Teen Vogue's Elaine Welteroth on Diversity in Fashion: 'Where’s the Pipeline for the Next Generation?'

The 'Teen Vogue' Beauty and Health Director spoke with activist Bethann Hardison about her career, race and the unexpected success of her August 2015 cover spotlighting models of color.
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The 'Teen Vogue' Beauty and Health Director spoke with activist Bethann Hardison about her career, race and the unexpected success of her August 2015 cover spotlighting models of color.
Elaine Welteroth (left) with Bethann Hardison (right) at the NYFW HQ. Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Elaine Welteroth (left) with Bethann Hardison (right) at the NYFW HQ. Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

CFDA award-winner Bethann Hardison hosted a discussion with Teen Vogue Health and Beauty Director Elaine Welteroth on Monday at NYFW HQ, one of New York Fashion Week's new locations, as part of her initiative Balance Diversity. "You have to keep nudging them," Hardison told the audience. "You have to keep doing it or they're going to feel like they don't have to." According to the model-turned-agent-turned-activist, "they" are the casting directors, stylists and designers who control the diversity — or lack thereof — seen on the runways during Fashion Month.

In August, Welteroth penned the feature story behind that month's Teen Vogue cover, which named young models Aya Jones, Lineisy Montero and Imaan Hammam as "fashion's new faces." Welteroth credited Amy Astley, the magazine's editor-in-chief, for the idea to spotlight up-and-coming models of color. (Astley also featured Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn at the very start of their careers on Teen Vogue's November 2009 cover.) "I feel really lucky and grateful to work with someone who empowers me to do what I can do to push this conversation forward," said Welteroth.

Upon its release, Teen Vogue's August cover stirred up a nationwide conversation among its readers (both old and new) and on the Internet and social media. "In terms of the results, that cover was one of our most successful covers of the year. The one with unknown models blew off the newsstands," Welteroth excitedly explained. "The reason was because we opened our demographic. Parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles were picking five, six copies to give to their nieces and daughters."

Although the Teen Vogue editor celebrates an increase in the influence of people of color thanks to more non-white models in editorials and brand campaigns, public figures like Serena Williams and Misty Copeland and such popular shows as Empire and Blackish, there is still more work to do, especially in publishing.

Welteroth started her career at Ebony and Glamour before joining Teen Vogue and becoming the first African-American beauty director at Condé Nast in 2012. In the audience at NYFW HQ were Simone Oliver (The New York Times), Nikki Ogunnaike (Elle.com) and Julee Wilson (Huffington Post), who also climbed the ranks of their respective mastheads alongside Welteroth. "We are here and that's important. That means something for the next generation to be able to see this power structure behind the scenes change," she said. But here's the caveat: "Many of us are the only ones [within each power structure]. Where's the pipeline for the next generation?"

For starters, that pipeline can begin with mentorship, something that's especially valuable in the publishing industry. Programs like Ed2010 and ASME Next regularly host happy hours, workshops, networking events and panels for junior-level editors. Organizations like these could plan a few of those sessions for executive and senior editors like Welteroth, Oliver, Ogunnaike and Wilson to share their work experiences with aspiring students and young editors. It may be a small stride for diversity in the fashion realm, but a stride nonetheless.

Of course, it's not only people of color who can make an impact. "Everyone in this room has a responsibility to keep this conversation going," said Welteroth. "You're a person of this generation and have a role to play in elevating the consciousness around this particular topic." Noted, loud and clear.