Joe Zee is an influencer, a stylist, a leader, a pop-culture enthusiast, and simply — a man who loves fashion. As the current Editor-in-Chief and Executive Creative Officer of Yahoo Fashion and former Creative Director for Elle Magazine, he doesn’t just follow trends, he predicts them. Most of his accomplishments are admirably the result of sheer ambition and tenacity; Zee landed his first post-graduation gig simply by declaring his desire to work for the legendary Polly Mellen. He later left Allure to work as a fashion editor for W Magazine at a time when the page turner was ready to push boundaries. Then in 2007, Elle came calling. Zee joined as Creative Director, contributing his keen eye to each fashion shoot and stretching the brand far beyond any pre-conceived parameters. After nearly a decade in his post, Zee exited Elle for Yahoo in a bold choice that, true to form, is more predictive than reactionary. He knows where fashion is going, and he’s fearlessly embraced the digital trend. Yahoo will become his personal playground, and his leadership will provide plenty of original opportunities for creative content. Zee graciously answered all of my questions about his new venture.
I have worked in print my entire career but in a way, you can almost say that it has prepped me for my digital life. I look at everything to be news. Even going to a fashion show isn’t just about seeing what’s on the runway anymore, but everything around you. How are show goers dressed? What is the trend amongst them? What are they talking about? What’s in the zeitgeist right now that transcends – the obvious. Even sitting next to someone at random during a dinner will lead to a conversation that will lead to a story. Ever since the launch of social media, I’ve always embraced it because I love that real-time conversation. I love the opportunity to react in a very quick and immediate way.
Do you find that a digital medium makes it easier to keep up with changing trends?
The digital medium absolutely allows for a quicker adaptation to changing trends. Here’s an opportunity for us to discuss those trends while it’s happening and in some case, even moments BEFORE it’s going to happen. I get a high from being able to have those immediate exchanges and analysis.
You’re well-known both behind the lens and in front of it, with columns like “A to Zee” and your own video series. Did you always want to be the face of the brands you worked on?
I don’t know if that was ever a mandate. I’ve never worked anywhere where I said, I need to be the face of this brand. In most cases, if that happened, it did so organically but of course, the Joe Zee Brand is very personal to me for obvious reasons so yes, I am conscious of that but in terms of everything else I do, I just did it with so much love and passion, so I think that’s what really comes through. If I didn’t love what I was doing, you would know. But I am always thinking: Who would be the person to represent my POV when it comes to the stories I want to tell? If it’s me, ok and if it’s not, that’s ok too. I just want to tell the best story possible.
The older I get, the more resistant I become to change. Was it scary to take the leap from Elle Magazine to this new venture with Yahoo? What motivated the decision?
As I get older I think I worry a little less about change. When I was younger, I think I was much more concerned with change and perception but as I get older, I love trying and tapping into arenas. The world has changed so much and allowed every one of us to be able to embrace not just change, but incredible new opportunities. I think in my parent’s generation, everyone was expected to have one job at the same company their entire lives. Then the next generation, it was several different companies. Now the new generation is all about having multiple jobs simultaneously. That’s what we’ve encouraged, and it’s very refreshing. If we didn’t embrace change, that would be a tough theory to follow. But in terms of your question, I think my biggest motivation was two-fold: o speak to a much larger audience on a global level and to tackle a new challenge in a new form of media.
Magazine covers usually appear effortless. Can you give me a behind-the-scenes secret we’d be surprised to learn about the process of preparation?
Ha! I think “effortless” is probably the last word anyone on my team would ever say about a cover, including all the digital covers we are producing here at Yahoo Style, but the fact that you read it as that means we’ve done our job well. The cover is our ad, the chance for the editorial side to grab your attention and sell the magazine. Every nuance of what is seen is discussed, prodded, dissected and put back together from who the cover star should be to fighting for that person to editing the right clothes to getting the right picture. As my first mentor, the legendary fashion editor, Polly Mellen, told me, the cover needs to immediately read “Buy Me.” And in our case now, it would need to read “Click Me.” But I think the most surprising thing about a cover is despite its always being from the waist up, we stylists always show up to the shoot with no less than 100 pairs of shoes!
Fashion is largely about predicting future styles and trends. Where do you see fashion heading in the next five years?
Wearable technology seems to be the phrase of the day but nothing has really stuck with the marketplace or consumers yet. Let’s see how the Apple Watch does, because that will be the real game-changer if it’s a flyaway hit. I think innovation will definitely be a part of what the future holds for fashion but it’s just defining what that is, and it isn’t necessarily jackets with solar heating. Though as much as innovation will be big, a true return to real classics and investment pieces will also be big. We just did a Nightline segment about buying less but better. We were saying, “Less is more (Money).”
Has the return of any particular fashion trends surprised you?
Honestly I am surprised (but not really) about this sudden admiration of the Birkenstock. I remember when Marc Jacobs did grunge: we Birks were such a thing back then. There wasn’t a single photo shoot I did in the early 90’s that we didn’t call in a pair of Birks. But of course, today’s are fur lined or platform or colored. The cycle of fashion ultimately is predictable, but it’s still surprising.
I know you have worked in fashion for a large part of your life. Can you recall your first big fashion purchase?
I was 12 years old and had just started going to a new school for seventh grade, and all the cool kids at school had Jordache jeans on. I remember going to the mall in Toronto and looking them up and realizing they were $40! (That’s a lot of money to a non-working 12 year old!). I saved up my allowance money for two months and finally splurged on that pair of designer jeans. I wore them so proudly when I got them, I must have had them on every single day. I knew the kids were all envious, looking at the pocket design on the back. Only in hindsight did I ever realize I bought women’s jeans, but I didn’t care. Those jeans screamed, “This guy knows fashion.”
It’s been argued that the critique of fashion on pop-culture television shows has indirectly impacted the red carpet. Do you think that armchair commentary has made designers and actresses take less risk?
I have been on the red carpet numerous times as a correspondent, and it can be such a fun and exhilarating experience, especially being able to see the dresses in real life. I don’t think it’s the armchair critique that made the designers less risky. I think actresses are more hesitant because of the digital era we live in. Previously, if you were on the worst-dressed list in the newspaper the next day, it was horrifying. But it was also old news 24 hours later when that moment is in the recycling bin. Today, that worst-dressed picture lives forever. That one moment you choose to take a “risk” will come back to haunt you every single time the media needs to refer back to something they didn’t like. So I don’t blame the actresses at all. I really think it’s we,the media that has made the red carpet risk-taking a lot less visible. If we all weren’t so quick to pan, we just might have a few more homemade gowns coming our way.