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In Her Shoes: Lindsay Peoples Wagner

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

On this week’s episode of In Her Shoes, New York Magazine editor-at-large Stella Bugbee talks to her successor as editor-in-chief at the Cut, Lindsay Peoples Wagner. Peoples Wagner was most recently editor-in-chief at Teen Vogue, making her the youngest editor-in-chief of any Condé Nast title, and is leading the charge to change the fashion industry for the better, bringing more people and new, great ideas to the table.

To hear more about Lindsay’s career journey, work ethic, and passion for uplifting people of color, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

STELLA: Hi, Lindsay.

LINDSAY PEOPLES WAGNER: Hi.

STELLA: Thanks for coming on the In Her Shoes podcast. It’s really cool to be interviewing you in this new role as editor-in-chief of the Cut.

LPW: It’s surreal. It’s weird, right?

STELLA: It’s cool. It’s really cool. For people who don’t know, I was the editor-in-chief of the Cut. Now, Lindsay is the editor-in-chief of the Cut. And we wanted to do this episode of In Her Shoes as a way to introduce listeners to Lindsay and get a sense of how she lives her life. On this show, we talk a little bit about management style, and philosophy and work/life balance. I’m going to start off by asking Lindsay how it has been to start a new job when you can’t meet anybody in person.

LPW: I knew you were going to start out with a very large question. Yeah, I mean, starting a job over Zoom is really hard. And I think, you know, just where everyone is at in life, their mental health, their family, everything has changed. I’ve spent just a lot of time thinking about how I can be more grateful and self-aware of my own life and then also just having empathy for people, because it’s just been hard for a million different reasons. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing my family in my entire life. It’s just been a journey for everyone. I’ve been trying to keep that in mind and starting a new job and having conversations with people over Zoom that would usually be in person and I think usually be in a different headspace.

STELLA: For listeners who aren’t totally familiar with you, you’re only 30. You’re at the helm of a major media brand, you just came from another major media brand, Teen Vogue. So tell us a little bit about that trajectory from maybe even from the beginning, like internships and all the way up.

LPW: Yeah, I mean, hindsight is always 20/20, but the journey has been … tumultuous, is my word. It’s been interesting, yes. But I think it’s just been a roller coaster of a lot of different things. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. I spent a lot of time just liking being creative, but I didn’t really connect the dots. A lot of my childhood was spent with my grandmother. We would make quilts and pillows and rugs and I would draw a lot but I didn’t ever think that it was going to be something that I would be able to make into a career. I remember my biggest aspiration — I was like, Maybe one day I own a boutique in Wisconsin. That’s a big goal. And I was part-time working at Payless. That was the pinnacle for me. I went to a smaller liberal arts school and I fought my parents on it, because I had applied to all these bigger schools. And my parents were like, “You’re not ready,” like, “You don’t know what you want to do. You’re not about to waste our money or our time.” My mom sat me down and she was like, “I just think you need to be at a place that is going to give you a little bit more attention on what you really want to do. And I don’t think you’re going to get that. If you go to one of these big schools, you’re just going to end up getting a degree and not actually think about, ‘What is my purpose in life?’”

And so I just ended up choosing a school that I had gone to on a college tour that I wasn’t even really passionate about. But I don’t know. It was weird. I went there and I liked the people. I was like, Okay, I’ll choose the school a little closer to home. That’s where I ended up going. And it was a school in the middle of Iowa surrounded by cornfields. And I got really, really blessed with two professors who took the time to spend on me, and they were really invested in me, invested in trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and one of my professors was the one who saw a post about a Teen Vogue internship. And she was like, “I think this is what you need to try. And I think you really just have a voice and there’s something inside of you that I think you need to figure out.” And I remember telling her, I was like, “I’m not going to get this.” Like, I loved The Hills, I loved Girlfriends, I love Sex and the City. But I was like, “They don’t know who I am. I’m literally in the Midwest.” The Midwest is, you know, it’s Uggs. It’s not Chanel. It just felt very far-off. But, I happened to get that internship and from there, I was hooked. I started doing a lot of different internships. I went to L.A. one summer because I thought I wanted to do celebrity styling, which I do not want to do. I went overseas and studied abroad because I was like, maybe I want to work at a design house, do not want to do that. And so when I graduated, I didn’t have a job when I graduated, which was also a weird thing. Everybody at school was like, “Oh, I got a job at this bank or I got a job doing this.” And I remember telling my sister, I was like, “Oh, I’m such a loser. I don’t have a job. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” My sister and I are very similar, but she is way more type A than me. So when she left school, she had a six-figure job offer, she was on it. I was like, “I have no money, no job. This is crazy.”

I ended up emailing a bunch of different people that I had interned with. And a couple months later, somebody from Teen Vogue had reached out and was like, “Oh, yeah, like, we have a freelance job open in closet. $9/hour.” I was like, Great, take it. I think the biggest hurdle that first couple of years was I wanted to be in fashion so bad, but I had to work three jobs. I was just too broke. Everything we do is subjective: who’s cool, who’s worthy, who’s on brand, all of these things. And all I could afford was some Zara and some Gap. And I just felt like, I’m never going to be good enough for these people because I don’t have the money to sustain the image around it. And it was really exhausting. I would go to Teen Vogue during the day. I would freelance for shoots at night or change mannequins at the DKNY store. Or copywriting stuff at night. On the weekends, I always waitressed because I made good tips for brunch. Everybody gets drunk and pays you well. So, that’s what I did for a long time. It was too exhausting to keep up. I remember talking to a couple of people about going to Style.com and I just was like, I just don’t want to be pigeonholed into being in this closet or trying to be a stylist. I can’t be broke for the rest of my life. And my parents are really supportive. When you come to New York, the idea of wealth is so crazy, different from what it is in other places, that it was just this huge gap of like, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like I didn’t have what I needed to excel or to succeed. 

I went to Style.com because I was like, I need to give some different skills, like I can’t keep doing this. And I wanted to write more and do stuff like that. So I went there. I had an amazing boss, Rachael Wang, who’s a good friend. And that was a really pivotal situation for me because she was a huge mentor for me of where I wanted to go in the industry and how I wanted to craft my voice. And she was the one who actually told me about the job at the Cut. She was the one who connected a lot of dots for me around that.

STELLA: So you’ve now mentioned you’ve had two professors and one really pivotal boss who redirected or invested in you. How did that shape your idea of being a boss? Now that you’ve had those two experiences and it sounds like you knew yourself well enough to know that you needed a smaller environment and somebody to be invested in you. Are those lessons that you’re going to take forward now?

LPW: Yeah, absolutely. Paying it forward because the people have really spent so much time, I think, investing in me and I’m always really blown away by that because I always felt like, Why are people even bothering? I’m not going to have anything in this industry, and I always feel that sense of gratitude around that because the odds were stacked against me. Even with Rachael, I think one of the biggest things she taught me was like, “When it’s your time for something, it will be your time. And it doesn’t have to happen in the time that you think. Just because someone says ‘no’ to you doesn’t mean that you’ll never get past or move to a different situation.”

I was working for her probably for six months and a shopping market role came up that was specific to e-commerce and different things. And I was like, Oh my God, I’m so broke. I really hope that she promotes me. I really need this job. And I remember I took the call in the closet and I was crying to her because she was like, “I can’t give you this job, but honestly, I’m not giving you this job because I think that you need to be doing other things. You really need to be doing your own shoots or writing bigger features. I just don’t think this job is for you and you’re going to get stuck writing shopping stuff. And I don’t really think you should be doing that. I think you should stay, I will help you. I will mentor you. But I don’t think this is the right thing. And there’s someone else that I think is better for this role at this point.”

STELLA: How was that to hear that? Was that painful?

LPW: Oh, I cried on the phone. I was crushed also because I was just really broke and I was like, I need insurance. I can’t keep living this life. So that was also why. But I remember I called my parents and they’re like, “We’ll help you if you need to move situations. If you want to come back home, you can always come back home.” And that was always in the back of my mind, like, Should I go back to Wisconsin or not? I decided to stay and I decided to stay underneath her. And she was the one that changed my idea of what mentorship was. I always thought mentorship was somebody that you would just come to like, Hey, I’m applying for the job, help me get it. Like, help me, help me. Not necessarily a “yes” person. But I had it differently in my mind. Her becoming my mentor and saying “no” just flipped a lot for me. Like, Oh, wait. She was right. And that’s just as helpful. Even more helpful. She was the one who then came to me one day and was like, “Hey, I heard about this job. I think this is actually the right role for you and will give you, like, the growth that you need.”

STELLA: When you and I worked together, I’ve said this publicly, I’ll say it again. It was very obvious to me right away that you had a sense for what you wanted to do way beyond the role that you had originally come in to do, which was more of a market fashion role, and you wasted very little time coming into my office and saying, “This is this is what we should be doing. And this is what I would like to do. And these are the people I’d like to cover.” I was very excited about that. What gave you the confidence to do that? Were there people you were talking to outside of our organization? The community of the Cut was very, very open and kind of flat. But not everybody marched into my office and said, “I’d like to do this.”

LPW: Honestly, I just felt comfortable enough to talk. It wasn’t like anyone I was talking to about it in the office or outside of the office. I just felt comfortable enough to come to you and say, “I want to do more and I have the hunger to do more.” I’ve had such a desperation of, I have to be better than the people that have come before me. I have to do this. It’s made me a lot more ambitious than other people and I know it’s weird because now, when I’ve had conversations with people that I used to work with or whatever, I realize I may have come off as annoying to some people. But I wasn’t trying to be. I sincerely felt like, If I’m going to do this, if I’m going to be busting my ass, I need to be making great work. 

STELLA: Talk to me a little bit more about that idea of “I need to be better than the people that came before. I need to.” Your work is infused with a deep sense of mission. Can you elaborate a little bit about that so that people who aren’t familiar with it have an idea of what you mean?

LPW: Yeah. When I decided I wanted to be in fashion, I now remember a lot of moments of wanting so badly to be seen in covers, in movies and television, in a lot of different ways. When we see, even like covers of magazines, I remember putting all of them up on my wall and my mother having a lot of conversations with me about idolizing a lot of these people who didn’t really have a connection with who I was, and even if magazines did put a woman of color or specifically a Black woman on the cover, it was like the same cycle of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Viola Davis, etc. and I felt like, If I’m going to have to do all of this and I really want to be in this industry, I have to change it. And that was a conversation that my mom had with me very early on. Nobody in my family is doing anything creative, but they always had really frank conversations with me about my purpose and intention, and my family means the world to me, and knowing that they have worked so hard to make a life for me really pushed me to make sure that I used this gift, this life, responsibly. And I think about that a lot.

I was really close with both of my grandmothers who are no longer alive. My grandmother down South passed last year. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, passed when I was in college. Both of them worked so hard and I always felt like I have to honor that. I have to push beyond what I think I’m even capable of doing. My grandmother that I spent a lot of time with in Wisconsin, she worked at a steel factory, but she was incredibly into fashion. Obviously, most Black people who grew up in church, you’re into the idea of Sunday best, and she would just dress crazy good. She would take me to all these different places to make her clothes. And I don’t know, I just felt like, These people have done so much for me. I have to honor them with what I’m doing and push past when I want to go home or when I feel like this is crazy to work all these jobs and I’m still broke and have a negative account. So that’s honestly where a lot of it is coming from.

STELLA: How do you balance that ambition that you have and the drive that you have with other people? And their needs to self-regulate? This is something I often grapple with as a worker. You know? I’m very driven and it’s sometimes hard for me to recognize other people’s boundaries in the same way. I’m so excited and I want everybody to be so excited, but everybody’s coming at things from a different perspective. Now that you’re kind of leading and you now lead two big things, how do you balance that?

LPW: Yeah, that’s hard. I’ve always said to so many people, that it’s fine for me to be the most ambitious person in the room because I’m always going to have the really big idea that’s going to make the project way more annoying and time-consuming. But I try not to just bulldoze my opinion and let people say what they want to do and also ask people like, “Do you feel like this is possible with your bandwidth and where you are right now?” And that was a lesson I really had to learn when I started meeting people, because I would have all these huge ideas that were great ideas. But it’s like, what can people actually accomplish? What can people actually do? And obviously, you want to push people as a manager, but you also don’t want to invade their own personal boundaries. And obviously, everybody has a life and other things going on. It’s been me waiting to say what I want to do, but also then checking in with people about like, “How do you feel about that with your bandwidth and where you’re at with all these other stories and things you’re working on?”

STELLA: How do you check your own ambitions sometimes? How do you reconcile with checking yourself against the organization or the confines in what you’re working?

LPW: I mean, I go to therapy every week consistently. I do.

STELLA: I feel like that’s something that comes up all the time on these interviews. I’m curious about how people balance the mental-health aspect of it.

LPW: I think it’s two things for me. I’m a person of faith, and I think that faith really does an incredible job of grounding you and making you realize. It just made me a lot more intentional and to not seek validation from very fickle things and that validation I think comes from inside, but combined with therapy. I think therapy has been great because as a manager, I think it can be hard to not project your own things on other people in conversations. And so I’ve made sure to go every week, even though I sometimes don’t feel like it. Or maybe I feel like I don’t have anything to say, just to make sure that when I’m having conversations with people that I’m not projecting like things that I haven’t worked through or another conversation I had with a friend or another conversation I have with a different employee. Whatever it is, because I feel like I can just be a little bit more clear and direct with people when I’m on a good routine with that.

STELLA: What do you want our listeners new to you to know about you and your plans for the Cut?

LPW: Oh, that’s a good question. The Cut is iconic and everyone knows that. We’re just trying to figure out what this next era is going to be. For me, it is bringing on a lot of different voices and contributors and making work that I think you would be really proud of and that I’m really proud of. That’s all I’m really trying to do. It’s funny. I do think a lot of times, people have this internal pressure of like, I need to be excellent. But I also think as a woman of color, you often feel like you just have to be better than other people and excel past what other people think you can do. I always try to ask people for patience, because I think also when people see me, they’re like, Night and day. This is going to happen. This is going to happen. It’s a little stressful for people to have such high expectations for me to change everything, because I am also the person that people come to about injustice issues in the industry or, “Hey, I’m trying to figure this out and to make this business more inclusive.” And so it’s not just one thing. And so I think that pressure can feel like a lot and a little patience would be nice.

STELLA: So you launched this very explosive story in the pages of New York Magazine at the Cut about being Black in fashion, which no one would argue blew open a conversation that needed to be had and that you and I had been talking about for a long time. And it just changed your life. It changed the whole conversation in the industry and so we can talk a little bit about that. But also, you took that moment and you built on it. You started a nonprofit, the Black in Fashion Council. So tell us a little bit about the impetus behind that story, the opportunities that came from it and how you kind of capitalized on those.

LPW: Yeah. I remember having the conversations with you, really early on, of like, “I really want to do something about the fact that people aren’t feeling included in these different spaces.” The timing of things is always so perfect in hindsight, because I remember when I came to you with the idea, we talked about it, you were like, “I don’t think it’s ready. I don’t think it’s the right time.” And you were so right and when it finally was time to do it, the industry was so different because I think people were finally ready to have a lot of the conversations, which is a key part of this, because the idea of diversity in history isn’t new but people being receptive and finally accepting that there is a problem has been a big shift.

Also just the fact that when a lot of people have written about the lack of inclusiveness in fashion, a lot of it has been rooted in narratives from assistants or inter-s, which then just gotten written off because it’s like, “You’re young, you’re only complaining because you’re young and you’re starting out.” Whereas, by the time I had actually written the piece, there were a lot more senior level people in the industry that were people of color that were saying, like, “This is still a problem for us.” That conversation really made it a bigger deal because it was like, Well, if you’ve been in the industry for decades and you’re still dealing with all these issues, what hope is there for younger people of color to want to be in the industry? Why should any of us day? That piece just changed so much in my life because it gave me a sense of conviction that I didn’t have before and I remember talking to you about this, like there were a lot of people of color who told me not to write it and to not to do the piece.

STELLA: I remember that summer when we were having the initial conversations about it and you were starting to interview people and running into a lot of fear and resistance. I think generally fear about what an article like that might do to someone’s career or to the people participating in its career, and then as people started to come on the record and that started to get other people to come on the record — it was very exciting to watch you start to have these really intense conversations. I remember talking to you one day afterward. You came into my office. You were like, “These conversations are a lot. It’s almost like I’m having to be a therapist.”

LPW: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely felt like therapy. I was really scared but it also gave me conviction at the same time, which I never really thought about before the piece. I just remember people that I really admired telling me that I was going to be blacklisted and then I would never have a job. And that wasn’t something for me to take lightly because I was like, Okay, does that mean I’m going to have to go back to waitressing after this? That was actually really detrimental to my mental health. I remember when the piece came out, my husband and I, we were in Mexico. I wasn’t even here because I was so scared. I was like, I just need to go because I don’t know if people are going to say, I don’t know what people are going to feel about this. And I put my blood, sweat, and tears into this. But like, this can just go wrong. 

It obviously ended up being well-received. I remember it gave me this weird sense of calm and peace that I honestly had only felt, before that, the day of my wedding. This weird sense of calm that, even if this is the last piece that I do, I’m really proud of this piece. I remember I had my phone off most of the day and then I turned my phone on because I was like, I don’t need to hear other people and their opinions about this. And when I turned it on, I had a bunch of text messages from you and I looked on Instagram and I was like, Oh, shit. 

STELLA: You had text messages from me that day? I don’t remember. What were they?

LPW: You were just like, “Oh my gosh. Do you see all these people are talking about it?” And then I was like, Oh, okay, let me look on Instagram. You know when you’re scared about something and then you’re like, I don’t know if I should go on social media because I’m not sure I want to know what people are saying about it?

STELLA: I do know that. Yes.

LPW: So your text was the good guard for me. I was like, Okay, it’s safe to come outside. 

STELLA: Yeah. I remember being very, very nervous in general around that whole piece. I also knew that you publishing that piece meant I was going to lose you as a collaborator because I knew that it was going to be such a major piece and I think I was less scared that it would put your career to an end. I was more scared that it meant that someone was going to poach you immediately. I remember you came to my office and you’re like, “I have to talk to you.” And I was like, Oh, God, I already know what is going to be. Who is offering you a job? And it was immediate, right? It was very, very soon afterward.

LPW: Yeah. But it never crossed my mind that that was even a possibility. And I remember at that point in my life, I just kept being like, Okay, by 35, I have to be a fashion director. I have to make that happen. That was my biggest aspiration at that time. So it honestly did not occur to me. And in my mind I was like, I’ll just stay here until one day I can get promoted. That was not even in my mind.

STELLA: Isn’t that funny how we have these expectations for ourselves and we put dates on them in our minds and then life just intervenes and we have to completely readjust our whole sense of our expectations for ourselves?

LPW: Oh, yeah, I was not prepared, didn’t have the thought. I literally didn’t even dream about it because I just was like, This is the furthest that I’m going to go. So I just need to try to like to do my mantra of “I’m going to be a fashion director.” And that’s all that I cared about. So it was, yeah, it was very, very strange. But I mean, the Teen Vogue opportunity came and it felt like the weirdest serendipity and obviously a really great opportunity.

STELLA: What was that opportunity?

LPW: It was to be editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, where I started out interning and worked at straight out from college. It just wasn’t something that had ever occurred to me was even an opportunity, for a lot of different reasons. Mainly because at that point I really knew — This is who I am in this industry and it’s going to be really hard to be able to get a job being this kind of person. I was very adamant about I’m not going to code-switch, I’m not going to assimilate, I’m not going to change who I am for this industry. It wasn’t coming from a sense of resentment or anger toward the industry. It felt like, If we’re all going to say that we care about diversity and inclusiveness and equity, then I should be able to be who I am. 

STELLA: What’s an example of a moment where you felt somebody might have asked you to code-switch, but you said, “No, I’m not doing that”?

LPW: Every Black woman that I’ve encountered in fashion has had someone say something about their hair. It’s just such a loaded topic for every Black woman. But I remember, pre-pandemic, I was in the elevator with a Black senior leader, and I was playing some music on my phone. And then he had some of it on his phone or whatever. Then another executive came into the elevator and he quickly turned it off and was like, “Turn it off, turn it off,” and I was like, “No, why?”

First of all, trap music is great. If you don’t like trap music, that’s fine. But the trap music is great and I’m not going to apologize for listening to it. But also, there’s this idea of when you get to a certain level that you can’t like certain things, a part of the culture is that you can only really talk about prestigious things. And I just feel like that pressure is constantly put on people of color, whereas I don’t feel like I need to change my language or who I am to be excellent at being an editor.

STELLA: And after the article came out, when you started the Black in Fashion Council, how did that come together? That’s a nonprofit, right?

LPW: Yeah. It’s nonprofit and there’s an LLC division as well, which is only complicated in terminology. It really started out as a small idea, which again, I don’t know why I thought that, but at the time we basically started to have conversations. We, as in my co-founder, Sandrine Charles. She has her own PR firm and basically, all the people that were in the Black in Fashion article, we started to have Zooms and then we started to have these massive Zooms with hundreds of people of color in the industry talking about, “Okay, George Floyd’s been murdered, Breonna Taylor’s been murdered. We all have a platform. What are we going to do?” And I remember I had gone for a job interview and a person had told me, “I think that you’re great, but you’re too Malcolm X.” 

I actually don’t find this offensive. It’s really stuck with me because I think that it’s important for me to always use this platform, use this gift, to make it better for other people of color. We just started talking about what would be possible, because with the article, we’ve had all these conversations. And for me, it’s like, I need to be a ladder and help other people of color up. But how do I be a ladder if we’re not holding people accountable? I can help people all I want. But if they’re not actually put in positions of success and actually put in a place that understands what an equitable work environment is, this is not actually going to get better. It really was about taking that to the next level.

We decided to partner with the Human Rights Campaign and create a corporate equity index on racial and ethnic exclusivity in fashion and beauty spaces, which has never been done before. It was really necessary to not come from a place of cancel culture, because I don’t feel like it’s productive. Not come from this place of saying, like, You’re doing this wrong, you get a 20 percent, whatever. But actually giving people the tools and resources to say, Here’s how I actually need to make sure that these policies are being put into practice. Here’s how I need to challenge how we define who’s someone that is worthy of gifting cover, platform, opportunity, all of that. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve been able to do, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to people of color. It just turned into a lot bigger thing, because at first it was, you know, 20 companies. And then we had companies starting to come to us about consulting things, which obviously that’s not nonprofit, or “we need help figuring out an opportunity for young designers.” So we were able to partner with IMG this past couple of seasons and they basically let us curate a space for ten designers in New York and five in L.A.

It’s the best kind of work to do because, yeah, they get picked up at Browns and picked up at different stores and actually get a shot in the industry that they haven’t been able to before. It’s interesting because the question that people usually ask me is, like, “Why did you choose to do it?” But it hasn’t ever been a conscious decision, it’s just no one else is doing it. And I feel a sense of responsibility so then I end up doing it.

STELLA: Lindsay, that’s awesome. Thank you for joining us. I’m so excited to see what you do with this project, and I’m so excited for the listeners to get to know you. Thank you for coming on.

LPW: Thank you for having me. That was fun.

The Cut Podcast: In Her Shoes: Lindsay Peoples Wagner