TNG Interview: ELLE’s Joe Zee Puts “All On The Line” For Troubled Designers
I was nervous to interview Joe Zee about his new show All On The Line. He’s an all-around cool guy, there’s no question about that, but he’s also a huge force in fashion and an official New York It-gay. Thus, jitters. That’s why I planned to open up our conversation with a joke. That’s probably also why the joke did not go well. Despite a rocky start, nearly Michael Cera-esque in its awkwardness, Mr. Zee was a real pleasure to speak with and shared some thoughts about reality TV, glamor, and Gordon Ramsey.
The New Gay: One of the things we’re obviously very concerned about at TNG is social justice, and so we’re all curious about your struggle: How, working in such a restrictive and conservative industry as fashion, did you ever find the strength to come out publicly as a gay man?
Joe Zee: Umm….
TNG: [Nervous stammering/giggling]
JZ: … Actually I think the fashion world is one of easiest industries for gay men. I mean, I feel so blessed to never have been in a position where I felt like I was the target of a lot of bullying – I work in fashion, I lived in Toronto and now New York City, I’ve found a lot of acceptance in these places.
TNG: Oh, absolutely, I guess I was just…
JZ: [Graciously continuing] It’s one of the reasons I feel it’s so important to show support and speak out whenever we can about issues like bullying. As a gay youth you already have to come to terms with so much, to make it any harder just seems like such a crime.
TNG: [Finally finding my footing with a new scapegoat] All joking aside, Joe, when you took over as creative director at ELLE there was actually a startling amount of press discussing your sexuality – what was all that about?
JZ: Oh, you pulled that up from Gawker? Yeah, it was a really weird article I just didn’t understand: the author wondered if I was too gay for ELLE. If you ask me I guess I don’t know how you can be too gay for a women’s fashion magazine. It wasn’t that I was offended by the article, I just didn’t really get it. I just try to do my job and I don’t do it by factoring in my sexuality or wondering “Ok, how would a gay man do this?”
TNG: Apart from this, there were a few fireworks that marked your addition to ELLE magazine. Have things calmed down?
JZ: When I came to ELLE they had never had a creative director. I came in and redesigned the magazine, moved some things around. People are definitely resistant to change, but since then the results really speak for themselves. In 2009, which was a recession year, while everyone was having a tough time, we were number one.
TNG: And you haven’t just served ELLE as creative director, you’ve also stepped in front of the camera to become something of a fashion reality show veteran [Stylista, The City] – how important are these TV appearances to your plans for the magazine?
JZ: All layers of the magazine are important. You can’t point to one single element and say “that’s the reason we’ve improved,” but we know that a lot of what we’re trying is working. These days magazines are brands, and though I don’t think the magazine itself will ever go away because there’s something about having it and holding in your hand that can’t be replaced, but the other ways you can experience ELLE definitely help.
TNG: So tell us about your upcoming Sundance Channel show All On The Line.
JZ: I’m really excited about All On The Line because until now there’s never been a true and honest show about the fashion industry from beginning to end. It’s not just about glamor, because even though that’s a part of the world of fashion there’s also a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that people don’t seem to notice. At the same time it’s not an instructional video – it’s entertainment. The personalities of the designers I work with are so big, and together we’ve got to get through the ups and downs of the whole process of making and selling clothes. The part I like most about the show is that it shows these designers’ passion for their work. Some of these people are in debt, have sold everything, and have sacrificed everything when it comes to their lines.
TNG: I was reading about the show and it seems that in basic structure it’s reminiscent of shows with Gordon Ramsey or Tabatha Coffey. In that case, could you give us fair warning as to in which episode you’ll be calling a contestant a fat stupid cow?
JZ: [Laughs] You know, I don’t know where the Gordon Ramsey comparison came from! On the show I’m very much the same person I always am, and I’m sorry but I won’t be throwing any frying pans or sharp knives around. And if I do say “fat cow” it’ll be in relation to other things, not said about the designers I’m working with… Of course on the show I’m very honest with everyone, because that’s the point!
TNG: A little detour, but when I was reading through some of your past work I found you were responsible for one of my favorite commercials of all time! Tell me about the campaign you did with Madonna and Missy.
JZ: Oh wow, that was so long ago! I remember going to talk to Madonna about the concept for the commercial. I met her at her house and she came in from her garden, and I was thinking “am I really going to talk to Madonna in her living room about cord jeans?” She was everything everyone always says about her, warm and smart, with a definite point of view. We thought to incorporate the tattoo image on the back pocket of the pants and even though all the letters were available in stores by far the most popular was “M”, I think for Missy and Madonna! That commercial was so much fun, we had two little people dressed as aliens, the back up dancers, everyone had a great time.
TNG: You’ve certainly had a huge range of experience in your career, that’s why I’m so curious about your interest in doing fashion reality TV. There’s such a wide range of credibility in terms of how reality television portrays the fashion industry – how does this make you feel about the medium?
JZ: It’s definitely one of the things that I love about All On The Line, its authenticity. I mean, I do this type of thing every day, with or without cameras around. I review lines, work with designers, give advice. And when I walk away after the episode is filmed, these people and their work will have to move forward. These are real designers, working with real money, trying to sell real clothes.
TNG: Kara Janx, one of the designers on your show, was previously on Project Runway. Did the fact that she’d already been on reality TV affect things?
JZ: With Kara things were maybe a little different, but every designer definitely brings their own unique set of experiences to the show. Kara had already had her 15 minutes of fame, and what she was finding in the fashion world is that for a lot of buyers that was actually a negative. She didn’t need more fame, what she needed was credibility – she needed to stop being a reality star and start being a designer. She definitely dealt with things on the show a little differently because she’d already experienced being on TV, but one of the perspectives she really brought to the show is how TV had happened to her.
TNG: In fashion and even with modeling people often equate changing tastes to fluctuations in the economy. Do you think we’re starting to see the same thing with fashion on TV?
JZ: Yes, absolutely. In the past few years escapism and glamor were fun to focus on. But now that things are getting better financially I think people are looking for a bit more reality in their reality TV. Viewers are much more savvy now, and are craving honesty. This show definitely taps into that, and even if you’re not into fashion there’s a lot in it for you. It deals with the challenges of running a small business, with people who are trying to be entrepreneurs, and I think that’s very relatable for the times we’re in now.
All On The Line premieres next week Tuesday, March 29th at 10pm et/pt on Sundance Channel
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