Guru of style

Strug­gling fash­ion de­sign­ers get help from an in­dus­try ex­pert in a new TV se­ries.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By WIL­LIAM K.C. KEE star2@thes­

One of fash­ion’s friendli­est am­bas­sadors, Amer­i­can stylist and creative di­rec­tor of Elle mag­a­zine Joe Zee helps tal­ented de­sign­ers res­cue their busi­nesses in a new tele­vi­sion se­ries.


ARMED with his lit­tle black book of in­dus­try in­sid­ers and fash­ion pow­er­house friends, Joe Zee is the man you’d want as an ally. Es­pe­cially if you’re a fash­ion de­signer who wants a shot at suc­cess.

Zee, 42, is an Amer­i­can stylist and creative di­rec­tor of Elle mag­a­zine. He ap­pears on Li’s new TV se­ries All On The Line in which he dis­penses ad­vice to strug­gling cou­turi­ers.

Renowned as one of fash­ion’s friendli­est am­bas­sadors, Zee – who was a re­cur­ring char­ac­ter on re­al­ity se­ries The City – has earned an im­pres­sive num­ber of ac­co­lades.

He has been de­scribed in a New York Times pro­file as a leader in the mass mar­ket and dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion of fash­ion: “A chatty and ap­proach­able am­bas­sador of fash­ion who has ag­gres­sively thrust him­self in front of hoi pol­loi us­ing Twit­ter, blogs and – most vis­i­bly – tele­vi­sion.”

With an il­lus­tri­ous list of celebrity clients and trend set­ting trans­for­ma­tions – he is re­spon­si­ble for Justin Tim­ber­lake’s makeover which el­e­vated him from an awk­ward boy­band mem­ber to a sharp-suited, sexy solo star, prompt­ing the Frank Si­na­tra-style come­back – and high-pro­file col­lab­o­ra­tions with pho­tog­ra­phers such as An­nie Lei­bovitz and Mario Testino, Zee is re­garded as one of the world’s top stylists.

Zee was born in Hong Kong but his fam­ily moved to Toronto when he was just a year old. He stepped into the world of fash­ion in 1990 at the age of 22 and ended up mov­ing to New York to en­rol at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Zee wears sev­eral hats at once – equal parts style guru, ther­a­pist, fab­ric sourcer, coun­sel­lor and busi­ness man­ager – to pro­vide a prac­ti­cal, mar­ket-savvy per­spec­tive that both al­lows the de­signer’s aes­thetic am­bi­tions to flour­ish while ring­ing up the rev­enue.

In All On The Line, Zee helps tal­ented de­sign­ers res­cue their busi­nesses from the brink of bank­ruptcy, com­pletely re­design their lack­lus­tre lines and present their re­vi­talised col­lec­tions to lead­ing re­tail­ers.

But as ex­pected, when pas­sion­ate per­son­al­i­ties go head-to-head with real risks at stake, fash­ion boot camp can get fiery. Real life also comes with the caveat of no guaran-guar­an­teed happy end­ings – if de­sign­ers aban­don Zee’s ad­vice and fail to adopt an ap­proach thatthat com­bines the best of art and com­merce, there can be rocky re­sults.

Can Zee help de­sign­ers cre­ate lines that buy­ers will love? Can he show them how to sell their cre­ations with­out sell­ing out?

“Some de­sign­ers com­pletely made it, but some com­pletely lost it,” says Zee. “And I can tell you: you need a thick skin to sur­vive. Yes, I was ex­pect­ing drama – but I wasn’t ex­pect­ing the drama I saw!”

In an e-mail in­ter­view, Zee touches on his nice-guy rep­u­ta­tion and re­veals juicy titbits about the show.

You’ve been touted as “fash­ion’s friendli­est am­bas­sador”, prov­ing that nice guys don’t fin­ish last! How do you man­age to dole out hon­est fash­ion ad­vice while pre­serv­ing the peace with the de­sign­ers on your show? And where do you get the pa­tience to deal with flare-ups from the very peo­ple you’re try­ing to help?

I think my goal with do­ing All On The Line has al­ways been to be “me”. I have never tried to play a char­ac­ter but re­ally bring out the best in ev­ery de­signer. I won’t ap­pease you just to be kind. I think that does a dis­ser­vice. These de­sign­ers need me to be as hon­est as pos­si­ble and if I’m tough, it’s be­cause I know their po­ten­tial is far greater than what they’re show­ing me. On an episode of All on the line, you told Kara Janx (a pre­vi­ous con­tes­tant on Project run way) that “this isn’t Project Run­way.” How dif­fer­ent is All on the line from other de­signer-fo­cused shows?

All On The Line is not a com­pe­ti­tion or game show. It’s about real life, real busi­nesses, real prob­lems. These de­sign­ers have in­vested every­thing they have in or­der to make their busi­nesses work and some­where along the way, they’ve hit a road­block. I do my best to help them over­come that by work­ing with them on their prob­lems and their prod­uct, and hope­fully by the end, I can have a ma­jor re­tailer buy their col­lec­tion. There is no grand prize. The ul­ti­mate prize is the suc­cess of their busi­ness.

They say that one should never be­lieve their own hype. What are some of the warn­ing signs of a fail­ing line, and how do de­sign­ers pre­vent a fur­ther down­ward spi­ral?

I think first of all, ev­ery de­signer needs to have a look at their col­lec­tion from an ob­jec-ob­jec­tive point of view. You can’t live in the bub­ble of what you do and not be con­scious of every­thing else hap­pen­ing in the world of fash­ion. Are you rel­e­vant? Does your col­lec­tion make sense in the grand scheme of things? I think that’s what I pro­vide for many of the de­sign­ers – that ob­jec­tive third party point of view.

How do de­sign­ers truly ac­cess their level of suc­cess, from both a com­mer­cial and creative per­spec­tive?

I think that ul­ti­mate suc­cess for any de­signer is fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and be­ing able to sell their col­lec­tion. If a ma­jor store chooses to buy your col­lec­tion, it’s real val­i­da­tion that what you are do­ing is rel­e­vant. What ad­vice would you give to de­sign­ers who want to cre­ate stylish, sell­able cloth-

ing with­out sell­ing out on their de­sign aes­thetic?

Al­ways have a strong point of view. Be­ing com­mer­cial doesn’t mean be­ing bor­ing, and you can see how it worked for one but not the other. Many times de­sign­ers think “com­mer­cial” is a dirty word but how dirty can suc­cess be?

You jug­gle many roles – creative di­rec­tor at Elle, a help­ing hand for strug­gling de­sign­ers, fash­ion’s man about town. What drives your dis­tinct ded­i­ca­tion to the fash­ion in­dus­try and all things stylish?

I love the fash­ion in­dus­try be­cause it changes con­stantly and that’s what keeps it ex­cit­ing. What other in­dus­try can say that?

If you could fea­ture any Asian de­sign­ers from these coun­tries on your show, whose brands would you like to bring to the next level?

I am not very fa­mil­iar with too many Asian brands but I would love to work with them on All On The Line! Maybe we will do an Asia spe­cial!

Your phi­los­o­phy isn’t just about the clothes on the shoot, but how all the el­e­ments – the hair and make-up, the model, the idea – have to come to­gether to make it great. Can you tell us the ba­sic cor­ner­stones that ev­ery­one needs to pull to­gether their own great looks?

I think style is about a to­tal pack­age. It isn’t just about clothes. Clothes should be part of the can­vas of style, with hair, make-up and at­ti­tude, and per­son­al­ity should play a ma­jor role. Fash­ion and per­sonal style should tell a story.

Your first fash­ion job started with a Club Monaco store in Toronto. What tips do you have for any­one try­ing to break into the fast, fu­ri­ous, and some­times fickle, fash­ion scene?

Per­se­v­er­ence. I think I have been very lucky with all my op­por­tu­ni­ties but at the same time, I have worked very hard. Stick with it, even when it seems dif­fi­cult, in or­der to tap into your best po­ten­tial.

You’ve worked with an end­less list of lu­mi­nar­ies – Mario Testino, An­nie Lei­bovitz, Pa­trick De­marche­lier, to name a few. Do you have any favourites that you’d love to col­lab­o­rate with more in the fu­ture?

I love work­ing with ev­ery pho­tog­ra­pher be­cause they bring com­pletely dif­fer­ent points of view to what we are do­ing. My first job was with Richard Ave­don which is be­yond in­cred­i­ble, but Carter Smith is some­one who’s been a close friend for the past 20 years and we’ve col­lab­o­rated in so many dif­fer­ent ways.

A typ­i­cal day sees you do­ing a mil­lion things all at once. What do you do in your spare time to un­wind and re­lax?

I love pop cul­ture. So I love read­ing, go­ing to the movies, even check­ing out the lat­est art exhibitions. I’m also a big fan of dance and you can of­ten find me in dance classes, and fi­nally, I love cook­ing big din­ner par­ties for all my friends.

You are very so­cial me­dia-friendly. What is the most mem­o­rable thing that a fan or fol­lower has ever tweeted you?

A sweet girl from Ge­or­gia that I met on the street in Sa­van­nah, wrote me a rap and recorded it and put it up on YouTube. And she’s just 14!

You’re al­ways sharply suited. Do you have any per­sonal style icons?

Per­sonal style icons for me are peo­ple that are stylish, break bound­aries, dic­tate ideas but with­out try­ing, like John F. Kennedy Jr, Kurt Cobain or even Kate Mid­dle­ton.

What are your thoughts on the Asian style scene? Do you read any street style blogs

or fash­ion chron­i­cles from the re­gion?

I am ob­sessed with the Asian style scene. I was in Asia a few times last year, and I love Tokyo and Hong Kong, where the styles are so met­ro­pol­i­tan but mixed up in a very unique way.

If you could style any fa­mous fig­ure from the past, who would it be and why?

I would love to style Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe. How amaz­ing would that be to lay claim to that? Plus she is such an in­spi­ra­tion for so many of my style im­ages.

As a pop cul­ture junkie, who do you feel most de­fines the cur­rent look of to­day? Is there any par­tic­u­lar fash­ion­ista whose dif­fer­ent looks you look for­ward to ev­ery time?

Kate Moss has been in­cred­i­bly de­fin­i­tive of to­day’s times. She’s al­ways un­pre­dictable but in­cred­i­bly chic in every­thing she wears – from her own wed­ding dress to some­thing at the Glas­ton­bury Mu­sic Fes­ti­val.

With the Asian re­gion pos­sess­ing some of the most ex­cit­ing style scenes to­day – such as Jakarta’s vi­brancy – would you con­sider ex­pand­ing the reach of AllOn

The­Line to in­clude re­vamp­ing de­signer lines from the re­gion?

I would Love to do All On The Line: Hong

Kong! I was born there and it would be great to go back and work with de­sign tal­ent. Let’s make it hap­pen!

n All on the line pre­mieres this Sun­day at 10pm on Li (Astro B.yond chan­nel 706).

Here to help: Stylist and creative di­rec­tor Joe Zee in al­lOnTheLine, a show about real life, busi­nesses and prob­lems.

‘I think that ul­ti­mate suc­cess for any de­signer is fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and be­ing able to sell their col­lec­tion. If a ma­jor store chooses to buy your col­lec­tion, it’s real val­i­da­tion that what you are do­ing is rel­e­vant,’ says Zee, who is one of fash­ion’s friendli­est and most ap­proach­able am­bas­sadors.

Zee with de­signer dana Maxx in allOn

The­Line. Zee pro­vides a

prac­ti­cal, mar­ket-savvy per­spec­tive that both al­lows the de­signer’s

aes­thetic am­bi­tions to flour­ish while

ring­ing up the rev­enue.

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