Creative Director of Elle magazine, Joe Zee, has one of those bubbly, winning personalities that makes an interview and photo shoot a walk in the park. Even more importantly though — he’s a foodie! Hear all about his musings on fashion and food, and peruse his favorite items for fall.
TNP: From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
On an ideal food day, I would not be worried about, “Oh I have to be healthy.” I’m someone who loves everything. I would get up and have an awesome breakfast that would probably be eggs and sausage; I love traditional breakfast. I almost never have breakfast on a regular basis because I’m always on the go. Coffee is my drug. I’d probably like a light lunch. I love a grilled vegetable salad or something like that. And then I just love, love dinner. Dinner is my thing. I know people are always like, “Oh you should have a bigger breakfast and a bigger lunch,” but I love a dinner. For me, it’s also social and fun to have a glass of wine, sit, and have an awesome meal. I’d have either a great burger or fried chicken, which is also my thing. I can’t eat it all the time, but I love it. That would be my last meal, my fried chicken. If I could just go to a really cool, casual place and just have great food with good company, that would be my ideal food day.
TNP: How would you define “good content?”
I think good content is anything that engages, because there is so much content everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading it in a magazine, watching it on television, or going through websites. If you can get me to stay on your channel, to pick up your magazine, or to stay on your website, that means that content has managed to engage. I think that’s what good content is: It’s managed to capture me, and hold me for my very ADD attention span. And it’s not just me; it’s everyone. I think it can do that through being provocative, slightly unpredictable, and by being breaking news of some sort. There are also always unexpected ways. I love strong voices and strong opinions. I think those are the things that captivate. I’ll go to a TV show because I really like that personality; I’ll read a specific story because I think that writer is great. That’s what great content is: The great people behind the content and the way that they think. Great minds can create something that captures and engages an audience.
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TNP: Do you think people have shorter attention spans on the web?
Absolutely! I think the web is completely, one hundred percent responsible for making us all have even more ADD, which is fine because I already had it to begin with! We’re all trained now to digest things in sound bites. We all live our life and our experiences like, if it’s not on Instagram it didn’t happen; if it can’t be condensed to 140 characters, too much is going on. Everything is about little bits and pieces, and some people criticize social media, but that’s really our scrapbook. When we look back years from now, Instagram will be our photo album and Twitter will be our journal. These are the scrapbooks of our lives and I think it’s an interesting thing because there’s so much of it all the time. I am on Twitter all the time, and even my boyfriend is like “Why are you always looking at Twitter?” But I follow every breaking news feed; I follow authors; I follow brands I like, outlets I like, and certainly friends as well. I have gotten every major news headline in the last couple of years through Twitter, from the tsunami in Japan, to Whitney Houston passing away, to the Asiana flight crash. I’m fascinated by breaking news from Twitter. I’m not at a television set or on the radio, but on my phone I can get breaking news in a very condensed way.
TNP: When it comes to Elle, how are you constantly keeping it relevant? What’s your process?
I love magazines. I moved to New York City from Toronto 23 years ago to work in magazines, and I think what I’ve always loved about magazines was when they kept it interesting and unpredictable. If you’re going to get that jewel in your mailbox every single month, you want to be able to say, “What is in the issue this month?” and really open it up and be surprised and provoked to think in a new way. I’m not going to take the sole responsibility of keeping Elle relevant, but I think Elle stays relevant because we have great minds and interesting people who think outside of the box. You have to sort of push the envelope a little bit. A very classic example is, we all go to the same fashion shows, and maybe we’ll all see red coats as a big theme on the runway. At Elle, we would never distill that into saying, “Let’s do a red coat fashion story,” because everybody’s doing it and it’s already been done. We put it through the “Elle filter” — so maybe it will be done in a sporty way, on the athletic girl on the beach [for example]. We have to put it through the filter of what we do. I think that’s how we keep it relevant: we spin things in a way that is part of our kooky brain.
TNP: You’re really known for the digital transformation when it comes to fashion. What advice would you give to people that are feeling the need to dive into digital and are maybe a little late?
I’m a huge technology geek at heart. I don’t know how to write code, program and do algorithms, but I love technology and toys — and I love the future. I love what’s new, and if you think about it, that’s what we do. We’re magazines; we’re in media. We have to put out what’s new. In order to put it out, you have to engage in it. I think my only advice to people would be that you have to do what’s organic to you. I know so many people that don’t want to do social media but think, “Ugh I should get into it” and I can tell by their Twitter feeds, and their Instagrams, that they are so reluctant to do it. It is not engaging or interesting because it’s not something that is true to who they are, and that is so obvious on social media. So if it’s not who you are, don’t do it. And at this point, everyone’s doing it, but if you can’t get into the rhythm of it and what it’s supposed to be, it’s almost more detrimental to try to do it. I think authentic voices are what’s working. There are just so many voices, so if you can’t be authentic — especially in the digital realm — I think you should not do it at all, because people smell that out right away.
TNP: Are there publications that you look at and love their content, but think that digitally they are doing something wrong? If so, why?
Oh my God, all the time! I think that’s just the way that my brain functions. I’m too busy worrying about what we do, but I also love the scope of media. I love all the other magazines; I love broadcast; I love digital. I watch a television show and I think “Ugh why did you guys do it this way? It should be edited this way! Why didn’t this get produced this way?” I’m reading magazines going, “You guys have missed the boat on this.” There are many publications I can think of — and I’m not going to name any names — who can have a bigger digital presence, and who can have a unique digital presence. A digital presence isn’t necessarily just throwing up a website or driving traffic. There are other ways to really make your stake in it, whether it’s programming or e-commerce, which is sort of the big train that everybody wants to board right now.
I look at things like Amazon and eBay, and when they first came out, they came out and then literally struggled through the verge of bankruptcy. And then they sort of weathered that hump, and really became these mega-forces. I think there are a lot of growing pains, but I think you have to be strong enough to get in the game, get through the rough choppy waves, and know that somewhere down the road you’ll have grandfathered into this sort of new wave of what media can be. And that’s what I love. I’m always looking at what’s new and what’s next and what can we do. I always try to push those boundaries even within Elle. We did a photo shoot last year that no one’s ever done before. It was a social media photo shoot where I wanted all the readers to sort of be the stylists and I was going to help them. They voted on all the elements, from the model, to the location, to the theme, and then we live streamed the photo shoot, where people actually wrote in and said, “Try this shoe on her, try that, and shoot it like this,” and it was a huge success. The amount of people that were drawn to that was crazy. It was just a testing for us, but I knew I loved it because it was the kind of thing I would love if I were a fashion-obsessed, dedicated reader. The engagement was huge. Everybody came and stayed for the two-hour shoot. How many people watch live stream for two hours? Nobody! But the numbers grew and people stayed, so by the end we were at a 500 percent increase from where we started. And real time conversations were happening.
TNP: In your new TV show, All On The Line, what are the most common pitfalls you see with designers?
I think the biggest pitfall is that designers have an unrealistic expectation today, and I think that’s partly our [the media's] fault. Before you can even graduate from school, we already want to write about you because you’re the new protégés, and you haven’t even done or sold anything yet. We’re so desperate and hungry for new, that we’re constantly grabbing at them so early on in the game, so then we build them up into something, and then that expectation is so hard for them to sustain. I think that’s really hard, so I think people see a lot of that. They see Project Runway; they read magazines; they see what’s going on and they think, “Well I could be a designer because it’s not that hard! I can sew.” And it’s actually very hard. It’s actually running a business. Like how you guys run your website — it’s a real business; it’s not just having fun. It’s not just taking a picture and writing a few things. It’s a real business. And there’s a lot of other elements that those designers don’t realize that they have to know. They didn’t think that they actually had to deal with money, or sales, or hustling, and a lot of times that’s what it becomes. Art and commerce, and the struggle between them, is always big with any creative field.
TNP: Do you think great designers should also have business minds?
I think great designers should absolutely have business minds. I think design schools need to have a business class. Whether you ever use it or don’t use it, you have to know what’s going on, because you can’t be oblivious to your own business. If you have your name on the door, you need to know how that money is coming and going, and how to build your business — otherwise your name should not be on that door.
Well, I love food more than anything. There’s such a cliché, “Oh fashion people don’t eat,” when I find that to be completely erroneous. Well, some really don’t eat, but they don’t hang out with me! Because I’m going to eat and I am, as all my friends and my boyfriend will tell you, a food pusher. I am a very serious food pusher and I will own up to that because I love food. I love food because it’s great for bringing people together. It’s a social thing for me. I think the commonality between food and fashion is that they’re both very creative. If you think about it, they’re both about putting ingredients together. Fashion is about designing, getting ideas, putting a look together and knowing your own personal style and how that reflects your personality. I think food is very similar. It’s ingredients that come together in a very unique way; it’s very personal. Food and fashion are very telling signs of someone’s personality, who they are and what they like. I think it’s a great sort of insight into someone when I look at what they eat.
TNP: Who are some of your favorite chefs and restaurants in the city?
I have this whole thing — it’s like my fashion thing — in that I love [to wear] high/low. I have high/low with fashion as I do with food. I can eat anywhere, but I’ve gone to Bar Pitti for twenty years; that’s my jam. I’ll go to Wallsé, but then I’ll go to Minka in the East Village and have ramen there for five bucks, which I love and it’s amazing. Izakaya Ten is one of my joints. I will go to Red Rooster and Seersucker in Brooklyn and eat fried chicken, but then the next day I’ll go eat healthy at Souen.
I’m all about moderation and balance, and I love it all. I think I am probably the only person that loves tofu as much as I love banana cream pie and fried chicken — and will have it on a regular basis. I could eat hijiki seaweed, and I can eat a cheeseburger from In-N-Out Burger, which I love. And I’m also adventurous, which most of my friends are not — and my boyfriend is absolutely not — but I love trying new things. I will eat pigs tails and whatever.
TNP: What’s your go to recipe when you’re eating at home?
It changes all the time. I’m not a creature of routine in that way, but I think it depends. I can whip up something really quickly. I can just do grilled fish and vegetables, but I can also do awesome tacos. I can do turkey bolognese…It depends on what we’re in the mood for.
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TNP: Personally, where do you draw inspiration from?
Well, I’m a pop culture freak, so I really draw inspiration from everywhere. So if it’s music, or artists that are really hot and exploding off the chart, I’ll be like, “Oh why? What’s going on? ” Television is a huge thing for me; movies are a huge thing; books are a big thing. I just get very obsessed with what people are obsessed with. Everybody recently on Twitter was watching Sharknado. It was so cheesy. I was working until about ten o’clock and I got home and was like “I’ve got to watch this.” It was so bad-good, but I was less amazed by the bad-good — there’s a lot of bad-good on TV — and was more interested as to why an entire social media community was wrapped around it. Very, very, intelligent people — and lowbrow people — were all tweeting it at the same time, and I was like, “Wow! I love getting into the heads of that.” That fascinates me.
TNP: Do you try to find out why?
I do try to find out why. I research a little bit, and figure out what it is and why that particular thing hit and something else didn’t. I’m always interested as to how something becomes a tipping point and something doesn’t.
I wish there was a formula where you could say, “a plus b equals c,” but there isn’t. It’s like with restaurants — what accounts for a certain restaurant being so busy but another one not? And I think: how does human psychology play into that?
TNP: And when it comes to pop culture and what really moves people, what do you think is the biggest priority right now for publishers?
I think the biggest priority for publishers right now is to have a point of differentiation – to have a really strong voice. If you have a really strong voice, and a strong point of view, and stick to what you do, people will come back to you time and time again for what you do. And that can be a magazine, a website, whatever it is, because I want to know what I’m coming for. The biggest mistake someone can make is say: “Oh it’s all about this right now,” and then run to that. Or “This person’s really successful so let’s try to glom on to some of that.” You stick to what you do; that’s what longevity’s about.
TNP: If you could switch closets with one person in the world, who would it be? And if you could give one piece of advice to someone approaching their closet, what would it be?
Approaching their closet, I would probably say, “You have to be who you are.” Personal style is big mantra for me because I know so many people who feel like they have to be something else, or they have to say, “I should try this,” or “I should try that.” I think everyone knows what they’re comfortable with, and it’s finding the best possible version of who they are in that world. It’s not about trying to chase a trend that isn’t you, or trying to dress inappropriately, or whatever those things are.
Trading a closet with somebody! I’m a casual guy. For me a style icon is always John F. Kennedy Jr. because he always was somebody who would wear a ski parka over a suit, or an overcoat over sweatpants, and that’s completely who I am. Again that sort of contrast of high/low, because for me that’s what I like. I’ll take Ryan Gosling’s wardrobe. Amongst other things!
TNP: If you could host a dinner party with any five people, living or dead, who would be there and what would you wear?
Well definitely Anthony Bourdain, because I love his intellect; I love his show; I love his approach food and culture — and I love to hear him talk. So definitely we’ll start with Anthony Bourdain. And Rihanna, because if he’s coming she needs to come to. Can you imagine that conversation? Bill Clinton and Herb Ritts, because he would have amazing stories to tell, and I think he would be so enamored by Rihanna today if he was alive. I would have my boyfriend there, just so there was an eyewitness for all of this kookiness. Unfortunately, Rihanna’s the only girl there, but I think she would actually really like it. Despite there being Bill Clinton and Herb Ritts, I would probably still be in my hoodie, jeans, and high tops. Because I want to just be comfortable and hear everything that’s going on.
TNP: What would you cook for everyone?
Oh my god, I’m obsessed with cooking but I’d be so intimidated to cook anything. Bourdain is there! What would I cook? Definitely not French food; he’s going to be there. I love cooking and I have this whole thing where I love people challenging me with ideas of what to cook. I love having big groups of people over and having them tell me what theme they want. The one thing I ironically have a hard time cooking is probably Asian food. But I’d probably cook Italian. I can do Chicken Milanese; I can do Risotto Milanese. The key would be timing it all so I could actually not miss out on the conversation and still cook.