Lindsay Peoples Wagner wants to further empower younger Americans to stake their rightful societal claim.
Lindsay Peoples Wagner, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue and writer of the groundbreaking New York magazine piece “What It’s Really Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion,” spoke to students in the University’s fashion merchandising and management (FMM) program about diversity and inclusion in the digital-media space and much more on Oct. 6.
During the virtual event, titled “The Time Is Now for Brands to Change,” Wagner also spoke about a career trajectory that saw her become one of America’s youngest editors-in-chief in 2018, after which she set out to shape the publication into an ascendant platform for youth-driven change. Watch her whole talk here.
In advance of the event, Peoples Wagner—who was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this year—discussed her path to her current position, how and why younger Americans have galvanized to take action to improve societal ills, and how Teen Vogue made its way into its unexpected journalistic space.
Talk about the career trajectory that ultimately brought you from being an intern at Teen Vogue to fashion editor at The Cut to editor-in-chief at the publication where you interned.
I am currently editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue and cofounder of the Black in Fashion Council. I also spent a lot of time working at New York magazine and The Cut. Through that, I established a sense of the work I wanted to do (as editor in chief): not only fashion, but stories that spark culturally relevant conversations that many are scared to have.
The “What It’s Like to Be Black and Work in Fashion” article pivoted things for me moving forward in the industry. When I got to Teen Vogue in 2018, a lot of my thinking editorially was based on the idea that too many people traditionally think that if you care about fashion, you only want to read certain things. That’s old-age thinking. It was important to focus on giving young people the ability to be seen, heard and have their voices amplified.
The way we approach content is being less scared than other publications. There are so many things going on in younger people’s lives that weren’t being addressed or talked about.
–Lindsay Peoples Wagner
Culturally, I care about fashion. I also love being creative. I also really care about the world, and topics like sustainability, climate change, the election. Young voices shouldn’t be taken for granted. We care about all of these things.
How has Teen Vogue entered the national conversation by writing pieces that seemed unexpected from the publication?
A lot of it has been through how we report, how we talk to our audience. People were really talking down to younger people and not taking them seriously. We made it a point to put Greta Thunburg on the cover. We’ve featured Malala Yousafzai on the cover. These are issues and people we care about—that our readers care about. But, we’ve also had Lil Nas X on the cover, and that’s important. We want to be everywhere culture is, to avoid the old ways of thinking.
Our goal is to appeal to young people, from high school through young adulthood and beyond, to make sure we’re having the deeper conversations. We delve into relatively complicated issues, such as the complexities of immigration. A lot of research goes into these articles but then, on social media, we’ll use graphics to make it easier to understand. These are world issues and things that really matter.
Some people were being stubborn in their own ways, but they now understand that they don’t want to be left behind. This isn’t just a passing moment in time.
–Lindsay Peoples Wagner
The way we approach content is being less scared than other publications. There are so many things going on in younger people’s lives that weren’t being addressed or talked about. Young people have the tools to grasp these things. We won’t shy away from issues because they’re uncomfortable to some.
You will be speaking to Jefferson FMM program students about diversity and inclusion. How does that play out in the field?
Much of this is from a personal journey; that no one before me has done what I want to do. People in fashion like to say that they’re progressive and forward thinking, and that has manifested itself in “size inclusivity.” But sometimes, these efforts are one-offs. It’s the lens we see everything through. It needs to be holistic, not just a one check-box effort. So many publications and brands have expanded their sizing, but to them, that must mean sizes 10 or 12, but with a flat stomach. No. At Teen Vogue, we’re shooting a size 24. We’re not just dipping a toe in. We’re going all in.
Do you feel as if companies are doing this because they’re pressured to, as opposed to approaching it with a passion for substantive change?
Brands are afraid of getting called out, but there is a shift happening out there. So much research has found that inclusivity is good business. It helps the bottom line. Draws in buyers and viewers. Some people were being stubborn in their own ways, but they now understand that they don’t want to be left behind. This isn’t just a passing moment in time.
We need to work so people face classism, racism, all those hurdles head-on. There are so many barriers to get to the next level.
–Lindsay Peoples Wagner
Talk about diversity and inclusion in the digital-media space and beyond.
Right now, every brand is having conversations about diversity and inclusion. We need systemic change, not just something that’s happening right now. It’s not just this year. Everyone needs to be having long-lasting conversations this year, next year and the years after that to find sustainable changes that they can commit to. Walk the talk.
If you’re donating money, but not opening the doors to provide opportunities, that’s not good enough. We need to be put in positions of success. Diversity numbers are good, but people need to feel as if they’re included and their voices amplified. It’s about putting policy into practice. It’s been building for a while, but enough is enough. We’re now at the point where people demand to see tangible action, and that’s not going away.
How does that apply to the fashion merchandising and management world?
Roles in fashion are vast and wide. Young people of color need to have those opportunities, to be exposed to other people. Companies should invest in them at the early stage. The realities of my experience are that most jobs in fashion are low-wage when starting out, and there’s no fixed timeline to advance. We need to work so people face classism, racism, all those hurdles head-on.
This is an opportunity to have conversations with your family, in your community and at your workplace. This should not be a one-off effort.
–Lindsay Peoples Wagner
There are so many barriers to get to the next level. That’s why it’s really exciting to have a chance to talk to everyone about my experiences, the hurdles I have overcome and offer advice to Jefferson students.
What opportunities can you see emerging from these current difficult times?
The conversations taking place now are long overdue and 100 percent necessary. The opportunities are endless. It’s not enough to just host an MLK Day event or make donations if you’re not making real changes in your life. This is an opportunity to have conversations with your family, in your community and at your workplace. This should not be a one-off effort. These issues are very real to everyone now. Reading about racism is one thing; take the time to understand what it’s like to live with it every day, and use your position to make things better for others.