Lindsay Peoples Wagner: taking the hard road to the height of fashion

The trailblazing young magazine chief and champion of diversity wants to open up the style world to real people

When New York fashion week kicks off on Wednesday – effectively the first since the pandemic interrupted, and then collided with, the social justice movement to force recalibrations across much of the industry – many eyes will be on Lindsay Peoples Wagner.

At 30, she presents a new guard of fashion editor, in this case of the Cut, an influential addendum to New York magazine. She and her peers seek to change the focus of fashion, and with it place more emphasis on the multiplicity of gestures and signals, nuanced or otherwise, people make with the clothes they wear.

Peoples Wagner steps into the role – one that at times has been imbued with near-mystical significance – at a tense moment in an industry seeking optimistic new beginnings after broad criticism for lagging on action around issues of inclusion, representation, objectification and sustainability.

Her approach, in short, is to recognise fashion’s reflexive and self-isolating racism – the contours of which she had experienced personally – and to take opposite action. “It’s about telling stories that feel more intimate and making people feel included in the community because traditionally magazines have wanted people to feel really far away,” Peoples Wagner told the Observer.

The Cut’s fall fashion issue cover
The Cut’s autumn fashion issue cover. Photograph: Campbell Addy/The Cut

“It’s easy to sell a publication if you feel like you can’t be a part of it and it’s part of a fantasy that you have to be cool enough, pretty enough and rich enough. But that’s just not true. It’s a fallacy. Our approach is to make something that’s more approachable than aspirational.”

Peoples Wagner is a graduate of Teen Vogue, a publication partially freed of strictures accruing to its grownup counterpart, where she rose from internship to editor. She joined the Cut earlier this year, before her Teen Vogue replacement Alexi McCammond resigned over comments she’d made on social media years earlier.

In an editor’s letter fronting her first fashion issue – titled “Is There Room for Fashion Criticism in a Racist Industry?” – Peoples Wagner wrote that the industry’s efforts to make amends had created “even more of a convoluted space for people of colour like myself”.

Her plan, she announced, is to open the floodgates: “I want all those uncomfortable things that weren’t being said aloud to keep bubbling up.

“Obviously, it isn’t exactly easy,” she added. “Making work that strives for both beauty and relevance is walking a fine line in the best of times. Cancel culture finds its prey in the crevices of uncomfortable conversations.”

It’s a perspective of openness and accountability, of embracing people from different backgrounds and levels of access and “to make a fashion magazine that challenged the idea that if you’re a ‘fashion’ person, you can’t still care deeply about the world around you.”

Peoples Wagner, raised in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, attended college in Iowa, and made her way to New York to work across a number of peripheral fashion jobs before settling on publishing.

“I grew up loving magazines and loving what I saw but never really felt included. I didn’t know anyone in fashion so I took any job I could to get experience. It’s been a hard road, as it is for any young black girl in an industry when you don’t have the same trust fund, connections or viewpoint as a lot of people.”

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, left, and the model Paloma Elsesser
Lindsay Peoples Wagner, left, and the model Paloma Elsesser at a fashion event in New York last year. Photograph: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

But when she made her mark, she made it in New York with a bracing article published three years ago titled “Everywhere and nowhere: What it’s really like to be black and work in fashion”. The story, which she said took six months of emotional interviews to compile, earned her an award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In 2018, Peoples Wagner became the youngest editor-in-chief of a Condé Nast magazine and the third black editor ever to run one of the publisher’s American titles when she was named editor of Teen Vogue, and furnished with a diversity and LGBTQ-focused editorial remit by Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Three years on, an emphasis on representation suffuses the Cut. Naomi Campbell takes the cover, followed by a story titled “The global pursuit of a bigger butt”: the “frenzy for curves that replicate – and distort – black beauty ideals”; and “The girlboss is dead. Long live the girlboss”. Also featured are the hotly tipped Vietnamese-American designer Peter Do, a protege of Phoebe Philo, who is presenting a debut collection of clothes this week; the exodus of fashion editors to better paid jobs in Silicon Valley; and a celebration of Kim Kardashian’s undergarment line Skims, and the writer’s acknowledgment that the Kardashian clan queen “offends me to my core”.

Personal or political realism are subjects that fashion publishing’s primary sponsors, brand advertisers, generally prefer to avoid. But in contentious times, Peoples Wagner holds that people are “now more than ever ready to see the things we’ve been talking about, front-facing and in confrontation with what the fashion industry actually cares about.

Designer Tia Adeola, left, Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Anna Wintour
Designer Tia Adeola, left, Lindsay Peoples Wagner and Anna Wintour at a Teen Vogue event in New York. Photograph: Ilya S Savenok/Getty Images for Teen Vogue

“You can’t get around it so the only way is to go through it. Even if you’re a non-person of colour you can’t become paralysed and say, ‘oh, this conversation makes me uncomfortable so I’m not going to have it’. That’s not productive, and you won’t get anywhere doing that. So we’re at this complicated place where we need to have these in-depth conversations but people are very wary of cancel culture. They don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

But powers of forgiveness and redemption are not ones she seeks. “I’m a fan of accountability culture instead of cancel culture because I think a lot of this moment is holding people to account for their actions – and not discussing people’s character in ways that are reductive. People may not agree, and that’s OK.

“Ultimately I just want the Cut to be a place where you can have conversations. It’s not about fashion-people conversations but the exposure of just talking to real people.”

It’s a high ideal, and one that has found form for Peoples Wagner beyond publishing. Last year, she and publicist Sandrine Charles founded the Black in Fashion Council, an organisation backed by hundreds of black models, stylists, executives and editors, that aims to help companies diversify and nurture inclusion.

Necessary change will come, she anticipates, when companies link the creative talent to a commitment to inclusivity. “Companies like to say they care about change and diversity. But they’re not really interested in holistic change as part of their business plan. Nor do they want to be cancelled or called out.”

The danger is that the fashion industry, along with countless others within and without the creative and consumerism realms, arrive at little more than performative displays.

“Things are changing but what we’re talking about is systematic change of infrastructures that have been in place since before I was alive so I’m not expecting changing overnight,” Peoples Wagner says. “What we’re asking for is fundamental change, and that will take time and hard conversations that people haven’t historically wanted to have.”

Contributor

Edward Helmore

The GuardianTramp

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