A Moment With: Elaine Welteroth
Some may say Elaine Welteroth needs no introduction. Her work at the helm of Teen Vogue as Editor-in-Chief marked a change in the landscape at Condé Nast. She became the second Black person to hold an editor-in-chief title in Condé Nast’s history, and at twenty-nine was the youngest individual to be promoted as editor. With her direction, Teen Vogue shifted towards timely political criticism and made headlines while doing it.
Her new book, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), discusses her storied career with a frank, charismatic, and inspiring voice that one can only expect from the revolutionary editor.
VSP chats with Elaine about her style icons, mentorship, and what motivates her to tell stories for those who can't.
More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) is out now.
How has style and fashion empowered you?
Fashion is an empowering tool for self expression. I think that what you wear signals to the world how you want to be seen. For women—in particular, for women in business—it can be a tool for projecting confidence.
Who were your style icons growing up and have they changed as you've gotten older?
My style icon growing up was my mom. I loved watching her get ready for work and for church. I loved watching her transform in front of the mirror with the way she did her lipstick and hair. She was big on wearing lots of colour and bold suits. Now I think of who my style icon of the moment is and it's probably Solange. I just love the way she experiments with fashion in such an artful way.
What were you wearing on one of your most memorable nights?
On the day of my book launch I wore three different outfits because I had a packed day of press. I started with Good Morning America, The View, Jimmy Fallon and then ended with my book launch in Brooklyn where I got interviewed by Lupita Nyong'o. I had three different looks lined up for each of those moments.
I started the day in a hot pink power suit made by Argent—a young, female designer who Hillary Clinton put me onto when we talked to her for the final issue of Teen Vogue. I've been a big fan of that brand ever since. Then I wore a powder pink suit by Prabal Gurung who's a friend of mine, a POC designer based in New York. His stuff fits me perfectly, which just makes me feel like me. I wore that next and then I changed into what I call my "authortorial" look—the Prabal Gurung was like my boss lady look, my young, modern take on executive realness dressing, like how I dressed in the office at Teen Vogue.
What I call my quote unquote "authortorial" look was what I wore for my actual launch which was this crisp white collared shirt with a billowy sleeve detail and a high-waisted black leather pencil skirt with a really high slit up the side. I paired that with these strappy, fluffy black open-toe heels that one of my close friends Aurora James designed, she's the founder of Brother Vellies. Those three looks were just perfect, they were an extension of who I am and how I felt, and how I wanted to feel in that moment.
How did you prepare yourself for the jump between telling other peoples stories and then your own?
I don't know if there's a lot you can do to prepare. You just have to dive in and push through the hard moments. I think that like you said, for ten years I was the conduit for other peoples' stories and my mission was elevating the voices of people of colour, marginalized communities and the issues that effect them.
Excavating the stories that speak to those larger themes while turning the lens onto myself and my own life—that really inspires the work I do around representation, power, privilege, and women supporting women. The best way to dive into them and to create conversations around them was to do it through anecdotes from my own life. I saw that the mission of writing this book was so much bigger than me and my story. I think that's what kept me inspired and kept me really motivated to do this. I know the power of storytelling. It really made me feel purpose. There was this sense of purpose in the work.
Who have been some of your own mentors? And what are the key facets for the best type of mentorship?
I think the best kind of mentors are the people that you work with or surround yourself with as you work. I think the notion of walking up to someone and asking them to be your mentor is probably not the most effective. I think my first boss and mentor told me the only way I can mentor you is if you work for me because that's the kind of time and investment that it takes to have this kind of mutually beneficial rapport that you build over time. I think that the best approach to mentorship is a reciprocal one in which you bring value to the table and you're not just asking for favours or advice or someone's time. You're adding value in whatever way that you can.
I think that in the age of social media there is this new kind of mentorship that's happening which I call digital mentoring. They say you can't be it if you don't see it. Now, we are living in times where there are so many examples that we can look to of women thriving, women of colour running shit and making big things happen in the world and rewriting the rules along the way. I think there's a lot that we can glean from watching the way other people move through the world, people that inspire us online. You're obviously never getting the full story, you're only watching the highlight reel but I think even that is powerful to be able to see women that you identify with doing things that you aspire to do. Sometimes that in and of itself is enough of a motivator.
A lot of times the best mentorship I've received is peer to peer or even from the bottom up. I learn a lot from my interns and mentees. I have a number of them. They always inspire me and bring something to the table with their curiosity or their passion for learning. That gives me a new lens of gratitude to appreciate the opportunities that I have to help them.
Every boss I've ever had has been a mentor for me, from Anna Wintour to everyone in between. Then I've had people outside of the industry, outside of the magazine industry who have kind of taken me under their wing folks like Bozoma Saint John who's like a marketing mastermind, or Ava DuVernay who's an acclaimed film director—She's really instrumental to me, especially in helping me navigate my career transition from publishing to the great beyond and building my own business.
What kind of advice would you tell women, and in particular Black women, and women of colour who are starting to tire of having to work twice as hard as their peers?
Finding your tribe is key to keeping sane when you are constantly finding yourself in rooms where you're the only one who looks like you—where you feel maybe a little isolated, intimidated, overlooked, overwhelmed, undervalued. I think those feelings are more common than you think but when you're on an island by yourself it can feel overwhelming, daunting and like you're the only one swimming in those feelings. I think they're actually part of a universal experience of first generation success stories. They're part of building the American dream as someone who wasn't necessarily at the forefront of what that dream was.
I think we have to seek out safe spaces that support us and communities that really understand those more nuanced, tricky aspects of being the only one in the room, or the youngest in the room, or one of few, or first generation in your family to do the kind of work that you do. It's important that you have people [around you] who understand the nuanced struggle.
This, and the knowledge of micro aggressions that come along the way will help you navigate the storms that are inevitable. It's constantly remembering that your opportunity is to open up doors, to create opportunity for other people who might not have it otherwise. It's important to keep that at the centre of your mission and to speak for those who can't necessarily speak for themselves in the room. I think that it's rewarding, it's a motivator. It's all about finding your tribe and doing the work for your tribe. The work that you're doing is bigger than you. It's always about creating opportunity for the next person who looks like you.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Elaine wears Smythe, Sid Neigum, and Beaufille.
Photos and Words by Marlowe Granados
Styling by Armand Digdoyo
Makeup by Lynne Ryan