Joe Zee: Leader of the fashion pack

By Zoe Walker

In his new show, Elle's Joe Zee acts as fashion mentor and brand manager for struggling young designers. He talks to Viva from New York.

Elle creative director Joe Zee stars in All on the Line. Photo / Supplied
Elle creative director Joe Zee stars in All on the Line. Photo / Supplied

Joe Zee is on the line, talking about his new show which has just premiered on New Zealand television. The affable creative director of US Elle magazine is host of All on the Line, a reality show that sees him act as a guardian angel of sorts to struggling young designers, hoping his experience and expertise will help them break through and survive another season.

"I think what you're going to find is that it's a really true depiction of fashion that hasn't been on television before," he explains on the phone from New York, as busy NYC traffic blares in the background. He hopes to show the reality behind the glamour of fashion that is so often portrayed on screen.

"You see a lot of glitz and glam, but there's also a side of fashion that isn't The Devil Wears Prada. It's much more about hard work and passion and sweat - and sometimes you just don't make it."

Zee began filming season three of the show recently. He's a friendly but frank host. The New York Times may have described him as "fashion's approachable ambassador", but in the show Zee tells it like it is - he's realistic about the hard work and passion required to make it in the industry he's worked in for more than 20 years.

"It doesn't always happen, and I think when you watch season one you'll find that if you want it, it could happen for you. If you don't, if you're stubborn, if you don't want to try, if you don't want to think in a new way; it can all fall apart.

"That's the great thing about the show: there's no guaranteed happy ending."

Zee began his career as an assistant to the iconic fashion editor Polly Mellen at Allure, and went on to become the fashion editor at W magazine. He began at Elle in 2007, and has become something of a fashion personality; fully embracing the contemporary idea of fashion editor as a brand. Alongside his impressive portfolio of work - styling numerous Elle covers and photo shoots, Justin Timberlake's album cover Justified, the famous Vanity Fair cover with Tom Ford and a nude Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson - Zee is also a fashion television veteran, having made cameo appearances in MTV reality show The City, Elle's reality show Stylista, Gossip Girl and Ugly Betty.

In All on the Line Zee talks to many of the designers about the power of branding -"It's absolutely essential" - an idea that has translated from fashion designers to fashion editors themselves. Zee has become a brand, but he says he never set out to be one. Social media is a powerful tool for editors and designers, he says.

"You know, if I'm stuck in traffic, it's easy for me to write something on Twitter. Social media becomes part of a way you brand yourself. It's just me having fun, and I like it. I wouldn't do anything that I felt was a chore."

He's prolific on Twitter, tweeting several times a day and giving an insight into a life that comes across as both incredibly glamorous - "Walking by @ysl store, had to run in & buy a Stefano Pilati suit before its gone next season. Too big but I got it anyways. #FashionAnxiety" - and down to earth. "Finishing my July A to Zee column this morning and procrastinitis is setting in again. The kitchen cabinets have never been more organized."

All of that "tweeting" is an extension of his insatiable appetite for information and media. He reads most things on the internet, reading blogs and newspaper sites when he gets up in the morning and before he goes to bed.

"I learn a lot from the newsfeed on Twitter and Facebook. I think it's very interesting: people tend to think that social media is maybe a waste of time, but for me I actually get a lot of news from it. A lot of the things I've learned about what's happening in the world, I have to be honest, I learn first on Twitter," he explains. "It really speaks to what's happening: that the world really does get smaller on the internet. It's an ongoing conversation, all the time, that's a very interesting one."

It's also part of the idea of media being multi-platform and multi-dimensional. "You can't just put out a magazine and only a magazine, and expect people to understand," explains Zee. "You also have to put out things in a different platform - not everyone reads a magazine, not everyone watches TV, and not everyone goes on the internet. But if you're able to put your content in all those different arenas, you're definitely going to get a bigger audience."

That's an attitude Zee tries to impart to the designers that feature in the show: looking beyond traditional methods.

"You can't survive as a designer without branding," he says.

"It doesn't matter if you're starting out, or you're an established designer; if you're Michael Kors or you're somebody who's graduating who wants to be a designer - you have to have a brand, and you have to be able to have an identity and a point of view. There are so many avenues to do that.

"When I speak to designers and they say 'I have no money', I say 'Facebook is free!'. It's up to you to brand yourself, using whatever method you can. If you can't brand yourself, it's because your point of view and ideas aren't original."

So which young designers do have a strong point of view that Zee appreciates? He notes designers he has watched grow up and evolve, reflecting his role as fashion mentor: designers like Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, the girls from Rodarte and Anthony Vaccarello.

His favourite collection from the recent shows was another that was clearly defined and original.

"I loved Jil Sander. I thought Raf Simons' last collection was absolutely one of the most stunning, most beautifully designed collections I've seen in a long time."

Joe Zee's tips for making it in fashion

One: "Have a point of view. I tell every designer, I don't care what you do but have a point of view. Don't chase a trend, be what you do. Know your strengths and really cater to that; do the best at what you can do."

Two: "Really understand what you can do, I think that's a really important thing. A lot of them want to be something that they're not."

Three: "Really know your customer. I think a lot of people design for themselves, or a lot of people design for the industry, when if you want to make a real business, you want to understand that your customers, who are actually spending money to buy clothes, are not people in the fashion industry."

All on the Line on Vibe, Saturdays at 5.40pm

* Check out Viva's Facebook page, the place to find out what's hot in fashion, beauty, food, wine and design.

- NZ Herald

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