Joe Zee Would Rather Talk Reality Than The City

Kerry Pieri

Joe Zee tows that perfect line between fashion and pop culture, and it’s not an easy line to tow. He’s built an enviable career in fashion, is still accessible enough to serve as an Oscar fashion correspondent, and is probably most recognizable to the 12-34 MTV demographic as the affable boss to Olivia Palermo‘s icy editor on The City.

The Creative Director of Elle is back in the reality TV game with All on the Line, which premiers tomorrow on the Sundance Channel. Zee explores the pressures on designers today, how a Project Runway contestant makes it in the real fashion world, on TV (so meta!), and what would make him quit the industry for good.

Why made you want to go back to TV?

I think when Sundance came up with the idea I was so excited, I’ve done TV but I’ve worked in fashion my whole career. The idea felt authentic and genuine, not about a competition, really about real life. Ive always been about building a collection and building a business. It enticed me and I love that.

Why do you think people are so drawn to the process of fashion, editorial and design now? I think you definitely had all of the fashion programs, Ugly Betty, Unzipped you’ve seen the current pulled back, for so long it was a glam industry that was under a shroud of mystery, but some of it isnt glamorous. People see award shows and the red carpet and the glitz and glamour they want to see how it all happened. You realize it’s not that easy, it’s work and perseverance I think people want what’s authentic and to see the other part?

How is this different than your past reality experience?

Well, I think this is the first time Im a producer on the show and I want to make it authentic, Im working with these guys. The cameras are there but Im doing what I’m supposed to be doing. In The City they [the cameras] were here a little, but this time we really film six days a week, source fabrics, I sat in design with them I think its the most hands on Ive ever been.

How did you balance that with your full time job at Elle?

Technology! My full time job has become my midnight to 3AM. Im an incredible multi-tasker it worked out fine and Im reachable. I was shooting covers on the weekends, it was happening and it was tough, but I did it.

Were you pleased with how The City went? Esp with the inter office drama?

Well, I mean for whatever The City is, there was a group who loved it and those who didn’t. You put yourself out there, but it was a great brand awareness vehicle for Elle, regardless of the drama, people remember Elle being a part of that and being a part of pop culture. Adam DiVello created that time and it’s great, but its a different time and were moving on. I dont want to compare the two because its so different but they’re both great.

I dont think people are always aware that editors can really be the best consultants for designers, why is this kind of relationship important?

I think if you really think about it, why wouldnt an editor be in a great place to do that? It’s our word of expertise and reference point, we see what’s worked and what hasnt were very objective in that way. As a design you’re in your own business, you’re in your own bubble, and I think having a third party be able to assess that is kind of a gift. Im not saying I’m a psychic, fortune teller, or magician, I can’t make a failing business successful, but if it’s right, I can say, let’s just work hard.

I saw that you do an episode with Kara Janx. Do you think that shows like Project Runway are a good avenue for designers?

I think it was very interesting because Kara was in season two. She didnt win, but she did very well. Seeing her episode is riveting. Each episode is very different and there’s a path, but they’re so different because people are so different with their journeys. She’s very up front about how Project Runway was great and it brought fame, but it goes away. She really had to prove herself all over again and thats the hardest part. You’ll see how she struggles with that, while other designers are trying to get cash and build a brand it’s another element she has to deal with.

What are the elements that make a designer successful?

They need a point of view, I say that to everybody. You have to have a strong vision and point of view, without that your line doesnt mean anything. If I say Michael Kors or Ralph Lauren, you know what they are about right away. You cant be all over the place and you can’t say I’m going to do this this season set the trends, thats the difference.

You seem to have a good sense of humor about fashion, especially some of the videos you take part in? Tell me about your approach.

Because I think fashion, at the end of the day, is about clothes, you put on clothes because it helps define your personality, enhance your mood. You use clothes to say a lot about who you are. Why take it so seriously? It is a serious business, but let’s have some fun. I can have a crazy schedule and in my career and job if it’s fun. If it stops being fun, is it worth it?

Theres been a lot of talk about stress on designers and the grueling schedules and pressures. What are your thoughts? Does something need to change?

Designers have to go through a lot and in this show people are really going to see so much goes into the collection and we make 6 looks could you images people who have to make 40 without the support staff, money and capabilities? There’s a lot of clothes out there you have to impress me are. Are you going to impress Neimans, Bergdorf, Barneys? If not dont bother, there’s so much amazing clothes out there. Are you going to give me something priced crazy affordable so basically that everyone has to have it? What is it that you’re giving me?