you have traditionalists who say, “I’m a magazine person through and through and I will be forever,” or, “Digital’s the future.” For me, our digital success has been incredible because the print magazine is really strong and people wanting to have it on the coffee tables is what drives a lot of our digital audience and social audience and so on. It’s not one or the other, but it’s about embracing all elements of the brand and making sure that we are delivering really great quality that is in keeping with the times across every platform.
I want to talk about your other job and that's being a mother and to your fourteen-month-old son Charles. You've spoken about and written about how the only role you were sure you wanted was to be a mother. Before Charles, you suffered a series of devastating miscarriages. How did you get through each pregnancy loss?
Not well, I have to say. I was in a really demanding job with predominantly men and so there was not a lot of space to grieve and so being very honest, what I did at that time was just push it down and get on with it and busy myself and of course, you think you’re getting through it really well and then it wasn’t until I was pregnant with Charles and the pregnancy was actually progressing that all of the grief started to slowly surface. After he was born, I processed a lot more of that because I realised that I had so much fear throughout my pregnancy because I just didn’t trust fully that I would make it to full term and I really, really want to encourage women to talk about it more. I was never embarrassed or anything like that. I just was not in a position where I could talk about it outside of my family and I avoided talking too much with my family because I needed to go back to work with a smile on my face.
On The Grace Tales, we talk a lot about how working mothers and all mothers make it work and you measure everything out in “units of Charles”. How does this work?
I’m not going to lie, it’s a big juggle, but it’s so amazing. I never wanted to compromise. I never wanted to be one or the other. I never saw why I had to be. My mother didn’t. So for me, I always knew I wanted to work and be a mother, but there’s a lot of compromise in that and there’s a lot of trading off but I just know that the way I feel when I’m with him and the way that he looks at me and how excited he is, is incredible. I always say to my partner, “I wish everyone had that look on their face when I walked into the room.”
Before I had Charles, I would prioritise going to every single event, which now seems kind of preposterous since this lockdown, but every current event, every industry event, I would feel like, I’ve got to show my face and now I re-evaluate that. Take meetings for example, before the lockdown, I would say, “Can we do this on a call?”. I’d do that call while I’m on the commute home and I just think about, is this meeting or interaction more important than that feeling that Charles will have to get an extra half an hour or 40 minutes or even 15 minutes with me? And is there another way that I can do both? I think that has been really good for my career as well because actually, what I’ve been able to do is just make much more of all of the time that I have. Productivity has definitely gone up and there’s so much less procrastination. I really do think, “Should I spend 15 minutes doing this or can I add 15 minutes to my time with him?”
I want to finish by asking you about your wardrobe because I know I'll get emails if I don't ask you a question about your wardrobe. I remember when I went back to Vogue after my first baby was born and I wouldn't put my outfit on until I was just about to leave the door because when they're eating puree and things like that, it always ends up on your clothes. Is your wardrobe divided into Vogue clothes and mum clothes?
It’s such an evolution, isn’t it? I still definitely am trying to just have one wardrobe and realising that perhaps it just doesn’t work because I don’t know about your kids but Charlie seems to have an absolute radar for if I’m wearing silk or cashmere or white. He definitely is coming at me with the spinach hand, the green gunk on it. I still want to wear all of my favourite things all of the time. I think that I’m very organised in how I dress and so on, just largely because of the time and that efficiency thing I was saying about.
Usually what I do is I have a rail. You can tell I’ve worked in fashion cupboards. But I will do a rail for the week and I put my outfits out, make sure that things are pressed and cleaned and dry cleaned and I might even put out some jewellery and the underwear that I’m going to wear and I found that to be even more important with Charles because if he has a rough night, in the morning when your heads just still scrambled and you can’t get enough caffeine in yet, you can just dress from that rail and know that you’ve not fluffed it. You know what I mean? You’re not going to, halfway through the day go, “Oh my God, what on Earth did I put on this morning?”. And what I’ll do is I’ll switch things in and out based on mood. So if I get up on Wednesday and I’m not feeling Wednesday’s outfit, I’ll take something else out but it’s just there as a backup. People probably think that’s quite weird but it’s so important for me to feel put together and my mother always would say to me, “The way that you feel in terms of how you look, you put lipstick on when you feel at your worst because looking good is like a smile, feeling good is…”
When you smile at someone, it’s very hard for them not to smile back at you. When you feel put together and you feel that you look good, irrespective of whatever anyone else feels, you’re giving off good energy and then, therefore, you tend to receive good energy back and that’s not based actually on how you look. It’s about how you feel and what you’re projecting. I do make an effort to try to be put together and feel confident but it’s definitely an evolution because some of the silks and the cashmere have to go for a while.