‘What makes it Them is us.’
Phillip Picardi and his LGBTQ team are giving Condé Nast an authentic queer voice. Meet Them.
By Raven Smith
Video by Brigitte Lacombe
In a roundabout way, Them was conceived through anal sex. In July 2017, Vogue’s cover story featured it-couple Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik apparently ‘embracing gender fluidity’ by swapping clothes. It was a heavy-handed and tone-deaf approach to gender identity that outraged millennial readers and forced Vogue to apologize: ‘we missed the mark.’ Only a week before, little sister online publication, Teen Vogue, under the digital direction of Phillip Picardi, a then-25-year-old from Boston, had released a guide to safe anal sex, which said, ‘It’s important that we talk about all kinds of sex’. The use of ‘we’ here demonstrated the implicitly inclusive nature of the publication: peer-to-peer millennial discourse, rather than teacher-pupil education (albeit written by a millennial self-described sex educator). In a seismic shift, Vogue talking about millennials was eclipsed by Teen Vogue talking with millennials.With Picardi overseeing its all-important digital output, Teen Vogue was pivoting from mini-fashionista editorial to voice of a new, alert, engaged generation. Typified by that sex-advice feature, Teen Vogue’s sincere lateral tone of voice and non-salacious practicality resonated, shrewdly harnessing the power of the most underestimated group on the planet: teenage girls. Vogue’s little sister was woke and not going back to sleep.
Within days, Picardi – who was increasingly being recognized for spearheading Teen Vogue’s record-breaking digital growth – was summoned to have lunch with Condé Nast’s artistic director Anna Wintour to discuss future opportunities. A kind of Condé Nast carte blanche. And so, the idea for Them, a next-generation digital platform produced by and for the LGBTQ community, was conceived. According to Condé Nast’s press release about Them, Gen Z-ers ‘support brands that take a stand on issues they believe in personally’ and ‘more than half of Gen Z identifies as queer’.
A social-change-focused LGBTQ platform was an inevitable and savvy addition to the company’s portfolio.
Channelling Gen Z’s energy into meaningful audience-first editorial is now Picardi’s raison d’être. As chief content officer of Them (a role he has added to his continuing duties at Teen Vogue), Picardi is responsible for a team chronicling next-gen millennial stories and voices, harnessing and amplifying these expressions of change. Them puts LGBTQ identity politics front and centre as previously specialized social-media discussions punch into the mainstream consciousness. Them is a pastel-coloured rolling newsfeed of verbal and visual expressions of the modern (predominantly US-based) queer experience. Its stories showcase the intersectional narratives that have often fallen between the gaps of our worldview. It is a mix of earnest activism and bold optimism: a tender (and eerily accurate) self-care monthly horoscope sits alongside pieces questioning queer representation at the Oscars, fat-phobia in the bear community, and assessing whether ‘Ancient Egypt was totally queer’. The platform is an uroboros, receiving feedback as it’s transmitting; Them’s audience simultaneously absorbs information and responds immediately, with commentary that shapes future stories, adding to the endless reciprocal Internet conversation. A stream of consciousness from a generation of evolving thinkers, with ideas being processed and published in tandem, Them is a thesis developing in real time.
Earlier this year System asked London-based writer and creative director Raven Smith to interview Phillip Picardi, the man the New York Times recently labelled ‘Condé Nast’s 26-Year-Old Man of the Moment’. The first time in February 2018 during London Fashion Week the pair shared a pitstop high tea. For the second, a month later, Smith travelled to Condé Nast’s New York headquarters at One World Trade Center, where he also met and interviewed the Them team.