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Change your style. Change your industry. Change the outlook of the next generation. Kyla Marshell meets the trailblazing editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue.

They say that youth is wasted on the young but, at 29, Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner has managed to combine her fashion savvy, industry experience and unblinking passion to show the full breadth of what it means to be a young person today. In 2018, the Wisconsin native became Condé Nast’s youngest ever editor-in-chief, following the magazine’s lauded transformation from lip gloss and bubblegum into a hub of insightful political coverage on everything from climate change to Black Lives Matter. Having worked her way up from intern, to assistant, and now executive, Peoples Wagner exudes the confidence of someone who has earned the respect accorded her. Her office, with its many framed Teen Vogue covers and sleek marble and gold fixtures, feels like a manifestation of the style and courage she’s honed over the years—as does her outfit choice of a “weird” shiny green Prada coat over a bright red dress. Then there’s the magazine’s staff, right outside her glass doors—a far cry from the “white, female and blond” aesthetic that once populated these hallowed halls. She tells me about how it’s all part of her master plan.

At what point did you realize that you could have a career in fashion, and how did you go about making it happen?
Teen Vogue was my first magazine internship. At first, it was literally just schlepping and cleaning the closet. It wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it was going to be, as portrayed on TV. But I really loved the prospect of maybe one day making all the changes that I had dreamed about. I think having that as my first experience then [pushed] me into wanting to try other publications and see where I would go.

Were you discouraged by the whiteness at the magazine, and in the industry as a whole? Did it ever make you think that maybe this wasn’t the right industry for you?
When I finally got an assistant job, it became very real—the differences of being a black woman in fashion and when you’re not. Finances also play a huge part. I was only making minimum wage.

  • Words:
    Kyla Marshell
  • Photography:
    Zoltan Tombor
  • Styling:
    Jermaine Daley
  • Hair:
    Tamara Laureus
  • Makeup:
    Fatimot Isadare

“People have tried to put me in all these boxes. But there is no box.”

Obviously, making that and living in New York is not possible, especially working in fashion where you’re expected to look the best and wear designer. I was working two other jobs to make ends meet, and keep up with everybody else. During the day, I was here, helping stylists, going on shoots, and then at night I was either freelance writing or changing mannequins at DKNY. On the weekends, I waitressed. All, of course, while I had two roommates. It’s just not conducive to you being as fruitful as you would like to be because you’re having to do so many other things that other people aren’t. I do think that I got to that point where I was definitely discouraged and upset because I had a lot to bring to the table, but because I don’t come from a wealthy family or one that’s connected to this industry, I had to work 10 times harder. I want more inclusion of us in fashion, but it’s so hard to get the jobs and they don’t pay well. It’s a hard thing that’s not really solved yet.¹

What do you think is the core of the magazine’s identity that can’t be changed and what are the bits you can put your own spin on?
The core of it is that we want to be of service to young people. We want to be the place where they’re learning about things for the first time. Whether that’s a new brand or who’s running for president—we want to be that source, and that’s always been the case. For me, the vision has really been different because I’ve seen the brand over so many iterations of working here. Coming from working at The Cut and New York Magazine, I really just wanted to be culturally relevant and make our readers feel seen and heard. I want to give young people the tools to make their own decisions. It could be something like, If you want to send nudes to somebody, here’s what you should consider. We can talk about that, but in a smart way.

Did you have a resource like that when you were the same age as the current Teen Vogue demographic?
I don’t think anybody took young people as seriously as they do now. I remember all the publications being more surface-level when I was younger. I want us to have fun with fashion and all that, but everything has a purpose, everything has a reason. Everything—down to why I chose this photo, why I chose this dress designer, why it’s this person—is thought of.

Why do you think there’s more of a consideration for young people’s voices now?
I just think the world is a different place. With social media, people have an opportunity to speak their minds and have a platform they didn’t have before. In order to make effective changes in this political climate, people are realizing that they have to involve young people. It can’t just be this siloed conversation.

Do you identify as a young person?
No. [laughs]

NOTES

1. In August 2018, Peoples Wagner surveyed more than 100 black individuals, from assistants to executives, stylists, celebrities, models, and wrote an article for The Cut titled “What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion”.

2. Peoples Wagner is married to photographer Andre D. Wagner, who recently spent a day shooting Harlem icon Lana Turner for our feature.

What are you, then?
I don’t really know. I mean, I just turned 29 so I guess I would be a young person, but I think that my mind is not because I’ve had to go through so much in this industry and I’ve seen so much that it has aged me to not feel 29 at all. I’ve honestly never felt my age; even before this I’ve always felt a lot older.

What’s one change you’ve made recently that’s had an impact on you?
I stopped making plans on the weekends. It was actually my husband’s idea.² [For work], I’m always going somewhere, I’m always meeting someone, I’m always at an event, and I feel like I’m always on but I need time to just be, on my own. I found myself in this predicament where I was being present for a lot of people but not really for myself. Not promising to be with anyone other than myself on the weekends has been really helpful, because I come back to work refreshed.

This is a very image-driven industry that tends to focus on only one kind of beauty. How do you balance knowing that imagery is important without overinvesting in how you or someone else looks?
I take this work very seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously. I made the decision a long time ago that if I wasn’t going to be able to be my full, unapologetically black self, then I didn’t want it and I would go back to waitressing. I’m not in this for all of those superficial reasons. If I’m able to make changes in this industry and I have to put up with some of these weird things image-wise that I don’t want to do, fine, as long as I’m doing the work. I’ve had so many conversations with people being like, “You’re really brave to wear box braids as an editor-in-chief.” A lot of people get caught up in what other people think of them. But I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t really being who I want to be.

In addition to more inclusive hiring, what are some of the other changes you’ve made or plan to make at the magazine?
The industry overall needs a wake-up call on what inclusivity actually is. Yes, [we all] want to be “asked to dance” as they say, but I think it goes past that. It’s not just being thought of and having that seat at the table; it’s also using that seat at the table for good. It’s also those people at the table, who are usually white people, actually hearing you and letting you implement those choices. It’s about who I hire; but it’s also about who I put in a Young Hollywood lineup, and making sure that that’s really inclusive.

Besides hiring a great staff, we cover things in a way that other people are too scared to. We did a package called “The F Word”—F meaning fat. Most people when they’re doing a size-inclusive shoot only want to shoot people that are a size 10 or 12, and have an hourglass figure. That’s actually not size-inclusive. So we shot Tess Holliday and La’Shaunae Steward who are both above a size 20.

Have you heard from readers who have found this kind of coverage personally impactful?
Oh yeah. I get DMs all the time. It’s a lot of people telling me, “I wish I would have had this when I was younger.” It’s also the little things in how I present myself. I’m the only black editor-in-chief in the industry. I don’t look like anyone else. I’m not sample size, and I’m pretty outspoken. I think, then, people are interested in what I’m wearing and why, because if I’m wearing a designer, it’s intentional. You would never see me in Dolce [& Gabbana] because I’m not going to wear somebody that is racist and homophobic. [People] know that I’m that person.

It’s really cool to have those conversations with young girls, because I know it’s just an outfit, but they’re able to see it on somebody else and feel good about themselves. I think that all of those little things are important in making young people feel good and like they’re not alone in this world.

Has becoming editor-in-chief affected your personal style?
Every job I’ve had, I’ve gone through a style change. This is the first job where I’ve thought, What do I actually want to wear? And that’s very freeing. When I first worked here as an assistant, everybody wore beaded bracelets and it was like, This is a little bit much for my taste. But I just did it anyway because you want to fit in. I didn’t have the confidence to say, This looks bad on me. Then when I went to Style.com, everybody wore black all the time, so I wore black all the time. It was very serious, which is completely not my personality. When I went to The Cut and New York Magazine, I noticed that there were a lot of designers that everybody loved. I would try to buy them even if I knew that a brand didn’t look good on me. Toward the end of that phase of my life I felt like I wanted to be less of a people-pleaser, which I really struggled with when I was young. But that stopped recently. [laughs] I think this green Prada coat is so weird and people think it’s so weird but I love it. I don’t care.

Do you have a vision of the impact you hope to have down the line?
I want to wake up when I’m 40 and this not be a problem. I want to make this industry a better place—and I know that sounds super corny. I always find myself in a unique position because coming from a fashion background, but also writing, and also being an editor-in-chief, people have tried to put me in all these boxes. But there is no box, because what I want to do is make this more inclusive, better, and actually have it pop off in a way that every masthead is the most beautiful rainbow of all different kinds of people, and reflective of culture. That’s all I really want.

“In order to make effective changes in this political climate,
people are realizing that they have to involve young people. It can’t
just be this siloed conversation.”

  • Words:
    Kyla Marshell
  • Photography:
    Zoltan Tombor
  • Styling:
    Jermaine Daley
  • Hair:
    Tamara Laureus
  • Makeup:
    Fatimot Isadare

“In order to make effective changes in this political climate,
people are realizing that they have to involve young people. It can’t
just be this siloed conversation.”

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