Can Joe Zee Turn Yahoo Fashion Into A Powerhouse?

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rexusa_1894131qPhoto: Rob Latour/REX USA.
For an industry that values what's next, new, and novel, it's a strange paradox that fashion is so resistant to change. Many print magazines still silo off their digital arms as separate, and second-class, publications; fashion houses still execute six-month-premature runway shows that sometimes bleed more money than they make; and shoppers still can't find the majority of designer wares online. That image of an editrix hunched over her computer-free desk, surrounded by peonies and macarons, reviewing hand-drawn sketches from a designer protégé is one that seems as romantically nostalgic as a mint-green typewriter, but it still exists in select corner offices.

Of course, there's a strong contingent of those at the top of the masthead who value innovation as much as fabulosity — an intersection Joe Zee commands. Through his career, Zee has not only climbed the traditional ladder (eventually signing on as creative director of ELLE), but he's done it in an unconventional way, using social media, reality television, digital prowess, and imaginative business synergies to help people fall in love with fashion. And, he does it with the kind of enthusiasm and positivity that pop-culture caricatures wouldn't have us associate with someone in his shoes.

Zee recently left his post at ELLE to head up the soon-to-be-revamped Yahoo Fashion, and give the digital dinosaur its phoenix moment. We spoke to him about the upcoming relaunch, his feelings about the industry, and what it's like to work on the other side of the pen for once.

Your reputation in the fashion industry is that of an early adopter, so whatever it is — a new technology, a new way of doing things — you seem to try it out before anyone else. So, what’s next for you?
"I don’t know if there’s a new technology I’m investing in. I was just having this conversation with someone yesterday, but I think it’s just always by instinct. I always want to try the next, new thing, but I don’t go looking for it. That’s why I felt like when Yahoo approached me about launching a digital magazine, I was just like, 'Oh, I hadn't thought about it.' But, it felt like the right thing to do at the right time. After 20 years in print and publishing, this is a chance to do digital.

"I like social media, but that just happened. Or television, or designing a line for QVC. I love that you say I'm an early adopter. I think it’s really just being unafraid to try something that’s different, because with fashion...here’s an industry that prides itself on changing every six months, and yet the forces behind fashion are a little bit hesitant to change at all. People who run the industry really like tradition but, at the same time, it’s an industry that’s really about changing the way we see things."

That’s the ultimate irony.
"That part has always been sort of fascinating to me; that people who embrace change on a creative level twice a year — or four times a year, really — [are...] hesitant to embrace change on a bigger scale. I think you see a lot of shifts in the way things are approached, and you see the way shifts are happening even with a different generation of how they’re going to approach things. The new generation trying to break into fashion is not going to do it the way I did it. It’s not going to be about trying to go get a job, and get promoted within that job 10 times, and be there for 12 years. I don’t think the new generation wants to do that because they have so many other options. Everybody has a chance to carve out a little bit of a space for themselves. Not that you can’t go and be an intern, to an assistant, to an associate, to an editor — certainly you can do that. But, when I started, that was the only option."

Do you have any advice to give these young people just entering the workforce? In interacting with them, have you noticed a different point of view or work ethic from past generations?
"I think everyone always complains that the new generation has a different work ethic. But, I think the flip side of that is that they’re unafraid to tap into everything. I think everything changed — even in my parents’ generation, everyone would have one, maybe two jobs their whole life. Now, if you stay at your job more than five years, people are like, 'Oh, you're a lifer.' I think people are very much interested in all the different things you can do.

"I think my biggest advice would be don’t be afraid. Go after everything and anything. And say yes, because you can actually do multiple things. I’ve done multiple things in my career and I’ve never let it hold me back. I never ever felt confined in a way where it was like, 'Oh, you're a stylist. you can't design something. You can't actually be on TV.' I think there was a Ryan Seacrest quote a long time ago, and I don’t even remember where I read it or heard it, but he's had such a successful career in doing so many different things, and he said something like: 'Do everything that you can do until you can’t anymore, then just give up the least important thing.' I love that. This really is a generation of people doing as much as they can with something they love. My biggest piece of advice would be to tell people to pursue it all. Pursue it all, do it all, see what happens, then just take it from there.”
rexusa_1281372rPhoto: MediaPunch Inc/REX USA.
Getting back to Yahoo Fashion: As a print-raised guy encountering the digital world — and your first opportunity to really effect change within it — what areas do you see as having the biggest opportunities?
"In digital, there's a way to connect with people in a more immersive way. Print doesn't do that — you know, I put stuff in a magazine, it gets sent out. I have no idea how people will react to it. It’s not a thing where I can ever connect again with my reader. So, if I see something on a newsstand, or if somebody sees it at a nail salon and they read it, unless someone physically takes the time to tweet me — which people have — I don’t really know how people engage with the content. Online, the engagement is so immediate, and it’s so specific...

"How do we take that and actually harness it into a much more immersive experience? How do we actually make the conversation two-way? We have two-way conversations on social media, and I think that’s why those platforms have been so successful. So then, how do we actually have two-way conversations on digital content? Those are the things that I’m fascinated by. As I get ready to launch Yahoo Style, how can we do this?

"I certainly bring a lot of my sensibilities from the world of print to digital, because for such a disposable quality about digital — sometimes people think, 'Oh, we’ll just put it online...' Not that it can’t be disposable, because it is consumed in that way sometimes, but I think that choice is so important. If you look at your Twitter or your Instagram feed, it’s not of everyone that’s ever joined Twitter or Instagram. You handpick what you want. There’s still a personal level of personal curation. If you choose to come to my magazine, you don’t want a load of crap — you really want a handpicked curated group of content that really is genuinely appealing."

Yahoo Beauty just launched. What are you loving about it? Is there some sort of foreshadowing of what we can expect to see in Yahoo Style?
"That’s really Bobbi Brown, which is, to be honest, not really me. But all the Yahoo magazines are powered by Tumblr, and they all certainly have that similar front-facing user experience. You look at all the magazines they’ve launched, and they’re all very visual — and I’m a visual guy, so that’s really great. What I’m trying to do with fashion is to take that idea and even elevate it a notch above all that, because we’re going to have a lot of original photography. In having all of those great assets, you want to be able to also elevate the product a bit more. We’re working on that right now. Is it going to be carbon copy of beauty? Absolutely not. But it’s going to be in the same world."

I'm looking forward to your Fashion Day Kickoff on QVC at midnight on August 1. You’re typically on the critiquing side of the industry, and now you’re getting a taste of what it’s like to create, market, and sell your own clothing. Even though you're a veteran in this industry, were there any challenges you didn’t anticipate getting into this?
"Yes, of course — there’s challenges in everything I do. There are still challenges every single day when I go style someone, and I’ve been doing that for 25 years. I think the biggest challenge of being a designer is finding a way to distill trends and cull it into a great collection. I love QVC, because you get to speak to such a big audience and bring fashion to such a big group of women; literally, the collection is everything from XXS all the way up to 3X. I can actually do something and actually dress every type of woman. That was really important to me.

"It’s relatively new still — less than a year for me — and I'm still sort of testing out and seeing what the audience is reacting to, what people are liking, and going from there. Because it is new, I’m still finding my voice, and what that is to be a designer and understanding all that. But, it’s so fun. You think of all these things when you’re a stylist and an editor, and here you get the chance to do it. How much more exciting can it be?"

You’re one of the few people in the industry who are so well-versed in speaking to people who are very knowledgeable about fashion as well as those who are just starting to get into it.
"I think you need to know your audience. I love talking about it to both types. I can sit down and really have an in-depth, historical discussion about fashion with people, and I can also talk to people who are interested that might feel intimidated by it or frustrated by it.

"What I love about fashion — and this is sort of my mandate for Yahoo — is that whether you say you love fashion or not, everyone has a stake in it. We all get up and get dressed every single day. Whatever it is, you make a conscious decision about what you wear. I don’t want to say 'would I rather talk about it with a fashion insider or with the masses,' I think it’s important to be able to straddle both."

Last question: Who has more swag, you or Jay Z?
"He’s married to Beyoncé, so I’m going to give it to him."