Guru of style
Struggling fashion designers get help from an industry expert in a new TV series.
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.
FRESHER FASTER FUNNIER
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.