There was a time not so long ago when fashion was an exclusive club. The public wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the industry that dictates everything from the fit of our jeans to the rise and fall of our hemlines. But that’s changed in recent years with an increasing number of television shows taking viewers behind the scenes, right into the designers’ workrooms and even up onto the runway. And the ultimate fashion insider, Joe Zee, the creative director of Elle magazine and host and executive producer of Sundance Channel’s All on the Line (Mondays, 9 p.m. EST), calls this newfound openness a welcome development.
"I’ll tell you right now: A lot of people in this industry won’t agree with me, but I actually think it’s a great thing to throw open those doors and show people how something works. Why not? It’s big business, but it’s also a fun industry. Let’s invite everybody to the party. There’s no reason it needs to have a velvet rope," Zee says. "I’ve always wanted fashion to be democratic. I’ve wanted it to be inclusive. I never really felt like I deserved to be a person sitting in an ivory tower dictating to people who they are and how they should dress and how they should look."
Zee, who grew up in Toronto, has worked in the fashion magazine business at titles including Allure, W, and now Elle, for more than 20 years now. And while the fashion maven is passionate about print, he is active in all media these days, everything from Twitter to television. "I love television because I can tell a story in a different way, and I think what I’ve done with All on the Line, being on camera but also as an executive producer, is to be able to show a slice of the fashion industry that hasn’t been shown before," Zee says, stressing, "It’s not just The Devil Wears Prada. It’s not just red carpets and glitz and glamour. There’s also hard work. There’s also blood, sweat, and tears."
All on the Line finds Zee, who you might also recognize from Whitney Port’s MTV series The City, mentoring fashion designers struggling to build viable businesses. The first two seasons of the show were set exclusively in New York City, but Zee was insistent that at least half of the latest season be shot in Los Angeles. There was a time when L.A. was dismissed as the land of T-shirts and Uggs, Zee acknowledges, but he says West Coast fashion has matured in recent years and cannot be ignored. "You have really directional designers out there like Rodarte and Band of Outsiders and Hedi Slimane, the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, living out there. It’s a hub for high-end fashion direction now," Zee enthuses.
Aside from the blossoming creative scene, Zee says it was also important to take All on the Line to L.A. because of the role celebrity culture plays in fashion these days. "I wanted these struggling, up-and-coming designers [on our show] to understand that celebrity culture has to be a part of what they do and that it can literally, for someone like them, make or break their business. They’re not Donna Karan. If someone doesn’t wear a Donna Karan dress down the red carpet, is it going to change her business? Not significantly. But for somebody who is trying to get up into the ranks, to be noticed, to establish some sort of branding for themselves, someone of prominence, a celebrity wearing your clothes, validating your collection, is going to change your business tenfold," Zee says. "I really wanted them to get that. I thought it was an obvious point, but a lot of them didn’t see it until it was put in front of them."
Celebrities aren’t just wearing designer clothes. They’re designing them. The likes of Jessica Simpson, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and Katie Holmes are running their own labels. When you have all of these celebrities-turned-fashion-moguls in the business, does an unknown kid studying fashion design at F.I.T. even have a shot at success? "For a newbie at F.I.T., it’s going to be harder. You’re not the Olsen twins. You’re not Victoria Beckham," Zee says, noting that Nicole Richie, who runs the Winter Kate clothing collection and House of Harlow 1960 accessories line, is featured on the final episode of All on the Line this season as she launches the Nicole Richie Collection for QVC.
"I wanted to show that celebrities today are not just slapping their name on the back of something. The fact that the Olsen girls can win a CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] award for Womenswear Designer of the Year and beat Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta is fantastic. Or the fact that Victoria Beckham can be one of the best-selling brands at Bergdorf Goodman or that Rachel Zoe can be that, too, and the fact that Nicole Richie does sit down and discuss design details and knows exactly what she wants and knows how to market it, sell it, design it, and conceive it, is a big deal today," Zee says. "The great thing for [these celebrities] is they’re already branded, so if they’re going to come into this industry, they already have a brand and an audience built in behind them."
Back to the newbie from F.I.T. "For a kid at F.I.T., they’re going to have to work doubly hard to get there. Is it impossible? No. And that’s what I always tell kids when I go speak at schools. Social media is free. Get on Facebook. Write a blog post. Start a blog. Get on Twitter. Do whatever it is you need to do, but don’t just throw white noise out there. Have a point of view. Say something of significance and importance," Zee says. "If you start to build your brand early, your brand will only get stronger as you grow."
Zee offers a few more tips for fashion designers, and anyone really, looking to start their own businesses.
Twenty years ago you could have built a career as a fashion designer without having much business sense, Zee says. The business was less complicated back then. "Today, it is literally professional suicide," he insists. "You can be the most incredible sketcher, illustrator. You can make the best dress. But if you have no business savvy to sell that dress, it’s just not going to happen. The reality is you really need someone to get out there and push your brand, and you need to know how to do a business plan, know how to read a business plan. Listen, if you’re a designer, do you need to sit there every day and look at an Excel chart and do units and all that? Not really. But you need to understand these things, and you need to know how to start them. When you are starting out, you are a one-man operation. You have to be able to do all those things."
"I always tell everybody, ‘Grow slow.’ There’s no need to try to do everything super fast," Zee says. "You cannot graduate from Parsons, and tomorrow be Tom Ford. It is a long time coming if it ever comes at all." As much as he tries to instill that message in young designers, to convince them to work on their craft and take one step at a time, Zee admits it doesn’t always stick given that we live in a culture where everyone expects instant results. "I have seen many designers try to build fast, and I have seen many skyrocket quickly and then fall because there is no way to sustain that success," he cautions.
Zee, who has noticed way too many designers trying to be Givenchy as of late, says it will get you nowhere to cop another designer’s style. "A watered-down version of something I’ve already seen is a watered-down version of something that’s already been done," Zee says. "The original is always going to be better than yours, and then we don’t need you. But if you are authentic, if you are in your lane and doing what you do best, people are going to come to you."