Joe Zee began his career in fashion at age 22 when he moved to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. Currently serving as the Editor-in-Chief and Executive Creative Officer of Yahoo Fashion, he was previously the Creative Director of Elle magazine. He has also held posts at Allure, W Details, House and Garden and Vanity Fair magazines. He’s currently a stylist on the Tyra Banks-produced talk show FABLife.
How did you decide to get into fashion?
I think I always knew early on, even when I didn’t know exactly. I remember being six and I dragged a desk out in the middle of my living room, and I was wearing big, Jackie O. sunglasses and little shorts, and I said, okay, I’m giving everybody style advice for a dime! And it was just my family, so they were like, what are you doing? But they humored me and they did it. Even then, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know I wanted to be in fashion. Now, looking back, it’s so obvious! Then, when I went to high school, I gave all my friends style advice. I was always giving advice whether people wanted it or not, so then it became a job.
What was the first step?
I was in Toronto, and I was maybe 18, and a friend of mine who was a hairdresser said to me, I’m doing a shoot this week, do you want to come with me and be a stylist? And I said, oh, I don’t do hair, but thank you so much. And he said, no, clothes! And I said, what? And he explained that a clothes stylist was someone who picks the clothes and tells someone what to wear. I said, wait, what? There’s a job where someone pays you to shop for them and tell them what to wear? And he said, yeah. I was, sign me up! That was my first job. I went to a department store, bought a bunch of things, dressed the model and returned it, and I said, this is what I’m gonna be doing.
Have you faced a lot of hurdles in following your goals?
I think every day. When I finished school, and I remember having drinks with a friend of a friend who worked in fashion, and he asked what I wanted to do. I said, I want to be an editor of a magazine. And he said, you’re never gonna get that job. You’re not blond, you’re not a girl, and you don’t come from a privileged family. You should just think of alternate things. I remember being devastated and going home so upset. But the next day I woke up and said, I’m going to pull myself up and prove him wrong. And I worked hard, and I did better than I said I was going to do. I remember the first TV show I did I had dinner with a friend of a friend who’s an agent here [in Los Angeles] at a big talent agency, and he asked me, so, did you like it? And I said I love TV! I thought it was really fun and I can tell a story in a new way. He’s like, well, don’t get used to it. You’re too Asian for TV and no one’s ever going to hire an Asian. And he was Asian! I was like, what? I was discouraged that night, but I woke up again and said, I’m just going to do my thing. I think I’ve learned such great lessons along the way. You do your thing. I don’t let people tell me what’s impossible. I define that for myself.
What would you tell that a kid who wants to pursue a career in fashion?
I’d say go for broke. That’s the time when you’re a kid you don’t have to set any parameters for yourself. You don’t need walls, you don’t need ceilings, you do whatever you can do. Dream big, reach big, and just go for it and do it, and that’s the part that I love. When I look back at when I was six giving out fashion advice, I would have been reaching even bigger. I would have set up that desk in the middle of the road! But I think that’s what’s so great about being a kid. You don’t think anything is impossible. You only become aware of that as an adult, because other people tell you what’s impossible. I’ve learned at the end of the day, it’s not about other people. You’re living your own life, so you have to define that for yourself.
Has it been important for you to have family supporting your career?
My family was not always around, but I think at the end of the day, I never fault them for that because I think it allowed me to be an independent person and a lot more self-sufficient. It allowed me to dream big and achieve those things all on my own. I’m so proud of the things I’ve done.
Joe Zee co-stars with Tyra Banks, Chrissy Teigen, Lauren Makk and Leah Ashley on the daily daytime talk show FABLife. Visit fablifeshow.com for more information.