“Every day feels like: ‘Don’t mess this up,’” said Lindsay Peoples Wagner, the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, this past spring. She was in her 25th-floor office at One World Trade Center, where the walls were lined with photographs and a publicist hovered.
This was not quite two years after she published an article in New York magazine called “What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion,” in which she interviewed 100 black industry professionals at nearly every level and corner of the fashion business; not quite two years after she had had “some of the most authentic, and often tearful, conversations about the pains of racism,” according to the article.
And it was not quite two years after Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast, who was looking for a new Teen Vogue editor, emailed her with a blank subject line, asking to meet. “I rushed around to buy an outfit and get my hair done,” said Ms. Peoples Wagner, who wore a floral Prada dress.
“‘If you’re going to be in this industry,’” Ms. Peoples Wagner recalled her mother telling her, “‘you’re going to have to be what you needed.’”
This month Ms. Peoples Wagner, 29, is celebrating her first anniversary as the youngest editor in chief of a Condé Nast magazine. She is also the company’s third black editor at the top of an American title.
If the first version of Teen Vogue was largely a shrunk-down version of adult Vogue, and a recent version was laced with politics, Ms. Peoples Wagner’s is something else: one that is focused on fashion but also putting “people in the publication that I felt like other publications were too scared to,” she said. At least, publications in the mass-readership space of a glossy web entity.
“Being the only black, female editor in chief in this industry, you carry a lot of responsibility with that,” she said in a phone call this week. She was on her way to Los Angeles for the Teen Vogue Summit, the live event she is remaking. “I think I’ve made a lot of decisions that other people would never take the risk to make.”
From Wisconsin to Manhattan
Ms. Peoples Wagner grew up in Brown Deer, Wis., and it was at her private suburban junior high school that she became acutely aware of race.
The mainstream media in the 2000s for teenage girls was a fever dream of homogeneity; an era of denim miniskirts and Uggs, “The Hills,” “The O.C.,” when editors across all major glossies rotated the same young white starlets between covers.
There were, of course, other lesser-known women on television who shaped Ms. Peoples Wagner’s ideas about beauty, success and identity. If you were a young, black woman in the early 2000s, you got a crash course in what it was like to be a career-minded African-American woman managing life and love thanks to shows like “Girlfriends,” “Half & Half” and “Eve.”
Black millennial women filmmakers like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe have publicly discussed how black sitcoms have shaped the work they produce today.
But “I knew something was a little off,” Ms. Peoples Wagner said of the experience of attending a predominantly white school. It was a jarring contrast to the black church in which she grew up, and it was an experience that continued through college at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, a city that is “literally surrounded by cornfields” she said.
A professor suggested she apply for a role as an intern in Teen Vogue’s fashion closet during her winter break, and after graduation she returned to the magazine as an employee, working full-time while also waitressing and moonlighting in retail.
“When I started at Teen Vogue, it was such a struggle for me,” Ms. Peoples Wagner said. “I’d never cried that much in my life. I felt like this industry would never open its doors to people like me.”
After two years, she moved to Style.com. At the time, she said, fashion and reporting were viewed as separate worlds: “I just didn’t agree.” In 2015, she started at The Cut, New York Magazine’s women-centric vertical, as a fashion market editor.
“She was very ambitious right out the gate,” said Stella Bugbee, the editor in chief and president of The Cut. “She was really excited about featuring new talent and undiscovered talent. She would come to me on a regular basis with a roster of people and say, ‘This person is going to be a really big person.’ I trusted her because she was always right.”
Asked about Ms. Peoples Wagner, Ms. Wintour wrote in an email: “Who better to inspire a whole new generation of Teen Vogue readers to be passionate and proactive about their world than Lindsay?”
Exclusivity? This Vogue Is the Opposite
“I’m not one of those editors in chief who pretends to have it all together and be perfect. I think that makes it more human and more approachable, and makes people want to read Teen Vogue more,” Ms. Peoples Wagner said on the phone. “I think that everything that we’ve done has really been a lot of things that I wish would’ve been around when I was younger, and that I think are really helping young people in shaping their worldview in a positive way.”
She has focused on highlighting new names in the most inclusive sense. She hired Sophia Wilson, a 19-year-old photographer she contacted via Instagram direct message, to shoot a Fenty Beauty article for the publication’s September issue.
“It feels like for so long the fashion industry has been focusing on white photographers,” Ms. Wilson said. “Giving jobs to women of color, especially young women of color, is so important.”
Ms. Peoples Wagner started with a “Young Hollywood” cover featuring seven actors and actresses including Indya Moore and Yalitza Aparicio. Before that, Teen Vogue had never had a trans person of color on the cover, she said earlier this year.
Then came Lil Nas X, the face of this year’s music issue. “A lot of people were posting about him and writing about him because he had a No. 1 song but weren’t giving him the editorials,” Ms. Peoples Wagner said. “So for us to give him his first cover as a young, black, queer artist is probably the best thing I could probably do.”
During New York Fashion Week, Ms. Peoples Wagner created an initiative known as Generation Next that highlighted a diverse set of designers like Anifa Mvuemba of the brand Hanifa and Georgia Fallon of Dyke Sport.
Despite conversation about diversity and inclusion, and advances in representation made on the runway, “I still go to events and P.R. people are shocked that I’m black,” said Channing Hargrove, a fashion news editor at Refinery29.
How fast that changes — if it does change — and how much of that Ms. Peoples Wagner can effect, is one of the questions facing her next. As she is well aware.
A Crazy 12 Months
This has been a year of navigating firsts for Ms. Peoples Wagner. One of those was the Costume Institute Gala (you know it as the Met Ball).
She wore a metallic dress with multicolored ruffles by the designer Rosie Assoulin, a friend, in part because Ms. Assoulin “dresses a lot of women of color first that a lot of other brands didn’t loan to in the beginning,” Ms. Peoples Wagner said.
She speaks from experience, and recalled once asking designers to loan clothes for a photo shoot with Issa Rae for The Cut. It was before the premiere of the HBO series “Insecure,” and, Ms. Peoples Wagner said, “It was like fighting tooth and nail with these brands to get in clothes.”
So far, Ms. Peoples Wagner’s efforts seem to be paying off, not just in clothes, but in web traffic. In July of this year, Teenvogue.com had about 10.5 million unique visitors, its highest number since at least September 2017, according to comScore data.
Condé Nast as a whole is still, in many ways, trying to get its bearings. The company lost more than $120 million in 2017. Over the past few years, the company has laid off staff, shuttered the print version of several titles (including Teen Vogue in 2017), sold others — such as W Magazine and Brides Magazine — reportedly subleased office space in its One World Trade headquarters, and consolidated its United States and international operations.
Yet the role of editor in chief, particularly at a mainstream beauty and fashion publication, is still a prestigious post. It’s just that today for young, ambitious people it often isn’t the destination, but maybe a layover on the way to more flexible and more lucrative pastures.
Elaine Welteroth, for example — one of Ms. Peoples Wagner’s predecessors as Teen Vogue editor — has spoken openly about how much more money she makes in her post-magazine career.
“Leaving the magazine business and working for myself has been an exponential leap in terms of earnings,” Ms. Welteroth said in a recent interview with The Cut.
Eva Chen, formerly of Lucky Magazine (and Teen Vogue), is now a children’s book author and head of fashion partnerships at Instagram.
Ms. Peoples Wagner, too, recently published a book, “Becoming a Fashion Designer,” a project she started before she signed on to Teen Vogue, but she is firmly focused on her day job. “We have one of the most inclusive, diverse staffs” of any Condé Nast magazine, she said. “Most of the people that I’ve hired have been women of color. And I’m really proud of that.”
And yet, she had said, back in her office, “If I had a daughter, I don’t know if I would want her to be in this industry.”
“I’d like to think that if I continue to make these changes and continue to implement these things, and show black girls with cornrows and Afros on covers, that maybe she would feel more included than I did,” she said. “That, to me, is success.”
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