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How 'Atmos' Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh Is Building a New Bridge Between Fashion and Climate

"I'm rooting for the fashion industry," she shares, "because inherent in its purpose is also its capacity to change."

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.

In 2018, a publishing wunderkind named Willow Defebaugh was hard at work in New York City, living the editorial dream. In just six short years, the fashion editor had already clocked gigs at the likes of Vogue and GQ, climbed the masthead at V Magazine and helped launch the U.S. edition of French fashion glossy L'Officiel. She was at the top of their game — but she was also nearing a breaking point.

Exhausted and burnt out, she says, Defebaugh was growing ever more conscious of the ways in which the fashion industry was — is — causing irreparable damage to the planet we all share. She was ready to pack it up in the interest of other, more stable creative pursuits when she was introduced to Jake Sargent, an entrepreneur who shared their desire to approach the climate crisis from a position of creativity and compassion.

In 2019, Atmos, a biannual publication bridging climate and culture, debuted, its inaugural issue featuring contributions from heavy-hitters like Yoko Ono and Ryan McGinley. Now, more than three years and six issues in, the platform is stronger than ever with a voice entirely unto its own. 

Atmos's tone, measured and buoyant, is as notable as its contents, which in any one issue run the gamut from TikTok activists to forest ecology. It's reporting to be celebrated even despite of — or perhaps, really, in light of — the gravity of the climate crisis as it continues to unfurl. For Defebaugh, this is on par with their life's work.

"I often come back to the fact that I don't think, in our lifetimes, there's going to be a day where we're like, 'Well, we did it, we saved the planet,'" she says. "It's lifelong work, and it's not sustainable to be miserable for your entire life, so you have to find space to also have joy. Fashion has the ability to do that by also creating space for this conversation."

Ahead, Defebaugh walks us through their career trajectory — from interning in Vogue's fashion closet to interviewing boundary-breaking scientists — and discusses how their identity as a trans woman has impacted the ways in which she views environmental action. Read on for the highlights.

What first interested you about the intersection of fashion and climate?

The start of my career was more on the fashion side of things. When I first moved to New York, I started as an intern and then freelance assistant working at Vogue and GQ, and then eventually made my way downtown to V Magazine, where I was for about five years.

Sustainability was always a growing presence in my mind. Ever since I was a child, nature has been my safe place and where I look to for creativity and inspiration. And when I was still at V — this was back in 2016, 2017 — I felt like I wanted to be doing more with my day-to-day storytelling. I was surrounded by so much creativity, working with some of the most talented photographers and writers and creative directors, and I kept thinking to myself, 'What would happen if we put all of this creativity toward a subject matter we can't get enough people to pay attention to right now?'

When I was at V, I had started a column where I was writing about sustainability, and it was creeping more and more into my work, but I also felt a sense of intimidation. There's a lot of gatekeeping that happens within environmentalism, where people feel like they have to be a perfect environmentalist in order to care about climate, and that's just not the case. The reality is, we need a million imperfect activists, rather than a few perfect activists, as the saying goes. And so those who might think they're part of the underlying causes of the climate crisis are the exact people we need to get involved. Those are the people we need to meet where they're at and not insist they be perfect from the get-go, but just work toward how they can use their specific gifts for this particular cause.

What lessons did you learn in that stage in your career that you still carry with you today?

This might be somewhat of a cliched answer, but the word that first comes to mind is perseverance. Fashion publishing is so cutthroat in a lot of ways, and it does breed a certain sense of determination. I apply that directly to my work in the climate space, which also requires a great deal of perseverance, but in a very different way.

One of the things I constantly learned working at V was how to make it work, so to speak. No one ever gave up. It was like, 'We're going to try to make the story happen, and we're going to try to make it as remarkable as it possibly can be.' Creating solutions and being creative in how we think about solutions is something that has stayed with me throughout my whole career.

In an industry that's so cutthroat, it can be very easy to lose sight of your values. That's something I learned for myself, how to always be your own moral compass and to make sure you're not sacrificing that. And Atmos, years and years later, was born out of that sense of being a values-driven publication. I learned it the hard way in some cases, but that was really invaluable in my career.

How did the Atmos opportunity come about?

It came about at the perfect time for me. I had just left V and was working on the U.S. launch of L'Officiel, and one of my colleagues there put me in touch with Jake Sargent, who's my co-founder at Atmos and who mentioned he was really interested in starting a publication that looked at the intersection of climate and culture. That's where my head had been, as well.

I was in a space of total burnout, after spending most of my twenties working at different fashion publications. I felt totally exhausted and was like, 'Maybe publishing isn't right for me.' And then when Jake and I met for the first time, we were so creatively aligned. It felt like a no-brainer that we were going to work together on this. So we decided to launch the magazine and just see where it would take us. 

To be honest, I was really shocked. I mean, the first issue we had Ryan McKinley and Yoko Ono and all of these different photographers and artists who, even at that point in my career, I wasn't sure I, or we, would be able to bring into the conversation. And what we found more than anything is that people just wanted to help and lend their voices to this cause. I feel so fortunate that we're able to work with the photographers and writers and poets and artists we do, because they really make the magazine what it is.

What do you hope to accomplish in your role as editor-in-chief?

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My goal, really, is to change people's minds. I often come back to a quote that inspires so much of the work that we do, from "The Overstory" by Richard Powers. He says that the greatest arguments in the world can't change a person's mind — only a good story can do that. And that's what says it all.

I think the climate crisis, for so long, has been purely data-driven, and in environmental journalism particularly. Greta's story, why kids are striking and not going to school because what's the point if you don't have a livable future? That's a story that gets you in your heart. And that's what I'm passionate about doing, telling stories that come from an emotional place that really reaches people. Because that's what storytelling should do. It should appeal to us in our humanity and who we are as human beings.

If you were to go through the highlight reel of your time with Atmos, what would be the big moments that stand out to you?

In Issue 4, I had a conversation with the musician Maggie Rogers, who happens to be a good friend of mine, and that story changed how I think about the ways of formatting stories. We had this conversation during the pandemic about slowing down the creative process and confronting the burnout a lot of people were experiencing. The photography we ended up running with for the story were these beautiful photographs of glaciers in Alaska by a photographer named Daniel Shea to go with this idea of a glacial pace. I love approaching stories from a totally different perspective.

Grimes, the artist, is on the cover of our new issue in conversation with the sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor about science fiction and the spirituality of technology. That was such a powerful conversation to me because they talk a lot about how we're all becoming more and more connected. Grimes uses the analogy of all of us being neurons in a supercomputer, and that's what the internet is, right? We're all struggling with being part of the same thing, which is the human race. But to hear it from this tech perspective was such an interesting take on a concept that we already worked with. A magazine should challenge people's perspectives and get them to think about things from a different angle, and that story challenged my own thinking in a lot of interesting ways.

And then there are all of the scientific legends: Jane Goodall; Dr. Sylvia Earle; Dr. Suzanne Simard, a pioneering female scientist who discovered in Western science that trees are interconnected, something Indigenous science has known that for a long time. I just geek out over the fact that we can have musicians and artists and then also have scientists and authors.

There's still quite a high accessibility barrier that surrounds discussions of climate, particularly within the fashion space where, for consumers, sustainability is often introduced from a place of shame. What do you believe the industry needs to do to lower those barriers?

I love this question so much, because I think it's true: People have this immobilizing feeling that we've caused this, and the amount of shame that creates is so paralyzing that it causes a lot of people to turn away. The reality is that we do all have individual footprints, of course. And at the same time, many people don't even realize that the idea of calculating your carbon footprint was an invention by big oil. It was a PR tactic and it worked brilliantly because you got the whole population to feel so incredibly ashamed to the point where they didn't want to actually engage in making meaningful change.

It's hugely liberating when you start to realize that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all global emissions. But at the same time, I'm somewhat wary because in the climate space, the conversation has just swung in that direction, you know? We need individual change and we need systemic change. Understanding that statistic doesn't give us free rein to behave how we want to behave and use as much as we want to use. Everything needs to happen on an individual level and a collective level, and that's how systemic change actually happens.

With that in mind, how can fashion-minded individuals who haven't yet participated in climate action — and who are perhaps feeling demoralized about the state of the climate crisis — best get involved?

This is where I'm passionate about, yes, advocating for systemic change. If there's a local protest, go to your local protest. If there's a way you can connect with people in your community, do that, because activism does work. But also, individual change is necessary in looking at the role you play in your specific ecosystems. For me, it was like, 'Okay, I know how to edit magazines, so how can I make a magazine that's about these issues?'

On a more personal level, as a trans woman, I think a lot about transformation, right? This is a big theme in my life. And I think about that through the lens of climate activism and climate justice. I know that transformation is possible, and I know that human beings are capable of transforming and changing. I know because I'm living it and I see it every day. I see it in the many trans people who are in my life. It can be hard and it can be brutal, and there are parts that can be challenging. But it's also magnificent.

I'm not saying I feel optimistic every day, but a lot of my optimism does come from that personal place of, 'I know that this is possible because I've lived it.' If I can change, other people can change, and if we can change, then our species can change. That's why, with Atmos, we often tell stories from a perspective of identity, because identity does shape how we see the world.

When you think about the future of fashion and climate, where do you imagine it going?

I'm going to refer to a story that Elizabeth Cline wrote for our third issue. The focus was this idea that, maybe, fashion isn't something physical — that fashion is an energy. And she talked about this idea that stylists of the future will help people work with their own wardrobes. And I loved that idea because it got to the core of what fashion is or should be.

Like so many people, I was interested in fashion because I think it's an incredible tool for self-expression, which is an energy. And that excites me a lot because one of the principle rules within science is that energy can't be created or destroyed, only transformed. And not to bring it all back to transformation, but fashion is also a force of transformation. It helps people change how they see themselves and how they present themselves. I'm rooting for the fashion industry, because inherent in its purpose is also its capacity to change. Fashion does transform, and therefore I think the industry could transform.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the industry looking to follow a similar career path?

Follow the threads. If you had told me when I was in my early 20s in New York that I would at some point be founding a publication that looks at the intersection of climate and culture, that perfectly weaves all of these different aspects of my career into one thing? I wouldn't have even known what to do with that information.

But that's not how things happen. They happen one thread at a time. I came here because I was interested in fashion, and the more I was interested in fashion, the more I was interested in the ways fashion was unsustainable. And I followed that. 

I think of all of the moments where I thought, 'Well, I don't know where this is necessarily going to lead, but it feels like the right next thing for me to do,' and I think about how important all of that was. All the odd jobs, the internships, the freelance assignments, they all taught me different things. And I'm just so glad that I said yes to them at the time and that I trusted I would be able to weave them into something someday.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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