Lindsay Peoples Wagner on championing inclusivity at Teen Vogue

woman in white jacket against red background with head resting on hand

In 2018, Lindsay Peoples Wagner exposed years of discrimination in fashion in a single article; today, she’s using her role as editor in chief of Teen Vogue to champion inclusivity. And she’s just getting started...

By Jess Kelham-Hohler   Sunday 1 March, 2020

‘I felt very strongly that the article was something I had to do. I was scared, and I’m still scared today. A lot of things are scary when you are the only black person to say things.’

In August 2018, New York Magazine’s The Cut published an article by Lindsay Peoples Wagner that ripped the lid off racism in the fashion industry. For the first time, someone had convinced 100 people of colour to speak out on the discrimination they’d faced, from being pushed out of jobs to being asked if their family had been slaves. Within hours, the piece had sparked a social-media firestorm, capturing the attention of an enormous audience, including the monarch of Condé Nast herself, Anna Wintour. The author, however, had no idea what was going on. Six months of emotional interviews – ‘I’ve never heard that many people cry’ – combined with warnings that the article would blacklist her from ever getting another job, convinced Peoples Wagner to be far away when it was finally published. ‘I didn’t know how it would be received, but I needed a moment to be somewhere calming,’ she says. So, she escaped on holiday to Mexico with her husband, her phone hidden away.

Two months (and a summons to Wintour’s office) later, Peoples Wagner moved into her new office at Teen Vogue as the youngest editor in chief of a Condé Nast magazine and the third black editor ever to run one of its American titles. Under its predecessors, Elaine Welteroth and Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue had already gone through a massive reinvention, emerging after the 2016 presidential election as a platform for Gen Z and millennials to rebel against Trumpian politics and speak up on social issues. When Peoples Wagner landed the job, the magazine had also dropped its print issue to become the publisher’s first major title to go digital only, proving itself as forward thinking in the industry.
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‘Today, inclusivity is the lens through which we view everything,’ says Peoples Wagner. ‘From how we decide what we’re going to write about and what brands we’ll call in, to the assistants. We have to ensure change is implemented from top to bottom.’ For her first digital cover as editor in chief, she used the annual Young Hollywood issue to spotlight talent pushing the needle for representation, including Pose actress Indya Moore – the first black trans woman to appear on a Teen Vogue cover. Four months later, Lil Nas X, the young, black, queer rapper who dominated the charts with his hit Old Town Road, graced the cover for the music issue. It was his first magazine cover – since then, he’s landed five more. In January, he showed the love for Teen Vogue by including a framed print as part of his Grammys performance stage set.

As a teen growing up in Brown Deer, Wisconsin in the early 2000s, with a love of fashion shaped by television shows like The Hills and Girlfriends, Peoples Wagner’s aspiration was to have a boutique in downtown Milwaukee.

‘That was really all that felt possible at that time,’ she says. But while studying for a degree in media studies and communication at Buena Vista University, she discovered a talent for fashion writing and landed a college internship at Teen Vogue. Although the work was far from glamorous – ‘I was literally tidying the closet, schlepping clothes around and cleaning shoes’ – she was hooked. 

From the beginning, her mother warned her that it was going to be harder than she imagined, pointing out that most of the top positions were held by the white and privileged. This proved to be true – to afford her dream internship, Peoples Wagner took on two side jobs, working in a store and waitressing at a Tribeca restaurant. ‘Even if you do manage to get your foot in the door, you have a much harder time, because if you’re not dressing the part or going to the right things, it can look like you don’t take it seriously or care enough,’ she says. Ultimately, however, having to hustle is what gave Peoples Wagner her edge. ‘The drive has been me busting my ass. I may not be as wealthy as the next person, but I will outwork them any day,’ she says. This attitude propelled her to an assistant position at Teen Vogue and later the fashion market editor role at The Cut. By the time she’d secured the top job at the former, she was determined to follow the advice her mother had given her early on: ‘To be what I needed when I was younger.’ To this day, the only breaks appear to come on weekends, when Peoples Wagner insists on making absolutely no plans beyond cooking and spending time with her husband. ‘My best friend’s wedding last weekend was the first time I can remember breaking the rule,’ she explains.
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Seeing through her mother’s message means extending inclusivity beyond the covers. Where a 2010 teen may have turned to the magazine for stories about Hollywood’s hottest boys, today they expect to find a column on failure, alongside sex education tips for transgender teens. ‘We used to look at their experience from a surface level,’ says Peoples Wagner. ‘Now, we talk about abortions and nude selfies. If you don’t give them a place to get that information, as well as the tools to make their own decisions, you’re expecting young people to figure it out for themselves.’ 

The strategy seems to be paying off, with averaging 6.7 million monthly unique views, more than 13 million followers across social-media platforms, and more than 45 million video views across channels in 2019. ‘With digital, we can have fun with things, and if it doesn’t work out it’s not the end of the world,’ she says.

With no print magazine, Teen Vogue still strives to connect with its young readers beyond the screen. In addition to the annual Teen Vogue Summit – a day of interactive workshops and talks – last August, Peoples Wagner launched Generation Next, a new scheme that gives five up-and-coming young designers the opportunity to present their clothes during New York Fashion Week. ‘It had an incredible turnout and Anna [Wintour] was one of the first people there,’ says Peoples Wagner. ‘She went around to each designer and gave them advice – that’s something they’ll never forget.’

With so much already under her belt and more plans afoot, including a #TeenVote2020 project and content centred around young athletes for the upcoming Olympics, Peoples Wagner readily admits the pressure can take its toll. ‘This can be a really taxing job, and when you’re the only black female editor in chief [at Conde Nast], it can be very lonely. So, I’m most proud of myself for coming out of my first year energised and optimistic about this work.’

Despite these pressures, Peoples Wagner is adamant that she continues to be much more than just a figurehead for inclusivity. ‘When a lot of people do get a seat at the table, they take the approach of just feeling grateful, pushing the mentality of, “Now that I’ve got here, I’m going to say thanks and do whatever I’m told.” That doesn’t help you or anyone coming after you. You need to show that the person in that seat is going to speak up.’

Images by Mamadi Doumbouya
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