NEW YORK, United States — Joe Zee is a true fashion veteran who has held key roles at major publishers from Fairchild to Condé Nast to Hearst. He is also one of the few editors in the industry to have actively embraced mainstream media, especially television. Zee produces and hosts Sundance Channel shows "Revealing" and "All On the Line" and has appeared on "Ugly Betty," "Gossip Girl," "Oprah" and MTV reality series "The City."
Yet many an eyebrow was raised when, earlier this year, Zee announced that he was leaving his role as creative director of American Elle to take up the position of editor-in-chief and executive creative officer of Yahoo Style, the Internet giant’s new fashion-focused “digital magazine,” which aims to tap into the company’s global user base of 800 million.
Debra Scherer sat down with Joe Zee to talk about his professional trajectory and making the transition from print to web.
DS: Tell me about your first experience in the industry and what brought you to fashion magazines in the first place?
JZ: I grew up obsessed with fashion magazines. I would cut out all of the pictures and the ads and they would be all over the inside of my locker at school and up on the wall of my room at home. One very visual memory for me was sitting on the floor with stacks of all the magazines I loved. I literally sat there and I read them like textbooks. I would look at the covers and study the headlines and look at the mastheads and look at each ad. I was so intrigued and hypnotised by magazines.
DS: What was your first job in the industry?
JZ: My first job at a magazine was with Allure, I wanted to work with Polly Mellen. Allure had just launched and I was persistent. I will always remember, when I went to interview with her, all I was thinking was, “Oh my god, what do I wear?” I had these skinny pants from London, I had this leopard vest from Jean Paul Gaultier that I bought at Century 21, I wore it with a white shirt. This was in the early ’90s, so you have to forgive the fashion. So I walk in and the first thing she says to me is, “I love your leopard vest!”
DS: She was such a legend and a great teacher. What did you learn from Polly?
JZ: I learned so much from Polly Mellen, not just how to appreciate fashion but also how to understand fashion. I remember my first week she showed me a Richard Tyler jacket and said, “Look how beautiful this is!” and I said, “Yes! That’s a gorgeous jacket,” and she said, “No! You don’t know that its a gorgeous jacket!” and she said, “Hold On!” She turns the jacket inside out, pulls the sleeves out and says, “Look at the way this is done. Look at the way the lining is done, that’s why it’s a beautiful jacket!” I learned that from her, understanding and seeing what fashion was supposed to be.”
DS: I will always think of you as being fashion editor at W Magazine, probably because we used to be seated close together at the shows during that time. Those were incredibly creative times for magazines. Tell us how you made that move?
JZ: That for me was the zenith of my career. It defined so much of who I am. Everyone remembers it in a certain way, but at the very beginning it was incredibly difficult. When I got there, nobody would even lend us clothes. We couldn’t get models for the cover. I remember getting Christy Turlington for the cover shoot, but we had to shoot her backstage at the Versace show. Literally we just put a white piece of paper on the wall and as she was exiting off the runway we stuck her against the wall for five minutes and took a picture as our cover. It made me learn so much, which I still use to this day, on how to problem solve, how to get access to things we may not be able to get access to and maximize that. That was a big lesson for me.
DS: As fashion began to blend with celebrity and become a form of entertainment, you left to become creative director at American Elle, arguably the first magazine property to see itself truly as a 360-degree brand and not just the name of a magazine. Elle was the first to get branded products. It was the first to have success with television and the first to bring on someone in this kind of creative director role. At the time, going from W, with its creative credibility, to Elle might have seemed risky, but one thing Elle did have was a circulation of 1.1 million.
JZ: I love things that are sleeping giants. Here was a brand that was just dusty and it needed to be brushed off and made into something for the next generation. I realized I had to stay true to my vision. I never watered anything down. You its have to do the thing that you truly believe in and when you do that, people will come to you. And it took time. It wasn’t overnight.”
We were doing Project Runway and then I brought The City (an MTV reality series) to Elle. Some people rolled their eyes, but it raised brand awareness by 45 percent. That’s huge. It takes people decades to achieve that and to actually have a television show on MTV and build the brand awareness in that way was really interesting and it said a lot about Elle’s commitment to it being a brand.
DS: So what did you take from that experience to Yahoo Style?
JZ: I began by saying I want to work at a magazine because, basically, I love media and at that time that’s all there was. There was no fashion on TV, there were no computers, it wasn’t about any of that. What I loved about magazines was the storytelling within media. That magazine let me tell stories every month to a big group of people. That’s what I love, the storytelling. That’s why it’s so great to be here at Yahoo because I can do that every single minute of any day, any hour. That’s what its about.
DS: You also have a lot of on-camera television experience to draw from and not just as a personality on the red carpet: you also served as producer on your own Sundance Channel shows, “All On the Line” and “Revealing.”
JZ: What drew me to TV in the first place was that I got to tell a story and was so active with the producers behind the scenes, helping them craft story lines, even when that wasn’t my job at first. I just got involved and I loved it. It was so much fun from a production aspect to tell the story in a three-dimensional way. By the time I was working with Sundance I was an executive producer on those shows as well. I could help script the “arc” of what those shows were going to be.
DS: With all the multimedia elements of a digital magazine, executive producer seems a more appropriate title than editor-in-chief.
JZ: Yes, now I have to have that kind of active involvement in every way the stories are being told. The more I understand that, the more I know how Yahoo Style is going to make sense. That’s what my staff and I are trying to break down.
DS: So what convinced you to make the switch?
JZ: I think that the biggest irony of this industry has been that it’s an industry that has always prided itself on changing every six months. Every six months we all have to get together just to show that we’ve changed and done something totally new, yet this industry still refuses to change. That’s the part that’s fascinating to me. Watching them refusing to embrace social media or new levels of communication and technology, not seeing that it’s already here. Its not a passing fad, its not about either or.”
One thing I admire about Marissa Mayer is that she makes really quick decisions; like me, she doesn’t hesitate. I’m just about a gut reaction and I felt like she was like that too. Look what she is doing at Yahoo. Like Elle, here was a sleepy brand that needs to be made relevant and important to a new generation.
DS: Culturally, there must be a big difference between Yahoo and Elle. What is it like to be at a company like Yahoo, somewhere between tech and media?
JZ: They said, “Consider this a start up, but within a company like this, where you can have the resources you need to make this happen,” and it was exciting. It’s been so eye opening, I’ve learned so much, and more than just how to talk tech. If I want to change something about the design of the site, its not like, oh, just walking down the hall to the art department and saying, “Could I just move something real quick?” Now that requires a team of engineers. I really respect all of the work involved in all the things we see and take for granted every day. What seems like a simple change could require days of work, this wasn’t something I even comprehended and it allowed me to learn and adapt so much in that way.
Sitting in Marissa Mayer’s office and listening to her say, “We reach an audience of 800 million people each day,” I was thinking “Wow! I thought 1.1 million at Elle was a lot!” So we have to worry about how everything would render differently on that many computers and phones and it was Marissa explaining that to me from an engineer’s point of view that let me appreciate all of that.
DS: So why call Yahoo Style a magazine?
JZ: Perhaps today’s kids don’t dream of becoming a photographer or a magazine editor, but in the same way we used to be so enamoured with the new David Sims images, kids today do feel the same way. That’s why I do call it a digital magazine. I have a cover, we shoot a celebrity, all of those things. The difference is that a magazine today, for this generation, is not about a page. We got excited about the printed page, but they are just as excited by the imagery, by the visuals, what they can see and what it can be.
The word “magazine,” to me means that emotion and I’m trying to replicate that which we grew up with for this generation. They can come to Yahoo Style and flip through pictures and fall in love and say, I’m going to share them with everyone. I can actually see them doing that. When we launched, we had more shares of our Jessica Biel cover story than anything ever before on Tumblr, and that says that those kids are obsessed with the imagery we produced. That is them doing exactly what I did when I tore the pages out and put them up on my wall at home. Tumblr is now their bedroom wall. I am creating that thing for a new generation. So nothing has changed, it’s all just a different format.