Joe Zee

As the creative director for ELLE since 2007, Zee has helped to further elevate the publication into the successful fashion magazine that is today.  He began his career at Allure Magazine and from there became the fashion director at W Magazine, then contributing editor for Details and Vanity Fair.  He has also been creative eye behind advertising campaigns for brands including DKNY, Perry Ellis, Kenneth Cole, Sean John, Banana Republic, H&M, Estee Lauder, M.A.C. Cosmetics, Chanel, Coty and others. He will star in the upcoming Sundance Channel original series ALL ON THE LINE.

Joe Zee on Cesar Galindo

Article: Joe Zee on Cesar Galindo

His Challenge: I have known Cesar in and around the fashion industry for years. He’s a veteran designer and we have many mutual friends in common and you can’t be in this industry as long as we have and not be acquainted. However, I don’t know Cesar well at all, so going up to see him for the first time in this aspect was exciting – and daunting.

Joe Zee on Designer Aysha Saeed

Article: Joe Zee on Designer Aysha Saeed

Her Challenge: I found Aysha an extremely interesting case from the moment I first arrived to meet her. She seemed very confident, poised, in control and yet she wanted my help, which intrigued me. After listening to her story and seeing her clothing, I had a better understanding. First of all, she’s invested almost one million dollars (one million!!) of her own money into the company and just wasn’t seeing the return on revenue she was anticipating. Sure, she was selling SOME of her collection but it wasn’t the blowout success she had anticipated. And in terms of her collection, she had some pretty shift dresses but that was it – just pretty shift dresses. I could see this being a bigger business for her in the dress departments of major retailers but she wanted to make a splash. And a splash requires creativity – which means taking her designs out of the confines of her personal dressing and into something that will stand out in a bigger way on a department store floor. But you can’t even begin to make that splash if you’ve closed yourself off to any creative brainstorming. Aysha was strong-willed and often apprehensive when it came to taking advice so welcoming ideas from her team wasn’t always top of mind for her. She needed a creative intervention – and quick. Enter a new inspiration exercise.

Joe Zee on Kathy and Erik Wilson:

Article: Joe Zee on Kathy and Erik Wilson:

Their Challenge: When I first met husband and wife design team, Kathy and Erik Wilson of Kathy Wilson Atelier, it was very clear who wore the pants in that design family. Erik, a law student, ex-Marine and devoted husband, was loyally standing by his designing wife as she explained enthusiastically to me her concepts behind their men’s and women’s collections.

Joe Zee on Qristyl Frazier

Article: Joe Zee on Qristyl Frazier

Her Challenge: Qristyl Frazier dubbed her plus-size collection “Plus Sexy” and in the world of fashion, we can definitely use more fashion-worthy plus size collections. This has been a market that I personally feel has been underserved with great fashionable options in recent years and Qristyl had the opportunity to step in there and be an integral part of that budding industry.

Joe Zee & Designer Angelo Lambrou

Article: Joe Zee & Designer Angelo Lambrou

His Challenge: Angelo was an interesting designer. He had earned his fame, almost overnight, designing the pageant gowns for Miss Universe.  And then Angelo was smart to quickly translate that notoriety into a custom eveningwear and bridal business where he eventually, opened a small shop in the East Village area of Manhattan, gaining success in that world. But when he tried his hand at doing a contemporary ready-to-wear collection, it was a different story.

It's a Wrap — See you in November.

Article: It's a Wrap — See you in November.

I will admit that I am feeling extra sentimental lately. Yes, because ALL ON THE LINE wrapped its first season but it’s also most likely because I spoke at the commencement ceremonies of the Fashion Institute of Technology, my alma mater, recently. At the graduation festivities I concluded with the turning of the tassels and my parting words of inspiration, motivation and passion. Or at least I hope I did. I told the class of 2011, this was not the end of school. No, in fact, the learning will continue — for the rest of their lives. And I’m speaking from experience. Life education doesn’t end when the instructors have packed their papers and gone home. No, instead, their methods and reasoning will hopefully live on in everything you do. I wasn’t inspired by every instructor I ever had, but the ones that did affect me, stayed with me.

And in some ways, my personal success is a testament to them.

Cut to the AOTL designers.

Episode Recap – Julia Alarcon – Too Pricey for Nordstrom

Article: Episode Recap – Julia Alarcon – Too Pricey for Nordstrom

I said it to Dana-Maxx, I said it to Leila Shams, and I said it to Julia Alarcon. There will always be something special about a woman designer designing for other women. There’s that innate, intangible quality of understanding what exactly another woman wants. With Julia, I felt she had a double advantage. She also – after starting Act 2 as a designer in her 40′s – had the advantage of her maturity.

Julia wasn’t a kid figuring out her life. Sure, she shared a lot of the same woes (freshly graduated, struggling to keep her business afloat, building accounts) but she was never wishy-washy in her approach. Her life was mapped out; she knew exactly what she should be doing and designing was it. This was a quality I would come to admire greatly in her but be equally frustrated by at the same time. She was so aware of what she wanted her collection to be, what it should cost (most of the time, too much), and who should wear it. Even during the times we disagreed, Julia, always courteous and polite, stood by her designs and her convictions.

Which may not have had quite outcome I had hoped for.

It’s Like a Weird Freaky Friday Moment. Tonight at 10p.

Article: It’s Like a Weird Freaky Friday Moment. Tonight at 10p.

In an effort to not date myself, one of my all-time favorite movies is the Mike Nichols-directed WORKING GIRL with Sigourney Weaver and Melanie Griffith. For me, it reeked of all the right elements: money, power, New York skyscrapers, sharp dialogue, good humor, strong women. It was all about big furs, big breaks and big perms and I loved it.

My favorite scene (duh! of course!) was when Tess McGill (Melanie’s character) had the run of Katherine Parker’s (Sigourney) closet after assuming her identity. The minute she threw open those closet doors you could smell the authority. There it all was: a lady in charge as embodied by a closet full of chic gowns, lush furs, immaculately tailored pantsuits and pencil skirts. You wanted to rummage and try everything on as much as Tess did because like Tess, these weren’t just clothes. No, it was more than that. It was the symbol of that ultimate chic working woman.

Episode Recap – Leila Shams – Slutty vs. Sexy

Article: Episode Recap – Leila Shams – Slutty vs. Sexy

I was not kidding when I told Leila Shams that the difference between slutty and sexy is three more inches on her dress. In the world of fashion, those three inches can mean a completely different customer, a different store and ultimately, a different type of business. In her heart, Leila knew exactly what I was talking about.

Leila was a designer who designed for herself. This became quite evident to me during our time together (heels were her sneakers and minis were her comfort clothes!) and that philosophy of design usually works for me, except when you need to expand. Despite any of my initial impressions of Leila when we first met, she’s actually a very hard-working, bright girl and even under all her funny moments (ace bandages!) I knew she had talent. Talent that could make her stand out – if she could just elevate her sensibility.

And I’m so glad that happened and the items that Intermix responded to was exactly the direction I was pushing Leila towards. That hammered satin green dress was a good catalyst to the beginning of a quieter, chicer Leila. While the dress wasn’t perfect, it was a great start.

Overcoming Visual Insanity. Tonight at 10p.

Article: Overcoming Visual Insanity. Tonight at 10p.

Keith Pollock, who you see every week, is an old-friend and a trusted cohort of mine, who generally has no trouble telling me exactly how he feels about my work. If I style a story that looks a bit lackluster, he won’t mince his words. Same said for something he likes. He’s been so familiar…

Episode Recap – Jedda-Kahn – Selling Out or Selling Smart

Article: Episode Recap – Jedda-Kahn – Selling Out or Selling Smart

During the course of ALL ON THE LINE, many people constantly ask me what the most common problem among all the different designers were and while each one had very different issues, the most unifying thread – no pun intended – was arguably, finding that perfect marriage of art and commerce.

Of course, whenever I explain this, the one designer that comes to my mind is always Jeddah-Kahn. This is, of course, not a problem unique to him but a struggle constantly battled by all designers. Jeddah-Kahn was just the one designer that would, at times, drive me to the brink of frustration battling this point. I admired him for not wanting to give in but at times, as you saw on this week’s episode, we would wind up talking in circles, sometimes to a resolve and sometimes not.

You Can’t Fight Destiny. Tonight at 10p.

Article: You Can’t Fight Destiny. Tonight at 10p.

There are many triggers that usually helps peak my interest with designers I’ve yet to discover. It can be anything from a unique name to innovative designs to a brilliant a-ha marketing idea that I wish I had thought of or just something as simple as their backstory.

With Jeddah-Kahn Blue, I will admit I was intrigued by that name but more so, it was when I discovered that he came from a long line of tailors and dressmakers. But it’s important to note that he wasn’t designing to get into the family business; contrary, he was designing clothes because he knew that was his destiny. There’s something quite admirable about it.

Episode Recap – Dana-Maxx – They’ll Be Watching

Article: Episode Recap – Dana-Maxx – They’ll Be Watching

This was clearly not my favorite part of this week’s episode: Dana-Maxx not getting an immediate pick-up by Bergdorf Goodman. But the silver lining in this week’s episode is exactly what I had explained to her right after our presentation to Linda Fargo: That Bergdorfs may not have committed to the collection this season, but Dana-Maxx is now in a better position. She has the eye now of one of the most powerful Fashion Directors in the business.

It’s Time to Grow Up! Tonight at 10p.

Article: It’s Time to Grow Up! Tonight at 10p.

I am always intrigued by up-and-coming designers who have worked under major designers with strong, distinct styles. Case in point: Dana-Maxx, who peaked my interest for this week’s episode when I heard she had once done stints at Betsey Johnson and Marc Jacobs, two top-of-the-game designers with unique but very different sensibilities. I find designer apprenticeships extremely interesting because I am always curious to see how much of their former employer’s voice they actually retain, or in some cases if any at all. Some new designers can take several seasons to wipe that ingrained training out of their own DNA while others can find smart new ways to adapt it into their own work.

Episode Recap – Gemma Kahng – "I was misty-eyed!"

Article: Episode Recap – Gemma Kahng – "I was misty-eyed!"

I think the interesting case here with Gemma wasn’t necessarily so much what she was going to learn from ME, but what she had hopefully also learned from her own past experiences. Gemma is by far the most mature and most successful of all the designers featured on ALL ON THE LINE, which can be an advantage and a disadvantage. Yes, she had the experience and know-how of making it happen again but the disadvantage laid in trying to make that happen in a very fickle and unforgiving industry. An industry she was trying so hard to impress once again.

There’s no denying that the fashion industry is always chasing what’s new and what’s next and not necessarily looking for what’s yesterday or once upon a time. She would need to jump that very hurdle and start being seen as relevant, welcomed and most of all, important again in the eyes of the fashion world. This would be my biggest challenge yet.

Bring on the A-List. Tonight at 10p.

Article: Bring on the A-List. Tonight at 10p.

Deciding to work with Gemma Kahng was a no-brainer. She was, in my mind, a creative fashion force that may have dimmed over the last decade or so, but had the potential to shine bright again. This wasn’t just an assumption; it was a fact.

You see, Gemma had already tasted the success I try so hard to help the designers attain each week.

I met Gemma Kahng back in the early 1990′s when I was just starting out as an assistant for Polly Mellen at Allure magazine. Gemma was one of those names that were always tossed out whenever Mrs. Mellen was conceptualizing her shoots and needed clothing called in. This was commonly heard at her run-throughs: “What about those incredibly chic suits from Gemma, Joe?”

Obedient, I would head up to Gemma’s headquarters at 550 7th Ave — a landmark garment district building that houses the showrooms of only A-list designers, among them Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta. Gemma’s vast showroom there would have plenty of staff buzzing about and racks and racks of her new collections. She was the game back then.

In those days, Gemma was everywhere. I remember seeing her clothes make the cover of Vogue worn by supermodel Christy Turlington and a year later, it would be a butt-exposing jumpsuit worn by Madonna in the pages of Vanity Fair. And her clothes would fill the floorspace of every major department store from Bergdorf Goodman to Bloomingdale’s. To say Gemma was successful back then is selling her short.

Then one day it all just disappeared.

Episode Recap – Between the Sheets – Not a Fairytale Ending

Article: Episode Recap – Between the Sheets – Not a Fairytale Ending

It’s true, fashion can be completely unpredictable, I will give you that. I never knew that when I entered into my venture with Layla and Josh, the dating duo from Between the Sheets, that our time together would have escalated into the finale that it did. I entered into it with the thought I could help BTS turn their business around by keeping what they do AND expanding into a burgeoning market at the same time. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out as planned. Which is too bad.

Life is One Big Underwear Party! Tonight at 10p.

Article: Life is One Big Underwear Party! Tonight at 10p.

When I first started working in this industry as an assistant, a very important stylist I was working for said to me, “Whenever you dress a woman, make sure her look is complete head to toe, inside and out. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see as long as you know it’s there because that’s…

Episode Recap – Kara Janx – Don’t Just Say It. Do It.

Article: Episode Recap – Kara Janx – Don’t Just Say It. Do It.

What I Hoped She Learned: “Don’t just say it. Do it.” That was the thought that was running through my head as Kara and I prepped on the morning of our presentation with Neiman Marcus. Kara had promised me that she would re-cut a dress in a size 8 to show the Neimans buying team…



I could lie and say there were many abstract reasons that led me to wanting to work with Kara Janx but I will be upfront and honest with you. I wanted to meet this Season 2 Project Runway alum, one who had no problem speaking her mind or dealing with confrontation. I wanted to meet the woman who infamously said “she would snip off a contestant’s pee-pee if he got in her way”. Ouch! She is, in short, the one designer I worked with this season, whom I would not want to encounter in a dark alley with those castrating scissors. But of course, I did also want to work with Kara because I realized her true potential while watching her on Project Runway.

Episode Recap – Bad is Better Than Boring

Article: Episode Recap – Bad is Better Than Boring

What I Hope They Learned:

“Being bad is better than boring.” I said this to Andre and Liquica in Times Square when we were on our outing getting inspiration and it’s something I truly believe. A friend fought me about this fact just the other day but for me, it’s true. I can find value in the good and the bad. If you think about fashion being your ultimate self-expression, then speak loudly and boldly. There’s no room for anything dull, because boring is exactly that – boring!

The Transformation Begins – Radenroro: Tonight at 10p EST!

Article: The Transformation Begins – Radenroro: Tonight at 10p EST!

Most weeks, the mail arrives at my office in large foam cartons, usually filled with lookbooks of every variety: large and spiral-bound; small and stapled, or even loose pictures in an envelope. You can only imagine how many collections I see each year.

Most of these are designers I’ve never heard of, but are begging to be discovered. That could be said of a certain lookbook I saw, one day at my desk, from the label, Radenroro. I was intrigued by – yes, the name – but more the art direction and image of the lookbook and some of the clothes in it, but most of it just looked unmemorable to me. In fact, I remember remarking to Keith Pollock, a good friend and the Editorial Director of, that I could see girls shopping and wanting SOME of these clothes but not most of it.

Joe Zee: how to dress Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin

Article: Joe Zee: how to dress Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore and Ellen Barkin

Still from US Dramatic Competition film ANOTHER HAPPY DAY.
I met costume designer Stacey Battat way back when she was still working for Marc Jacobs in their Mercer Street store, which probably explains her close relationship to Sofia Coppola. Flash-forward to today, she was most recently the costume designer for Sofia’s newest film, Somewhere, as well as the recent Gwyneth Paltrow musical vehicle, COUNTRY STRONG.

Sundance turns my thoughts to polyester

Article: Sundance turns my thoughts to polyester

Saturday. My first day at Sundance Film Festival and I’m feeling polyester. Tonight – at midnight to be exact – my good friend and ELLE cover photographer Carter Smith is debuting his new short, YEARBOOK. A short I helped costume. Just to be clear, I am not a costume designer, but I get characters and…