All On The Line with Joe Zee of ELLE Magazine

Posted on March 29, 2011

Kittens, a press release is a blogger’s best friend:
“Sundance Channel captures the drama of reinvention in its new non-fiction fashion series, “All On The Line,” starring fashion powerhouse and Creative Director for ELLE, Joe Zee. Airing on Tuesdays from March 29th to May 17th at 10pm et/pt, this hour-long show will capture the dramatic world of designers struggling to save their lines and keep their dreams alive. With creative direction, business advice and a little tough love, Joe Zee will break down the line, and its designer, before they are put to the ultimate test of presenting to a buyer.”

We’ve been excited about this one for awhile. Fashion-related reality television has gotten prematurely stale, defaulting mostly to Project Runway-style shows that inevitably end with a model walking down a runway in front of judges. This runway-free, down and dirty take on fashion is just what the T Lo ordered, especially since we can’t think of a better person to anchor the show than Joe Zee.

We “met” Joe on Twitter and had our share of witty banter with him. He said he wanted to meet us someday. Twitter promises are like three a.m. proclamations of love; have fun with it, but don’t kid yourself, so we attributed Joe’s eagerness to mere politeness and never thought much of it. As we found out later, Joe doesn’t really do insincere politeness. He’s genuine, and when he says “Let’s have lunch or drinks,” he really means it. Believe us, in the 5 years of publishing this blog, we can’t tell you how many people who never have any intention of doing so, say “Let’s have drinks” to us.

Over the next couple of months, we missed each other while attending some of the same parties (finding out only later on twitter) until we finally saw him in the crowd at the Out 100 party in November. We pounced on him and he could NOT have been any nicer to us – and not just in the polite way. He had places to go and people to see, but he once again insisted that he wanted to meet up with us soon and chat. We saw him again waiting outside the Oscar de la Renta show during NY Fashion Week and he immediately whisked us inside to the empty venue, long before any of the other far more important people got in. We took that 5 minutes to chat some more and to tell him we wanted to interview him about his new show. Well, we tried to tell him that.

As much as we wanted to ask him about himself, we were far too busy answering his questions about us. In fact, when we sat down for lunch in New York a couple weeks later to interview him, we found that the entire meal went by without us so much as asking a single question. Instead, he excitedly asked us about our little bloggy lives and we found ourselves having a long discussion on the state of new media vs. old media in the fashion world. Joe, unlike most of the editorial or PR people we meet, gets it completely and sees exactly which way the wind is blowing vis a vis traditional media vs. the internet and its mass of unregulated voices.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying we adore this man. He is the exact opposite of what everyone thinks a fashion editor is like. Oh, he’s certainly impeccably dressed every time we see him, but he’s also outrageously personable, friendly, bubbly, and interested in other people. He’s tailor-made for television and we think he’s poised to make the biggest fashion television splash since the equally as personable Tim Gunn landed on our TV screens.

And like a pro, when we said “Joe, lunch was lovely, but we really have to get that interview,” he called us right up while waiting on line at a deli and gave us everything we needed, completely focused while ordering his lunch.

First of all, we love the name “All On The Line.” How did you come up with that?
I love that you guys love it. I actually take no credit for it. It’s a name that Sundance always had in place from the beginning, they just loved that because it really is a make or break situation, that’s really what this is about for these designers in this industry.

The name really is the whole concept in the title.
It is, and I have to say that when we were filming halfway through, me working with these designers, I became so invested in them. Here I am calling Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman to see these collections and they were saying ‘Yes, Joe, we’ll come down, we know you’ve been working with them; we’ll come down and see them for you.’

Then I realized that they were putting it all on the line and so was I. If I ask Linda Fargo [from Bergdorf Goodman] to come down and look at a collection that is terrible, well, I look terrible. It was as nerve-racking for me every time we presented a collection as it was for the designer. I’m putting it all on the line too. This is my reputation, my resources; everything that I worked for too. It was sort of a two-way street.

So, tell us what the show is about.
Every episode, I work with a different struggling designer who has hit a road block in terms of their design process, their business; and they really need help. They just can’t get to the next level. I come in there, I first assess their collection – they present their current collection – I give them honest feedback and I look at their business and then I sit down with them and tell them what’s absolutely not working and what we need to change right now.

And we get to work; it’s not just me telling them, but sitting down with them and saying, ‘OK, how are we going to do this together?’ I go fabric sourcing with them, I take them on inspiration trips, we work on the design together and when we get back together I bring in a retailer to see the capsule collection we’ve created.

What were the criteria to select these designers to be part of the show?
That was a collaboration between Sundance, Authentic Entertainment and myself. It was really about a designer whose business has reached some level of success but hasn’t really broken through. It wasn’t about someone who just graduated from Parsons and was looking to be a designer. It wasn’t about someone who’s trying to launch a collection. It really was about somebody who has had some element of a business and just can’t get past where they are right now.

We saw that one of the designers is Kara Janx from Project Runway. There’s this idea from a lot of viewers of shows like Project Runway and The Fashion Show that all it takes is to send a collection down the runway and you’re in business.
Definitely Project Runway and The Fashion Show, you know, those are all great shows. What they’ve done is democratize fashion; they brought it into the living room of people across the country. I’ve worked in the industry for 20 years and there’s sort of a mystery to a lot of people and I think those shows opened up a world to these people to be into it, but at the same time, it isn’t an actual representation of the world and the design process. Being a designer is not about being eliminated and having thirty minutes to make something. It really is about longevity and credibility. It’s about having a design process that you’re actually respected for and a point of view.

Kara said, ‘The fame I got from Project Runway was fifteen minutes and it was great, and everybody wanted something from me right after he show,’ but what was hard for her was to get stores and buyers to find her credible and not just a reality TV star. All the fame she’s got wasn’t very helpful to her business and she found it really hard to get her business off the ground.

As a designer, is it essential to be market savvy as well?
I think you absolutely have to be market savvy. I was saying to someone the other day that there are so many designers out there, so many people who want to be a designer, so many clothes in stores right now. You have to be really smart, you have to be savvy, have a point of view, a vision. You have to put something out there that people want. You have to prove why you’re better than anyone that’s out there.

That’s a tough order, that’s the kind of pressure you really have to carry. If you’re good, you’ll absolutely rise to the top. I always say that Marc Jacobs is really talented, but also, what’s great about him is Robert Duffy [president and co-founder of Marc Jacobs International]. You need to have the creativity with the business in order to make it a successful brand. Understanding business, but also understanding creativity.

What was the most frustrating thing dealing with those designers?
I think every designer I met with I was totally honest with. I think that critiquing anyone’s creative work can be very difficult and a lot of times they were very taken aback by my blunt honesty. I’m not even a rude person, I was just trying to be honest with them. But they mostly understood that and they worked with me, explained their process and defended their ideas.

It was most frustrating for me when they didn’t even want to listen. I would say, ‘Do you think I’m wrong? Well, tell me why I’m wrong. Let’s discuss it. Let’s find a way to make this work.’ When you shut down, don’t want to participate and look the other way, that’s when it’s very frustrating to me. You’re not even giving this a chance. This is not my collection. My name isn’t on the back of that dress.

Having met several up-and-coming designers, it’s always interesting for us to hear them say that they don’t want to adapt or change their vision to sell more clothes. Where do you draw the line between your vision and wearability?
You have to be who you are, true to yourself and your vision. When the designers on the show told me that they didn’t want to lose who they were or do what they didn’t do I told them that every design comes from their head. It’s up to them to create that vision that’s unique to them.

I’m not sitting here telling them to make a black dress and a white shirt. That’s lazy, that’s not creative, that’s not thinking. It’s how you translate what you do into something that is viably commercial. How you can take that idea and make it translate across the board. Nobody is saying anything about selling out, but if you don’t want to have a business, maybe you just want to be an artist and make one of and put it on the wall. At the end of the day the question is, ‘Are you going to be able to pay the rent?’

These designers on the show were lucky to have someone with so much experience like you to help them and present them with a buyer, but most designers will never have that. How can they succeed on their own?
Yes, me helping them, but I think what I represented was a third-party opinion. When you’re a designer, you’re living in a bubble. When you design your collection, you only design the things that are in your world and the people around you are also in that bubble. You can’t step out of that and see something else.

As an editor, as a buyer, you see thousands of collections, so many clothes every season. I’m able to distill from my point of reference what works and what doesn’t. I’m able to come in there as a third-party objective opinion, with no personal agenda; I don’t have a business, I don’t make money from you, I just want to help you to do better.

I can give you an honest opinion and I think that’s what these designers are trying to do; have someone come in and be honest about what they do. Someone whose opinion you respect because so many times you’re in your own head, you just do what you do and that something so obvious is just a switch away.

We’re excited about the show because it presents a side of the industry that you don’t see much on television. You often see runway shows and presentations, but you don’t really see the hardship that comes with it after the tents come down.
I think that’s the part I’m most excited about because whenever I meet anyone interested in fashion they always think of “The Devil Wears Prada,” but that’s just one small part of this business. Yes, you do see runway shows and the red carpet gowns and you think it’s all glamor and all, but there’s so much work involved and there are so many disappointments in this industry.

When you look at these designers, you realize how hard it is. What shows like Project Runway have done is make people sit at home and think, ‘I’m going to move to New York and be a designer,’ and what this show is going to say is, ‘Oh, do I have what it takes to be a designer?’ Both of those shows work in that aspect; getting you excited but also showing you the hard reality of what this industry is really about.

Thank you so much, Joe. We can’t wait to watch the show.
Thank YOU. I love you guys!

“All On The Line” premieres tonight at 10pm ET/PT on Sundance Channel.

“All On The Line” Preview:


[Photo/Video Credit: sundancechannel.com]