Condé Nast’s 26-Year-Old Man of the Moment

Within 20 minutes of our interview, I knew a lot about Phillip Picardi. He is, for example, an Aries with a Leo rising and a Sagittarius moon. When he was in elementary school, he didn’t smile for three years because he was “so inspired by Victoria Beckham and Posh Spice.” In his teenage years, the background of his MySpace page was a “giant collage of shirtless dudes.”

We met for breakfast at the Odeon in TriBeCa, a restaurant that has become a meeting spot for the Condé Nast editors and executives who work about nine blocks away, at One World Trade Center. At age 26, Mr. Picardi, the head of Teen Vogue, is a rising star at this glossiest of magazine publishers, whose titles also include Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. Anna Wintour, the empress of fashion and Condé Nast’s artistic director, has signaled her approval of Mr. Picardi in ways big and small, and in a phone interview she described him to me as “marvelous.”

He has worked at Condé Nast more or less since he was a freshman at New York University — “I heard the Olsen twins went there” — and distinguished himself with his performance as the digital editorial director of Teen Vogue.

Under his guidance, the magazine’s website reached a new audience when it published, soon after Election Day, an online opinion piece by Lauren Duca headlined “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.” The #resistance crowd favorited it, the president-elect’s fans denounced it, and social media users in the habit of sharing New Republic think pieces were unexpectedly tweeting about a publication known for fashion tips and relationship advice.

Teen Vogue gained further momentum when Dan Rather wrote about it on his Facebook page and Tucker Carlson sparred with Ms. Duca on Fox News. After that, Trevor Noah welcomed Mr. Picardi and the Teen Vogue editor, Elaine Welteroth, to “The Daily Show,” and the publication they oversaw was no longer just another magazine for adolescent girls.

Since then, Teen Vogue has shut down its print edition, but Mr. Picardi has collected new responsibilities. After Ms. Welteroth left Condé Nast in January, Condé Nast named him the chief content officer of Teen Vogue. He has also started a new digital project at the company, an L.G.B.T. community platform called Them, which has drawn support from advertisers including Burberry, Google, Lyft and Glaad.

To Ms. Wintour, Mr. Picardi is someone who fits the cultural moment — he’s the ideal promoter of a millennial-flavored brand of anti-Trump activism and identity politics that is gaining strength in a stormy political atmosphere.

“He understands how young people are thinking today,” Ms. Wintour said. “He’s very activist, he’s very engaged. He wants to make waves, which I think is important. He wants to cause a conversation, not in an angry way but in a helpful way.”

At the Odeon, Mr. Picardi wore an outfit he referred to as his “pajamas” — midnight blue velvet pants and a matching shirt from the Sies Marjan label. Despite his swift rise at a company known for its Versailles-style office politics, Mr. Picardi said he was not the calculating sort. “I’m never making an effort to behave any differently or modify my behavior,” he said over poached eggs and avocado.

It is not difficult to see why Mr. Picardi — who goes by Phill, with two L’s, thank you very much — has impressed his boss, particularly at a time when Condé Nast is looking for its next generation of (younger, cheaper) leaders. Even at his age, he is polished, with a repertoire of life-affirming stories. One of his go-tos: “I got in trouble for bringing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera CDs to second-grade class because I was in Catholic school and they freaked out and said it was too sexual and I was like, ‘That’s the point.’”

During our interview, Mr. Picardi noted that Teen Vogue’s monthly traffic under his team had gone from two million unique visitors to 12 million. “Not to toot my own horn, that is very hard,” he said. Traffic has since fallen, but his success has resonated inside One World Trade.

“People in the building are always referring to things that were instituted at Teen Vogue and now at ‘them,’” said Amy Astley, the editor of Architectural Digest and a former editor of Teen Vogue, who hired Mr. Picardi as an intern. “I honestly think that people in the company wish him well and are not jealous of him and are learning from him.”

Mr. Picardi grew up in North Andover, Mass. His father, a devout Catholic, owned a technology company. His mother was a homemaker and an executive assistant. He had four siblings, including a sister who used to paint his nails pink and a brother named John Paul, after the pope. Family dinners sometimes included Mr. Picardi’s grandmother, who moved to America from a mountain village in Italy.

“My dad used to pick the sausages out of the sauce and eat them with his fingers, and my mom would cry,” Mr. Picardi said.

It made for a sometimes challenging environment for the young Mr. Picardi. “I was gay,” he said. “G.A.Y., with an exclamation mark and a little asterisk.”

He came out to his parents in the summer before ninth grade. It was 2 in the morning, and Mr. Picardi, who had just finished watching “Queer as Folk,” burst into their bedroom and said: “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you.” His mother sobbed as he said everything he had to say. Ten minutes later, his father rolled over and asked what was going on. He had slept through it.

His parents sent him to a Catholic therapist and instructed him not to tell his neighbors, his friends or his younger brother. But with his identity solidified, he began shaping his future. Before coming out, he had wanted to be a lawyer. Now, he decided, he should work in fashion.

“I watched ‘Will & Grace,’ and that’s what it felt like they were doing, more or less,” he said.

At a bookstore, he picked up copies of Out and Details. Then he saw it: Vogue.

“I picked up a copy of Vogue just because I was, like, I need to know about women’s fashion now, because I’m gay,” he said. “Jack and Will make fun of everything Grace wears on ‘Will & Grace,’ so I need to be like that.”

He helped start a charity fashion show at his high school, Central Catholic High School, called Catwalk4Cancer, which has since raised more than $250,000.

“He had the ability to make people do what he wanted them to do,” said Carmen Lonero, a teacher who served as his adviser on the project. “I always knew he was going to do something that was special.”

What set Mr. Picardi on a path toward working in magazines was a Vanity Fair cover story he read on Jennifer Aniston and the celebrity love triangle that involved Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

During his first week at N.Y.U., Mr. Picardi attended New York Fashion Week, covering an Alexandre Herchcovitch show for the shopping and style website Racked. Some months later, he had the internship at teenvogue.com. He became a beauty intern after writing a blog post, “BrowBeat: Confessions of an Over-Tweezed Teen,” about his eyebrows, following a painful experience with online bullying. He graduated a year early and became the head of Teen Vogue’s website at 23.

His duties have been expanded as Condé Nast is facing the financial challenges brought about by dwindling print circulations and listless ad sales. No longer a workplace of editors with plenty of leisure time and endless expense accounts, the company is surrendering to the economic realities and staccato rhythms of digital journalism.

Radhika Jones, a former books editor at The New York Times, replaced Graydon Carter as the editor of Vanity Fair, which has laid off a number of senior staff members who had worked under him. Samantha Barry, a former executive producer at CNN, has taken over Glamour from another veteran editor, Cynthia Leive. In addition to closing Teen Vogue’s print edition, Condé Nast has reduced the print frequency of titles including GQ, Architectural Digest, W and Allure.

In this more parsimonious age, Mr. Picardi has emerged as the face of what Condé Nast calls its Next Gen network, which includes online titles like The Hive and Healthyish.

Until recently, another rising star at the company was Ms. Welteroth, who was named the editor in chief of Teen Vogue in April. Not long after the announcement, Ms. Wintour asked Mr. Picardi to lunch. Over salmon, in a conference room in the building, she asked him what he wanted to do long term.

“I had a very pretty clear idea in my mind how he was going to answer, but I wanted it, obviously, to come from him,” Ms. Wintour said.

Mr. Picardi was not surprised by the question. “I was ready for something new,” he said. “And I think she just sensed it.”

He pitched her the idea for what would become Them.

Ms. Wintour was interested. As the magazine business contracts, Condé Nast has been betting on less expensive, digital projects, and Them could serve as a template.

“It was a no-brainer,” Ms. Wintour said. “It just seemed like, yeah, this is right. This is what Condé Nast should be doing.”

For anyone at the company or in the fashion world who had missed it, the bond between the Condé Nast artistic director and her new protégé became all too clear in June at the annual Council of Fashion Designers of America awards dinner. Seated at Ms. Wintour’s table in the Hammerstein Ballroom, along with Nicole Kidman, Tory Burch and Huma Abedin, and wearing a Bally summerweight suit the color of rosé, was Mr. Picardi.

In November, Ms. Wintour stood at Mr. Picardi’s side at a Condé Nast party held in honor of Them at Mission Chinese Food, a hip restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Among the guests were Chelsea Manning and Rose McGowan.

The L.B.G.T.-centric platform is so new that it is hard to tell how it will fare. In its first three months, it attracted fewer than 1.5 million total unique visitors, according to internal data. Teen Vogue, though still enjoying its run as an online voice for progressive politics, has been unable to sustain its momentum. In the last three months of 2017, it drew on average fewer than six million monthly unique visitors.

Mr. Picardi said he was unfazed. “I think uniques are less and less a standard-bearer of success,” he said. His plans for Teen Vogue include a restructuring that would have one team devoted to the latest news and another focused on features. He also said he would like to turn last year’s outrage into action.

But if Mr. Picardi’s rise owes something to identity politics, the same line of thinking can be used against him. A recent Daily Beast article, for instance, questioned whether he was the right person to run Teen Vogue.

“By quietly installing a white man at its helm, Teen Vogue, a platform seeking to empower young intersectional feminists, has arguably taken a step backwards,” the author argued. (“I think whoever wrote that is not looking at the person,” Ms. Wintour said.)

Mr. Picardi’s flair for riding a cultural wave continues to win him key fans in the building. “I think there’s no end to his potential,” Robert A. Sauerberg Jr., Condé Nast’s chief executive, said. “He’s innovative, he knows the marketplace, he knows young people, he knows all ages, he’s not afraid, he’s courageous, he’s a brand-builder, he’s a culture-driver. And it’s just in his bones — it’s not like you trained him. It’s just there.”

When I asked Ms. Wintour if she thought Mr. Picardi could one day run Condé Nast, she did not swat away the question. “For Phill, anything is possible,” she said. “It’s his road to take.”