In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
I always say that working in a closet at a big fashion magazine is the equivalent of taking an organic chemistry class for a pre-med student, but in the closet, your superiors are wearing Chanel instead of lab coats, and they want to know how quickly you can get the Miu Miu sample stuck in Paris to the shoot in LA, rather than the reactions of organic compounds. The point, however, is that they are both used as weeding out methods and only the strong and truly passionate about the end goal survive.
That's where Lindsay Peoples Wagner got her start in fashion less than a decade ago: In the closet at Teen Vogue, the same publication she was tapped to head up in October of this year. But since Peoples Wagner scored her first big internship at Teen Vogue, the glossy has proven itself a force in up-and-coming fashion and social commentary alike. So has Peoples Wagner, who published game-changing work on what it's like to be Black in fashion and the lack of race and size diversity in street style photography.
Prior to returning to Teen Vogue as its editor-in-chief, Peoples Wagner served as the fashion editor at New York Magazine's The Cut for three years, where she covered everything from dreamy plus-size wedding dresses to the best tinted sunscreens for darker skin tones and what a full-figured fashion week would mean to plus-size influencers. "For me, the role of fashion editor was never just going to appointments and doing market stories," she says. "It always meant more and having conversations about fashion culture and race."
Her work, which earned her an ASME Next Award for outstanding achievement by magazine journalists under the age of 30 in 2017, exudes authenticity and ingenuity. She's put inclusiveness and greater representation at the top of her style agenda, and she's continually demonstrated that an interest in fashion does not minimize one's intellect.
We hopped on the phone with Peoples Wagner ahead of the upcoming Teen Vogue Summit to chat about her early years in the fashion closet, working three jobs to make ends meet and what excites her about taking over at the publication where her career began. Read on for highlights.
What first interested you in fashion?
I always really loved fashion, but I grew up in Wisconsin; I did not see fashion as being a career that would make sense for me in reality, because I didn't know anyone that worked in fashion. My grandmother was actually the person that got me interested in fashion. She was my best friend growing up, and I spent summers with her. We would go to this all Black women senior citizen center and we would make clothes and rugs, and sew and knit and crochet. I spent a lot of my childhood just playing around with fashion and loving it as a passion. But it took me a really long time to figure out if I could make it into a career.
What made you realize that fashion can be a career, and what were your first steps?
When I went to undergrad, I chose a really small school in Iowa called Buena Vista University. I graduated from school early — I was only 17 at the time — so I spent a lot of time there exploring, taking art and journalism classes. One of my professors told me that I should try for this internship at Teen Vogue; it was posted on Ed2010. I literally just applied to go help at the Teen Vogue closet and that was my first internship. I really loved it, and I felt like my eyes had been opened to a whole new world of things that I wanted to do.
My mother spent a lot of time talking to me about how if I wanted to be in this creative field, then I needed to stand out. She was like, "If you're going to do this, then you need to be doing something different and dynamic and be what you needed when you were younger." I never saw myself in fashion, so when I started interning at Teen Vogue, it set me on this path that maybe I can do this and maybe I can make representation and inclusivity part of fashion.
After the Teen Vogue internship, how did you land your first job?
My first job was at Teen Vogue. I had come back and interned at Teen Vogue a couple of times. They used to have this Fashion's Night Out event that they did, so I would come and help for that. I stayed in contact with a couple of my old bosses, so I started working for Teen Vogue straight out of school — working in the closet, doing market requests and working on different fashion initiatives in that way.
What encouraged you to take the market route, and what did you like about being a market editor?
I felt like that was the route [you took] when you really liked fashion — you became a fashion editor. But there was something a little bit different for me when I left Teen Vogue and went to Style.com, because I was doing a lot of writing there and was exposed to the history and culture of fashion. Style.com was rooted in giving people a lot of background in where these crazy ideas come from and how they impact culture. Being at Style.com opened up my mind to the fact that, though I really liked styling and writing, it was really about creating these bigger ideas and talking about fashion in a larger way. It's not just, "Here are 10 trench coats for fall"; it can be something with substance. Though I always had that title, it was always more to me. Even when I went to The Cut, I did fashion stories and shopping stories, but it was always having it be about more than just clothes.
Moving from a market editor to editor-in-chief is a pretty big leap. How have your previous experiences prepared you for this new role?
In title, it's a big leap, but it's not actually a huge step, because I've always pushed the envelope and quite frankly, I've always worked twice as hard. It's in-line with everything I've been doing because I care about relationships and conversations and culture, and that's always been the case: to talk about style with an essence of substance. I do think that's all led me to being really well-rounded: I know how to style, I know how to write, I know how to do all these things. I also really care and I've spent a lot of time at this brand, so I think that it's really prepared me to create content that feels fresh and unapologetic.
What excites you about Teen Vogue and what the brand stands for?
We're in a really cool place right now as a brand. We built a space in the community to talk about relevant issues in politics and culture, and I'm excited to do that. We're going to continue to elevate and disrupt the conversation.
What excites you about the upcoming Teen Vogue Summit — one of your first big projects at the publication?
There's a lot of conferences now, but what makes ours really stand out is that we're having meaningful conversations with the next generation. We're providing a safe space to talk about representation and have gripping opinions on things that matter in the world. I'm really excited for the career immersion portion on the first day, because as someone who comes from the Midwest and didn't really have the opportunity to see all these different fields, it's a great chance for young people to see what it's actually like to work at places like Instagram. The second day we have an amazing line-up of leaders. I'm really excited for Serena Williams and Naomi Wadler, and we have a lot of interactive panels that will motivate young people. Just from hearing about previous summits, a lot of people have made lasting connections and I think it's cool to feel inspired and feel good about making a change in the world.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
Right now, it's so interesting because Instagram gives this idea of everyone in fashion having so much fun and living this fabulous life, which can be true, but I work hard. And I do not take that lightly. I've always pushed myself to be here and to be in a better space and to make it mean something. I was never in this just for the clothes or to look cute; I think that you really have to love it and you really have to bust yourself to be like, "How am I going to be different in this space?"
It's no secret that a lot of people in the creative industry come from a privileged background, whether it be economic or just having connections, and that can really change the trajectory of your career. For someone like me, when I first moved here, I was working full-time during the day at Teen Vogue. At night, I was changing mannequins at the DKNY store from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. and then on the weekends, I was working at a Jewish restaurant doing the brunch shift on Saturday and Sunday.
It was hard, and I wouldn't recommend that everyone works three jobs to make it work. But I say that to remind people that it has not been easy and it is not always going to be easy. And so for me, I knew there was no timeline. There was no: "I can be an assistant for this amount of time and then I'll be some fabulous editor and then I’m done." There's no blueprint of that and my career has surprised me. I always encourage people to work hard and to push themselves and do something that everybody else isn't doing.
What do you look for when you're hiring new people?
I'm looking for people that are hungry to do the work — not people who are just thirsty for attention. I always have admired people who stay really humble and grounded in the fashion industry, which is increasingly hard to do. The people that I look up to are the ones that really take this seriously and are the ones that are ambitious about making content that is actually excellent, and it not just being about something frivolous in fashion.
What are you most proud of thus far in your career?
I don't really like to congratulate myself. I'm happy that I've gotten to this place, but I'm not in any way, shape or form even close to being done. I'm just getting started and there's so much work to be done in the community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.