Interview: 'Teen Vogue' Editor Elaine Welteroth Talks Favorite Denim Looks and Style Alter-Egos

From '90s R&B inspirations to one-piece getups, one of fashion's freshest editorial voices breaks down how and why she rocks denim.

The often staid and relatively predictable fashion industry received a shock back in May of this year when Teen Vogue announced it would be naming a new editor-in-chief, the first new editor since the magazine’s launch 13 years ago. That name was no other than Elaine Welteroth, whose rise to the top spot of the venerated marquee makes her only the second Black editor-in-chief in Teen Vogue parent company Conde Nast’s 107-year history.

Before landing at Teen Vogue, Elaine held positions as beauty and style editors at other chic fashion tomes like Glamour and Ebony. After years of editing Teen Vogue’s beauty style coverage, Welteroth is now working to bring diversity to the fashion world. Just this past year, the magazine has given covers to a number of fierce Black girls, including, most recently, Olympians Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, as well as Zendaya, Amanda Stenberg, Aya Jones, Lineisy Montero, and Chanel Iman.

Which is all a fancy way of saying that Elaine is basically the epitome of #BlackGirlMagic and is using her platform to show the world what that magic is all about. As she considered how to keep her office style cool and work-appropriate when she assumed her new role, Welteroth turned to her love of denim to find that balance.

She may be a businesswoman, but her style remains playful, chic and versatile, embodying denim's fun and free-spirited vibes. Today we learn about her jean-spirations, her feminine alter ego and how to handle a denim freak-out like a boss. 

BET: How would you describe your style?
Elaine Welteroth: First of all, that’s the hardest question in the world to ask someone who works in fashion. I think my style is a mix of quirky, eclectic, bright and fun, with a really sophisticated feminine silhouette. It’s interesting because I feel like I’ve always had a strong sense of personal style, but it wasn’t until recently on a trip to Amsterdam that I feel like I discovered this whole other side of myself. Her name is her Amelia and she is my style alter ego. I met her in a vintage store in Amsterdam where I literally found 20 dresses that fit her perfectly.
My style can be broken up into pre-Amelia and post Amelia. Before her I was very sporty; I was wearing a baseball cap everyday and always wore sneakers and my Balenciaga creepers. My everyday style was mostly edgy and relaxed. Then I met Amelia at that vintage store in Amsterdam where I tried on these amazing ‘40s-style floral print dresses that are super feminine and demure, all of which are totally not me. I began to infuse a bit of Elaine into Amelia by adding a leather jacket, an oversized denim jacket or wearing them (the ‘40s-styled dresses) with my Balenciaga boots, which are big and tough, to provide a mix of toughness and femininity. I found my new zone/style and brought it back to the States with me. I literally feel like I brought back a completely different personality, which is why I call her Amelia. She’s much sweeter, is modest, doesn’t curse and is simply a much better version of me.
Personal style says so much about who you are. What you wear can entice different things from within you. When I wear really loosely fitted denim, I tend to be more relaxed in my demeanor, but when I wear a dress that is 40’s style, it makes me feel very feminine and flirty, which directly translates into my personality. Every morning, it's about waking up and being like, “Who am I today?" An extension of that for me was naming that other side of myself. It is fun to play with fashion as a means of self-expression and that is what Teen Vogue is all about. We want to celebrate personal style and promote self-expression and creativity through the way you present yourself to the world. I truly believe that getting dressed in the morning is about deciding who you want to be, what you’re saying in the world, and how you want people to see you. It’s so much more than superficial. I feel like people in fashion get a bad rep sometimes, but fashion is truly an art form and a means of self-expression. It’s a way of commanding respect and constructing an image that you’re proud of.

How often do you wear denim and how important is it in your wardrobe?
There is always a bit of denim in my outfits everyday, especially on Fridays; that's when I usually go over the top with denim on denim on denim. It’s cool because at Teen Vogue, everyone is always wearing denim. For me, it is all about figuring out how to mix in a little bit of a casual youthful vibe with a sophisticated silhouette. For example, I’ll throw on a white blazer over a denim oversized pant, which is the perfect balance for me because it captures both aspects of my spirit.
Where would you say your love for denim began?
When I started my job at Teen Vogue about four years ago. Prior to that, I was very office appropriate and I didn’t take too many chances with my style at the office. I honestly don’t even think I owned a pair of jeans when I started my job at Teen Vogue. I stopped wearing denim in college, but it came back full force. I started small by wearing an oversized denim jacket, but it slowly became part of our culture here. Everyone at Teen Vogue wears denim. It’s a unique thing for an office environment, but I think it speaks to our lively spirit and the importance of bringing your personal style to work. Recently, I got to take a trip to Amsterdam with G-Star to a ginormous closet filled with their denim throughout history and it was absolutely incredible. I literally wanted to try on everything. The experience gave me a deeper appreciation for denim, the evolution it has gone through and the functional purposes it served when it was first introduced.
What’s your favorite style of jean and why?
I love so many different denim silhouettes, but I do love a denim onesie. I think you can’t go wrong with a '70s inspired, full-on head-to-toe denim moment. I also love high-waisted denim anything. I could also live in a high-waisted, huge flared denim pant every single day of my life and be happy. It just makes everything look right. I also love an oversized boyfriend jean. I feel so myself in a pant that feels comfy. Lastly, you can never go wrong with a great Levi mom jean that’s a little bit high-waisted.

What’s your favorite denim moment in hip-hop/R&B culture?
I would have to say hands down Aaliyah and her oversized boyfriend jeans with a low cut black tank top or halter top. That’s my summer vibe. I love, love, love that '90s feel. Speaking of '90s, I cannot speak about the '90s without talking about Sade. Sade is everything when it comes to denim. I personally try to channel a little Sade when I wear denim and usually pair it with a red lip (a la right now). She owns wearing denim with elegance and sophistication. Aaliyah and Sade are two of my style icons. 

What would you say are some of your favorite denim pieces?
This [one piece] is one of my favorites. I could also live in this outfit. It’s the easiest outfit and it kind of feels like pajamas, which is nice, but it also flatters your figure and pulls everything in. I feel like you could dress it up or down. It’s Reformation, which is a eco-friendly fashion line and I’m all about that. I could spend my entire paycheck at Reformation. Everything from there fits my body perfectly. I probably wear this one piece way too much. Don’t stroll through my Instagram because you will see this like ten times.
Another piece I love are these amazing two-toned Nasty Gal x After Party jeans. When I first saw them, I was scared and was like, “I don’t really get it.” It’s actually pretty random how I ended up with them. Someone in the office ordered them from Nasty Gal and they didn’t fit her so she was going around the office trying to sell them. I was like, “What is this? I’m busy, I don’t have time.” But then I finally tried them on and they fit perfectly. One side is some sort of old vintage Levi and I’m not sure what the front is, but they are so cute. They’re a little high-waisted, have a bit of a distressed feeling in the front and they just make my butt look really great.

What are some ways you can elevate a denim piece to make it office appropriate?
Ever since being promoted, I have become the queen of making a denim moment feel more professional. The day I got my promotion, I was on set and somebody called to tell me I needed to come back to the office at the drop of a dime because there was a huge, important meeting I needed to attend that I so did not plan for. I just so happen to be wearing denim baggy jeans; let’s just say this was not a situation in which you wanted to be wearing baggy jeans, but I had to make it work, so I rushed back to the office. Luckily, I keep a ton of shoes under my desk and I usually keep a white blazer in my office for moments like these, so I threw it on along with a pair of heels and it completely elevated the whole look. I went from being on set wearing sneakers with oversized denim and a hoodie to transforming my whole vibe into an office appropriate, denim power suit of sorts.

What are some pieces you like to mix with your denim?
The best thing about denim is that you can dress it up or down. When dressing up, I always go for a heel that usually has a print or a pattern to add a little bit of a personal flare to it. When I am on the go or it’s the weekend, I like rolling the bottom of my denim jeans and wearing it with a boot. I will throw on my Albertus Swanepoel “E” hat over any denim look. It feels like a nice New York weekend, but I also wear this [hat] to the office. Another item I like to mix with my denim is my leather bomber jacket from BLK DNM. I am so obsessed with it, that I wear it almost every single day. These Chloe boots are my go-tos. I adore the studs on them. I also love to mix my Balenciaga Creepers with denim; they’re my jam! I wear them with literally everything and I just like that they add a little bit of an edge to any look.

What’s your go-to denim look?

Exactly what I’m wearing right now (a Reformation bodysuit with plain turtle neck). If I don’t know what I’m going to wear and am in doubt, I just throw on the denim onesie, zip it up and I am good to go. I love that I can add a scarf or wear this completely zipped up and it gives you a completely different vibe. It can feel utilitarian, I can wear it with nothing underneath or I can wear it with a striped shirt. I’m all about taking one thing and reimagining it into several different ways.

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