Samhita Mukhopadhyay is all hair, smiles, and laughter when she breezes into Tribeca’s Spring Place Studios on a rainy Tuesday morning. Swinging her jet-black mane and an equally giant Saint Laurent handbag (a recent obsession, she confesses), Teen Vogue’s Executive Editor immediately injects a buoyant energy into the dining room that the Barneys team has transformed into a makeshift photo studio for the day.
In between being beautified and tapping on her phone, the media veteran talks rave culture in ‘90s London, preparing for this month’s Teen Vogue Summit in L.A., and the science behind dating-app profile pictures. She may be the editor of a renowned fashion publication, but she doesn’t act like one, and in that, she immediately endears herself to everyone present. Unbeknownst to all of us, the career feminist journalist and two-time author is simultaneously putting out fires.
All of that aforementioned tapping on her phone is her responding, with aplomb, to an important email from her boss, Condé Nast’s Artistic Director and American Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour. Mukhopadhyay’s also toggling between a morning meeting with her staff on Slack, working to move along the day’s editorial flow of Teen Vogue and its breakout LGBTQI platform, them (the editor is overseeing both amid highly publicized top-line staff changeovers). Mukhopadhyay’s unique leadership style imbues undeniable grace and humor that feels unique to her — and has certainly served her well over her lengthy and impressive career, first as Feministing.com’s Executive Editor, which led to authoring 2011’s Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Life; a turn at Mic.com as the Editorial Director of Culture and Identities; a successful stint as a digital strategist for social justice campaigns; and most recently as a co-editor of last year’s best seller Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America.
For the longtime feminist and social justice activist, pivoting to fashion may have seemed seismic, but Mukhopadhyay’s appointment in March feels like an amalgamation of her background, and certainly a nod to the future of the industry itself. As an Indian-American desi woman, the daughter of immigrants, who spoke candidly with us on the continued work that needs to be done on size inclusivity, the editor serves as a lodestar of the change many fashion magazine mastheads will see in coming years.
And in so many ways Teen Vogue helped provoke that industry-wide shift. In recent years, the little sister to fashion behemoth Vogue has become, for lack of a better word, woke. Gone were the profiles on celebrity’s offspring, and in came a hearty political thrust and passion for pop culture that has the publication—which went fully digital in November 2017—taking on issues like gun rights in advance of the March for Your Our Lives protest, Muslim American identity, and inclusivity writ large within fashion. Opinionated, progressive, glossy, it was clear that identity politics are not detached from fashion for Teen Vogue, but very much inform it.
Still, for all its recent progress, media as a whole is in a precarious state—a serious topic Mukhopadhyay wrestles with often, and one she is charged with addressing for her brands. But at our shoot, the editor is thinking about some other brands, like Zero + Maria Cornejo, Roucha, and A.L.C., all of which she picks for her Barneys feature. Set against the plush red-carpeted backdrop of Spring Studio’s sunken room, each piece pops on the former riot grrrl and helps perfectly detail her career evolution from the women’s studies classroom to 1 World Trade Center. Here, the streetwear-obsessed magpie reveals all.
EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
“I’m from New York and grew up between the city and upstate. My parents instilled a strong, immigrant work ethic, but they also taught me to make decisions that bring me joy. They worked, but they were really involved in temple and had very active social lives and encouraged me to have a variety of interests outside of school. I believe that inspired me to always ask questions and be curious, which is a very important skill for an evolving career. My parents were also really strict and I rebelled—from that rebellion, I learned a lot about myself.”
“I read a lot as a kid and teen, and that encouraged me to consider what it would be like to write my own words. I always liked writing and was a very serious journaler. In college, my women’s studies education inspired me to write critical essays about culture, and that’s really where I formed my passion for writing. The work of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and other feminist philosophers inspired me to start telling my own story.”
THE MAKINGS OF A FEMINIST
“I learned about feminism through riot grrl culture. While I was not allowed to go to concerts, I had older friends who exposed me to music and zines that taught me about feminism. Later, this became my passion in academia. When I ended up writing for and eventually becoming the Executive Editor at Feministing.com, my feminism moved from academia to being applied to news and culture. My politics have had a lot of evolutions, but they’re ultimately rooted in equality and inclusion. The way I go about that has changed as I’ve learned more about how the world works. Some days, I miss the raw political energy I had when I was an independent writer, but now I’m excited to have access to a whole new generation that can be exposed to these ideas.”
TURNING A PASSION INTO A CAREER
“Women’s studies gave me the words to articulate my experience in a way that other disciplines hadn’t, but it also drew me in because I could actually see myself working in the field (mainly academia). I was always interested by gender dynamics and inequality, and the theory of it really spoke to me, but I never thought it would take me as far as it did. I figured I’d either go into academia or work at a nonprofit, which I did for years, but not actually be working on feminist storytelling.”
A NATURAL-BORN MEDIA QUEEN
“I’m not sure if there was ever one moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer—it was always this nagging thing I knew I wanted to do but didn’t think it was possible. Feministing.com started as a hobby, but I cultivated a practice for writing, and then when I got my first book deal I started to realize it could be a more serious endeavor. Between publishing a book and getting the job at Mic.com, I had a few years of working other jobs—mainly digital strategy and communications—before I finally got my break in media. Now it’s obvious this is what I was born to do.”
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
“I’ve always been interested in fashion, and Teen Vogue does a lot of political coverage, so going there made total sense for me. It’s been great learning more about the fashion industry and applying what I know to it because there is currently a thirst for and interest in diversity and inclusion in fashion, and to tackle ideas like cultural appropriation—something I’ve done for years—and [now I] can bring my expertise to our work here.”
TEEN VOGUE EVERY DAY
“A typical work day is an early start reading the news, logging onto Slack, and making sure the major stories for the day are covered. We have an edit meeting every day, and then it’s different meetings for all the different initiatives we have. There’re also a lot of events. I’m constantly on panels or doing radio or TV. I guess there is no typical day! My leadership style is definitely to lead with kindness but to be stern when needed. I like to keep things positive and empowering and work to elevate voices that are usually left out of the discussion. In terms of challenges in the workplace, I have a fairly intensive rubric of what is worth tackling and what is not. And if it’s confusing or HR related, I call my lawyer!”
THE PUNK GOES GUCCI
“My style has evolved over my career because the size of my body has changed, and as I’ve gotten older I wear different things. I’m always inspired by new trends, but I like to pair them with classics. I always wear big hoops. I used to dress a lot more punk, but now I’d say my outfits are more feminine, where I plan out my color palette and accessories game. Also, expensive designer handbags are a thing that happens these days and that wasn’t something I could afford when I was young. I love a good dress with a bold pattern, belt, and booties. I also love wide-leg pants, a bodysuit, and my favorite Nikes. For meetings, a great dress, usually something with a blouse-y top and a waist and a flare at the bottom. And Spanx. That’s how I know I’m ready.”
“I’ve always been involved with and interested in street style. It started with an interest in hip-hop culture, and then when I lived in California, spending time with skaters and DJs. My favorite pair of sneakers right now is a pair of all-white Air Max 90s—they add a nice vintage mood to all my outfits. And I pair them with dresses, pants, jumpsuits, and more.”
FASHION FOR ALL
“Fashion has yet to fully democratize in terms of who we see in ad campaigns, on the runway, and what is sold, especially for high end. There are some brands bringing more stylish choices to the table, but we often celebrate prematurely the few wins we’ve made, so it feels like there’s been more progress than there has been.”