If fashion is the subject, then she is the verb, living and breathing the lessons the industry imposes on everyday life. Elaine Welteroth, 36, is a fashion editor, writer, and TV-show judge whose fascination with fashion began at a young age while watching her mom get dressed for work and for church on Sundays. Early on, she internalized the power of clothes to transform and influence how one is seen and treated in the world. And though there was no single aha moment for her, this early life lesson would be the north star for her journey to becoming a powerful fashion-media leader and icon.
From her beginnings at Ebony and Glamour as a style editor, to being a judge on “Project Runway,” to striking out as a solo author with her book, “More Than Enough,” she refuses to conform to a single predefined path in the fashion world. But her steady rise to the top of the most revered style publications and her talent for creating space for people of color have cemented her place as a thought leader, head cheerleader, tastemaker, and much more.
As the editor in chief of Teen Vogue from 2016 to 2018, she showed a penchant for building bridges between fashion and the rest of the world, sparking conversations around social justice, politics, and race with younger generations that other media outlets routinely overlooked. For perhaps the first time, a fashion publication talked to teens as humans with valid ideological insights and concerns, not just dolls that needed dressing, all against the backdrop of the polarizing 2016 election. At the time, she was just the second Black person to get the position, soon followed by Lindsay Peoples.
As a “Project Runway” judge, and with frequent forays into TV hosting and acting, she continues to use her sharp editorial eye to speak the language of fashion while championing diversity. From her appearances on the ABC sitcom “Black-ish,” to the many panels she’s led with fashion leaders such as Bethann Hardison and Zendaya, to her column with The Washington Post, Welteroth has built a career that’s taking on a superhuman life of its own. Where other people would see a dead end, she walks through walls, impeccably styled and calmly beckoning others to follow.
In a conversation with Insider for our series “Black Ensemble: Fashion for the Culture,” Welteroth reminds us of the legacy of early Black fashion publications and how Black creatives can keep their compass pointing true north as they continue the search for inclusivity in the industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Who is your personal fashion icon? Is there anything in particular in Black history that inspires your personal style or fashion perspective?
I started at a Black magazine, Ebony Magazine, which plays such an iconic role in fashion history.
It really brought high fashion to our communities. Eunice Johnson, who was one of the founders of Ebony Fashion Fair, Ebony magazine, and Jet magazine, and the whole Ebony empire — she was a fashion icon ahead of her time. Because the fashion houses would not send clothes to Black fashion magazines, she would go to these houses and purchase couture pieces, bring them back to America, and put them on the runway in Black communities all across this country. I mean, that is revolutionary. So I came into the fashion business at Ebony, where I was aware of this legacy and proud to celebrate it and bring it forward into this modern era. But it was tough because the fashion industry really turned its back on Ebony and turned its nose up on Black publications.
For me, it was really this uphill battle of constantly fighting for validation and for access. I think it gave me this chip on my shoulder where it felt like I was an outsider on the inside. I always had this relationship to fashion where I felt like I was a little bit in the margins. That allowed me to fight for the underdog. I was fighting for space to be seen, for our culture to be seen, to be validated, to be celebrated.
So I took that approach to the work I did when I was finally embraced by the fashion community, when I became editor in chief of Teen Vogue. I always felt like I was there for a larger mission. In the least cliché way, I really did feel like I was doing it for the culture. And that gave me the courage to push through moments where I felt like I didn’t belong and to keep going.
In your book and interviews, you’ve talked a lot about agency and the liberating power of saying no to things that don’t serve your goals. What should Black designers and stylists say no to as they navigate the industry?
The reality is saying no is a privilege that a lot of young Black designers don’t have. You have to earn your leverage to say no. There are certain things absolutely you should say no to. But I think it starts with understanding who you are, who you’re here to serve, and knowing your why. That is going to inform every yes and no you make along your journey. And it’s important to give yourself grace while you’re in that process of self-discovery.
It takes time to develop discernment. Also, when you’re desperate to find your footing in an industry that is not set up for you to win, sometimes you have to make compromises. And that’s just real talk.
I think you say no to predatory investors. So often, Black designers aren’t even in the conversation or at the tables to have access to funding. Then when we do, we jump at it. Sometimes it’s worth a prudent reminder that not all money is good money. You also don’t have to say yes to every offer, and you have to read the fine print. At any point where you feel like you’re being asked to compromise on those three things — who you are, who you’re doing it for, and why — don’t do it. Because those are the things that will sustain you.
At Teen Vogue, you broke one of the many long-standing racial barriers in fashion media. You also played a pivotal role in using the beauty and style beat as a vehicle for larger social commentary for young people. How did you bridge that gap, and where can fashion journalism go from here as the political landscape continues to evolve?
Fashion is political. It’s always been political. It will always be political. My first mentor, Harriette Cole, my first boss at Ebony, she’d always say: “Fashion reflects the truth about where we are in our culture.” Something to that effect.
And it’s so true. It opens the door to conversations you might not be able to have otherwise. At Teen Vogue, we used this fascination with fashion as a platform to talk about deeper cultural and social issues that impact all of us. It democratized the fashion conversation and created more entry points for people to feel like they’re a part of this broader fashion conversation. You can’t separate the power of fashion from the power of representation. My work in fashion was largely focused on celebrating representation and opening the door to bring new names, new faces, new talent to the forefront that might not otherwise be seen.
And that felt like something I could be proud of. I always wrestled with the frivolous perception of fashion. I needed to find the meaning for myself and make sure that what I was putting into the world really mattered. I wanted to make sure that my work always existed at the intersection of style and substance.
I wanted to make sure that my work always existed at the intersection of style and substance.
I am really proud of the work that Teen Vogue did to open the door for Black and Brown and queer image makers and storytellers to be validated in this industry and to have their work showcased. And I know it shifted the culture of fashion media and the conversations that we were allowed to have in that context.
Marrying the personal with politics through fashion felt, at the time, strangely revolutionary when it shouldn’t have been. This is not something Teen Vogue invented at all. There have been so many activists in this space long before us. But I just think that, in that moment, we were carrying forward that movement.
Some say the promises of inclusion in luxury fashion, prompted by the George Floyd protests, have stagnated since 2020. How do you feel about the industry’s relationship with Black creatives now compared to the past?
The relationship has been pretty transactional. It’s been very seasonal, temporal if you will. When there is a call to action from the people and pressure to change coming from the outside, you see fashion will respond accordingly. And as soon as that pressure wanes, you see the industry slip right back into the status quo. So I think it’s just a message for all of us that we have to keep the pressure on.
The progress and the regression that we’re witnessing is not new. There was so much diversity in fashion in the ’70s, and then it went away. And then the ’90s were just whitewashed. You had token Black models, and even they were very slender.
That historical context is helpful whenever I feel disenchanted or discouraged about the waning interest in doing the right thing. It does feel exhausting. It’s like, “Ugh, didn’t we already do this in 2008, 2012, 2020? Haven’t we been loud enough? Haven’t we been consistent enough? What more do we have to do?” But that’s when you have to talk to your elders and understand the work that they’ve been doing and how long they’ve been in it, and make sure that you’re educating the next generation on that history and making sure they understand their role in carrying out this legacy of changemaking within this space.
On “Project Runway,” what designs are the most moving to you? Is there a common thread (pun intended)?
It’s the challenges that require them to go into a deeply personal place and to dig deep to be resourceful and creative. It’s the challenges where the parameters are really narrow and squeeze out what they’re really made of. When the pressure cooker gets cranked way up, and the constraints get really tight, that’s when you see magic. That’s when you see their genius come forth or you see a complete breakdown.
When the pressure cooker gets cranked way up, and the constraints get really tight, that’s when you see magic.
I will never forget the unconventional challenge, season 19, when the designer who went on to win that season gave us, I’m not even joking, it was giving couture.
It was high fashion. She made the dress out of straws that she spray-painted black, and it looked like a latex leather, bodycon, structural invention that just blew our minds. It was unbelievable to us that she was able to do it with the materials that she had at her disposal. This is a young woman of color from Colombia. All of the chips were stacked against her, coming to America as an immigrant, as a woman, as a mother, as a wife.
She had just had a baby that she left at home to come make her mark on this industry. I cried on that one. I just saw something so incredibly special in her, and I was so grateful that this platform exists for designers like her to get their moment. It feels really good to know that we are opening up this fun, dramatic, awesome entry point for designers who live in the margins to be seen by the mainstream. That makes me feel the most emotional and proud.
The show has also made a point of emphasizing size inclusivity in the past few seasons, and often it’s been models and designers of color leading that representation. How do you see this drive impacting the industry as a whole? What other ways is “Project Runway” pushing boundaries?
On “Project Runway,” it’s a major priority. It’s fashion for the people. So to not reflect the people watching the show would just be a disservice to our viewers.
One other area that we are pushing the envelope is dressing for all genders, including gender-nonconforming folks. This season, we have one gender-nonconforming designer who actually has transitioned in their identity since previously being on the show.
I also think showcasing designers who are older and coming back. Before, there was this idea that we are giving young designers their first big break, but in this case, because it’s an all-star season, you’re seeing designers from season one, 20 years ago, come back and show us a new side of themselves. It celebrates this idea that you’re ever-evolving as a creative and it’s not that your career is over if you haven’t made it by 30 or 40. I think that’s super inspiring. That’s part of this larger conversation about diversity also representing every age, size, and background, and just normalizing, being different from what we’ve traditionally seen centered in fashion.
You’ve pivoted several times in your career, from journalism to entertainment, writing to hosting to acting, yet fashion has been a consistent presence in every project. With the recent move to LA, we can’t help but wonder: What’s next?
I feel like I’m in my “next.” I’m embracing motherhood and adulthood. Work-life balance and this concept of “soft life” has really appealed to me. I literally have been working multiple jobs since I was 14, and I’m still working a ton, but my relationship to work is shifting. I am working on a second book as well, but I’m working at a different intensity — I have better boundaries now.
That feels like an accomplishment for me. I just said this to Jonathan last night while driving home from a concert. I had the best time, and we’re looking out over the LA skyline, and I said, “I really enjoy our lifestyle in LA.” To be honest, I didn’t even know what lifestyle meant until I moved to LA because in New York, you don’t have a lifestyle — you have a “workstyle.” In LA, you get to build this holistic world for yourself that is inclusive of work, but it is not to the detriment of the rest of your life.
I am having a really good time integrating this new sense of balance, especially with having a baby. I’m just relishing this moment, and I’m trying to constantly practice what I preach regarding, “It’s either a ‘hell yes’ or a ‘no.'”
Figuring out how to have the greatest impact with your time and energy is the goal in this season.
This feature is part of “Black Ensemble,” a series celebrating Black leaders, innovators, and trendsetters in the fashion industry.
Correction: July 7, 2023 – An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the publication where Welteroth started her career. She worked at Ebony magazine, not Ebony Fashion Fair.