Elle’s Creative Director Joe Zee Talks Fashion Business with CanadaFashionLaw

If you know Elle magazine or the spin-off reality TV show, The City, you probably know Joe Zee.  Amicable, knowledgeable and dynamic, Joe Zee has launched a new reality TV show, “All On The Line”.  The second season airs in Canada on Sundance Channel Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. EST.  Season one will air Mondays at 8 p.m. EST beginning January 2 on CosmoTV.

In “All On The Line” Joe Zee acts as a fashion guru consultant to help struggling designers save their business.  Here at CanadaFashionLaw, we love the business and law of the fashion industry and so this TV show is of great interest to us.  With a spring in our step and a shimmer from our newest bubble gum pink lip gloss, CanadaFashionLaw was delighted to be invited for a one-on-one talk with the guru himself.  We hope you enjoy the interview: 

You’re no stranger to reality TV, what kind of impact has it had on your personal brand and that of Elle magazine’s?

I think that reality TV is a genre.  Although it was probably a dirty word when it first launched on air, it has become a really big component of television broadcasting.  It is going to open up the parameters of who you are.  From a personal brand perspective, I think that a lot more people understand what I do, who I am and what I can contribute.  For Elle, it certainly helps us expand to a broader market - to people who may not just be reading magazines but to those who love fashion and watch it on TV. 

How did All On The Line come about?

Sundance Channel and the production company, Authentic Entertainment, came to me with the idea of the show.  I wasn’t entirely sure what it was so we all sat down and talked about it and shaped it into something that I was so proud and happy with because it was genuine and authentic.  It’s something that I feel has never been done on television.  We’re not portraying Devil Wears Prada or Ugly Betty.  It’s not red carpet and glitz and glam.  It’s really about the nitty-gritty, hard, blood sweat and tears tough day in day out aspects of what being a fashion designer is about.  Yes you can have that dream – but it comes at a price.  It’s not easy.  There are a lot of things on television that make it seem easy.  People don’t understand that there is so much “business” involved. 

How do you offer grounded criticisms without stifling the designer’s creativity?

Being honest!  If you watch the show, I’m brutally honest.  I’m not going to be their mother and sugar coat something.  They have people in their lives to do that – they don’t need me for that.  They have to understand what it is that they are doing and if you miss the mark just a little bit, you may as well stop doing it.  It’s a very crowded industry.  You’ve got to be able to service it.  I’m never mean (I don’t think), I just want to be honest in a critical way that will help them.  

One of the biggest self-induced hurdles that I see as a fashion lawyer helping emerging or established fashion designers is that they do not view themselves as a business from early on.  Do you agree?

Absolutely!!  There are so many fashion students that have been so attached to the show and are now starting to realize that they need to have some sort of business training.  They can’t just draw, drape, cut and sew.  Once you’ve done that, what’s next?  You have to understand the business aspect.  We don’t live in a world where you can sketch designs from your ivory tower and think that your dress will end up in every store.  You’ve got to figure out how to make that work.  This show is starting to help people re-evaluate.  Being a designer means being a business person.  People haven’t thought that before.  

And the designers don’t think to outsource that business acumen either.  If you’re going to focus on the creative aspects, at least surround yourself with trust-worthy people that have a good business aptitude, be it from a financial, legal or consulting background

Yes.  But they have to get “you”.  They can’t just be a good business person.  They have to know how to take the creativity of who you are and make it into something successful.  

On one of your episodes, there was a successful business person backing the designer, but the business person had no knowledge of the fashion industry itself.  How necessary is it for the financial/business/legal minds to educate themselves on the nuances of the fashion industry?

It happens ALL the time.  I think that there are designers who don’t understand the nuances of the fashion industry.  It’s hard – how can anyone entering into the industry know the nuances of everything going on.  So they have to learn but unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time for the learning curve.  You have to make your business successful and it has to happen right now.  You don’t have seasons and seasons to try.  That’s the problem with all these designers.  

Is it a “learn on the job” situation or are the fashion education institutions geared towards helping the designers appreciate the practical business aspects of the fashion industry?

I think that for a lot of them, it is a “learn on the job” scenario.  That’s why I recommend designers take apprenticeships and be designers for bigger companies to see how that all works.  

Do you think that there is opportunity in Canada for fashion designers or is brain drain to NYC, Milan or London necessary to be successful?

I think that’s what the fashion world gravitates to.  If you want to have global representation, then you have to be in those markets because that’s where all the international editors and retailers are going to be.  It’s very hard to get global representation in smaller markets because you are just not going to get the eyeballs.  This is for no other reason than the editors, buyers and retailers can’t be all over the world every day.  But that’s not to say that Canada can’t have a fashion scene and develop really great talent here and put Canada on the map.  But that needs to be done in a consolidated way within the country.  

With the Asian markets emerging as a dominant player in the fashion industry – how is this going to affect the business of fashion and influence fashion designs?

Asia is big for the luxury brands.  They are all expanding there like rapid fire because they want to be there first.  Asia’s not the place that’s bringing in the heavy dollars yet but it is the place that will bring in the heavy dollars soon.  Everyone wants to be there when it does.  I think it’s going to change the world of fashion because we’re going to see the designers in the world of luxury shift their focus to target that market.  Everything trickles down from the luxury market so if the Louis Vutton’s, Prada’s and Dior’s are doing something to target the Asian market, we’re going to see that trickle down effect throughout the fashion market.  

Why do you think the luxury goods market has not been as negatively affected during this recession?

They have held their own, but they are also a small percentage of the business.  If you really think about it, luxury ready to wear consumer products is really under 10% of the business.  They really deal in everything else: accessories, fragrance, licensing, beauty.  They have held their own because the people who are true consumers of those luxury brands are not the people that have been affected by the recession.  While shopping may not have happened as aggressively, it certainly has still happened.  

What are your thoughts on the US’ move to amend the copyright act to protect fashion designs – what will be the effect?

I haven’t been following it as closely, but I know that it’s a fight that has been going on and it’s a fight worth fighting.