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Joe Zee, the creative director of Elle, has hopped on the reality TV train with the new show All On the Line, in which he offers tough love to designers who are struggling to stay in business. When he was in town late last week, I asked him about the kind of things emerging designers in Chicago—and everywhere else—should keep in mind.
What's the biggest mistake you see designers make?
They have a hard time merging the ideas of art and commerce. I see this all the time—everyone wants to be fashion designer. They think, “I’ve got to make my mark, I’ve got to design the one thing no one’s ever made.” But we don’t need jackets with three arms. At the end of the day, you should be doing something that’s genuine and authentic and organic to you as a designer. To come up with something new, different and unique, your own point of view, [but] it’s got to be be commercially viable. You have to come to the realization that this is real life. In the 20-plus years I’ve been in the business, there has never been a true authentic depiction of that process on TV. Everything is very glamorized and two-dimensional. People think my job is very glamorous. Fashion is not glamorous. There is so much blood, sweat, and tears every single day. I see these struggling designers who have maxed out their credit cards and are borrowing against their homes—there’s nothing glamorous about potentially losing your home. But if this is what you’re going to have to do, you’re going to do it.
If you want to be a singer, the most successful singers are the ones who love music. They do it for the art. The minute you just want fame, it will never come. If you just want to be a famous fashion designer, hang it up now! You really have to want to be a fashion designer, to want that more than everything, because there are going to be so many more tough days than good days.
What are some things that catch fashion editors' eyes—good or bad?
I always look for a point of view. I can very quickly tell if a designer is doing something derivative of another designer. They want to see something special, something different, anytime there’s a new point of view. It’s not a tangible thing. It’s an instinct—you know that what you’re seeing for the first time is something great. I just got back from Paris fashion week, and everyone got so excited about this designer, Haider Ackermann. He’s been showing for a while, he’s been a little under the radar. We all went to his show, and they were really beautiful clothes that showed truly exactly what he is, who his is. He didn’t follow trends or try to be Marc Jacobs—he was just himself.
What do you recommend designers who aren't based in New York do? Is it possible to be based in Chicago and make it big?
More than ever, the onset of technology and the internet has allowed fashion to be democratized. You can have a vision, a voice, visibility wherever you are. Does it mean you eventually need to be in New York, on a bigger global stage? Yes. But you won’t be forgotten if you start elsewhere. For instance, the Rodarte girls—I don’t think anyone would have thought really hip designers could have come out of LA 20 years ago. If you’re good, you always rise to the top. At some point you do need to get that bigger audience though.
While filming your show, did you learn anything that surprised you?
At points I was very excited to see a lot of these designers stick to their guns, who felt they could stand up to me. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. My role wasn't to be a fashion dictator—I was there to work with them. But there was no time to pussyfoot around, so I had to be honest. And words can sting, especially if you're a very creative person. Once in a while they'd say "No, I don't want to do that, I believe in this or that." That's the part I respect. When I saw them stand up for that creative element they believed in, I said, "OK, tell me why."
All On the Line premieres March 29 on the Sundance Channel.