JOE ZEE Fashion Guru
THE GIG This former Torontonian, who’s now based in NYC and L.A., shares an excerpt from his new book, That’s What Fashion Is. STYLE SAVANT “I’m so inspired by Rihanna. I love that she can literally wear anything and pull it off. It’s a real skill to be able to turn the worst
look of the season into something great.” n
I remember being 16 and talking to George, a much older friend of mine in Toronto, about wanting to move to New York to do something—what, I wasn’t sure—with clothes and fashion and magazines. George was a hairdresser, and so when he told me, “You should be a stylist,” I thought he was talking about cutting hair. “No disrespect,” I told him. “I like what you do. But I don’t think I’d be any good at cutting hair.” When he told me that he meant a wardrobe stylist, I was confused. That’s a job? To pick out clothes? To shop for other people? And they pay you? I didn’t get it.
A few months later, George called to ask if I might be interested in styling a “test shoot” he was doing with a photographer, a makeup artist and a model. This is something creative types often do (when they have the time) in order to experiment, help fill out their portfolios, or just have fun. I said yes right away, though I still had plenty of questions, including: What was it, exactly, I’d be doing again? “You can dress the model however you want,” he told me.
Armed with that and little else, I went to all the local department stores, charged armfuls of clothes to my mother’s credit card—looking, I’m sure, like a young drag queen getting ready for the show of his life—and then hauled the bags and bags of pretty dresses and coats and shoes and tights to a dirty warehouse in east Toronto. This would mark the beginning of my penchant for over-pulling and over-prepping for magazine shoots. I might bring ten racks of clothes and some fifty-five pairs of shoes for a one-girl story. The more stuff, the better, because I never know how I’ll feel in the moment and the worst is being on some remote set and wishing I’d just packed that one busted skirt everyone despised. A skirt is never so perfect as when it’s three thousand miles away. I am sure many other stylists will tell you the same thing.
During the daylong shoot in the Toronto warehouse, I kept all the sales tags attached, was super careful when getting the model dressed, and when the photographer asked me about pinning and taping things to fit the girl (who knew stylists did that?—because, let’s face it, I had never done this before), I inwardly freaked out. This photographer wanted me to pierce these new clothes with a pin? And where exactly was I getting this pin? Yeah, suddenly, in my disorganization, dressing someone seemed a little less fun. Instead I found a piece of masking tape that had been used to tape a shopping bag shut and I carefully pulled that off and used it masterfully to make the shirt look more fitted. Looking back, I realize I MacGyvered my way into this career. When the shoot was done, I returned everything immediately to all the department stores, making absolutely no eye contact with the disapproving saleswomen but secretly feeling so satisfied. I don’t even remember much of the in-between, including what the photos looked like, but I will never forget the intoxicating feeling of walking through the mall on a mission to make something of my very own. From that day on, I was a stylist.