Interview: Joe Zee talks fashion, Canadian beginnings and Meghan Markle
For the past 30 years Joe Zee has had a front row seat to every memorable moment in modern fashion history. At 49 years old, the effervescent star has styled the world’s top celebrities and has been responsible for some of the most talked-about magazine covers in popular culture (Scarlett Johansson nude, anyone?). Armed with a coveted resume and an impeccable sense of style, Joe has made his way back to Canada as the resident judge on Slice’s new fashion competition series, Stitched. We sat down with the industry icon to talk everything from his early days in Toronto to Meghan Markle’s impact on Canadian designers.
Slice: You’ve had this enviable career where you’ve become an icon in fashion internationally – did you have a bit of a full circle moment returning to Canada to be a part of Stitched?
Joe: This is where I grew up, this is where I went to school, this is where my hometown is – for me, there’s a lot of Canadian pride. [Getting] the call from Slice to come do Stitched was really kind of amazing. I’ve lived in the states for the last 30 years, but to be able to come back here and support Canadian programming [and] Canadian fashion in this way was really gratifying.
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#tbt It was 1990, the last year I lived in Toronto before moving to NYC. Madonna had just come through Canada on her Blond Ambition tour, so I was inspired to wear my Junior Gaultier silk bomber I scored at Century 21 on a recent NYC trip. Of course, had to pair it with my mom jeans, Harley Davidson tee and motorcycle boots. And now 28 years later, I got to come back to Toronto for 2 months to film an amazing new fashion competition series, Stitched, and end my time here hosting the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards tomorrow night. Whirlwind time but glad I could experience my ???????? life again. Thank you, eh. ???? @cafawards #CAFA2018 #STITCHED @slice_tv (Source: my book, That’s What Fashion Is)
S: How different does it feel being in Toronto now versus before you left? Did you feel like you had to escape to make it big?
J: It wasn’t that I had to escape. All I [wanted] to do was work in magazines. It wasn’t like I was ‘Oh I gotta get out of here, this is awful.’ It was more like ‘Oh if I want to work in magazines, they’re all in New York City.’ When I went there I was like ‘This is where I’m meant to be!’ I went down there and really hustled to make my dream come true. So I felt less like it was an escape to find success elsewhere, but [more] going to where I felt like I had to go. It was like a calling for me.
In the last 20+ years that I’ve been away, Toronto has changed incredibly. It’s very cosmopolitan, it’s very global – there’s a ton of energy in this city. On a global scale, Canada – and Toronto specifically – has such a shining star on it right now. People really look to this country as a marker for good politics, but also good taste. When I was growing up here we were always living in the shadow of the states, and I feel like [we’re] really coming into our own right now.
S: How does it feel being a part of launching the careers of these North American designers?
J: People are going to see the breadth of talent within these North American designers. We have everybody from 19 to 61 [years old]. The level of experience from people who show at Fashion Week, all the way down home sewers who have [an] incredible vision. The ones that you think are going to take it all the way to the endline don’t – fashion has become more democratic than ever before. If you feel like you have something to say through design, you can and actually be validated for it. I think that’s what this show is going to show people; anybody with a vision can actually do this, it isn’t just relegated to the people who are sitting at the top of the pyramid.
S: Compared to when you started, do you think it has become easier or harder to make it big in the social media era?
J: There’s pros and cons. I started in the early ‘90s when there was no social media or computers – I started my first job typing on an electric typewriter – it was a totally different world. You lived in this bubble – I went to fashion shows in Paris, and then we came home and didn’t report on it in magazines for 6 months. Today, if you’re in the front row of a fashion show and you’re not putting that picture up on Instagram by the time you walk out that door it’s already too late; everybody else has already gotten it up and you’ll be late in the feed. It’s a very immediate society we live in now, whereas before it was a much more analytical society. Back then it was really just about if you were handpicked to be in this bubble and then you were accepted as a tastemaker – now everybody feels like they can be a tastemaker and that’s actually interesting because I always think of me as a kid here in Toronto flipping through all the pages of Vogue and Elle magazine and wanting to be a part of that… As a kid today in Toronto [you] can absolutely be a part of that because [you] can actually have a voice, an opinion and a real point of view on social media.
S: You’ve seen so much in your career – what are some fashion moments that truly wowed you?
J: You know about all these iconic moments. I was there when they showed those iconic collections. [Like] Alexander McQueen; the spray-painting on the dress, everything that was in the exhibition, that was in the documentary, I was there sitting in the front row watching. I look back and think, ‘That was a brilliant fashion show,’ but it was also a marker in history. When John Galliano took over Dior, every single Chanel show that has [had] incredible concepts – all of these things have been wow moments. I love my wow moments because there is so much that we watch and see that there can be visual overload, but when it really strikes you at the core, it really leads you to something; it’s no different than reading a good book, watching a good movie, [or] hearing a good song. The things that stay with you will be the things that made a difference.
S: Did you get a similar wow feeling from anything you saw on Stitched?
J Oh I absolutely felt that on the show. There was this one designer, this young guy from Vancouver, who literally I was going to cry because it was so good. Knowing the time restraint that they had to work with, and the fabrication that they were restrained to, it was so great. To see that there is that talent here in Canada, and that there’s that talent in the next generation who just needs a big break makes me really excited that this industry has what it has.
S: How did you feel when you actually stepped foot on the Stitched set for the first time and saw everything in person?
J: I was like ‘This is gorgeous; I’m going to move right in.’ It was just so beautiful. It was vast, it was open – it felt like the coolest fashion spaceship ever.
S: When you take on the role of being a judge, do you ever get nervous having to give people feedback, especially if it’s not positive?
J: Oh no, I don’t get nervous. I don’t look at it as being judgmental, I look at it as being constructive. Even if I don’t like something, I’m always going to tell you why. It’s too easy just to be mean, it’s much more difficult to say you don’t like something and then say why. I have actually sat at thousands of fashion shows and I’ve seen everything over the last 30 years so if a designer tells me [an incorrect] point of reference, I’m like ‘No, I was actually there the first time around, that’s not the point of reference – but you could do this, or if you just did that it could’ve been spectacular.’ That’s what they benefit from. I could see that the ones that really took that to heart were the ones that vastly improved from one challenge to the other.
S: What was it like working with your co-stars Vanessa and Kim, and the guest judges?
J: Kim is an incredible host and she was just great. She was part of our last challenge and she always interjected her opinion and she’s great because she does it from a personal perspective. I love Vanessa – I think we had such a comradery – but we didn’t always agree which is great because fashion is subjective [and] there’s no right or wrong answer. It was interesting to see how our opinions differentiated and how they came to light. All the guest judges had their own opinions and every episode had their own guest judge and they brought a different dynamic to the overall aspect of judging.
S: Why do you think more Canadian designers haven’t “made it big” on an international scale? It feels like it’s been a few years since we’ve have an international success on a high fashion level.
J: I don’t think it’s a problem specific to Canada, I think fashion itself has put so much spotlight on New York, London, Paris, and Milan that every market outside of those four have a hard time breaking through. I will say that Canada more than ever is getting such a global recognition, and I have to give a lot of that to Meghan Markle. For her to be able to wear a lot of Canadian designers on such a global level and to hear these designers say that things are selling out all over the world and that their websites are crashing – that’s incredible. That’s incredible because Meghan Markle can wear anyone in the world. She has Oscar de la Renta and Miuccia Prada making her custom gowns, and yet will also choose Mackage or Greta Constantine, or whoever, to make something custom for her. It puts them in the same playing field. I think that’s so great about Canada; the talent is here, people just needed to know.
Tune in to Stitched Sundays at 9e/p on Slice!