“When I was growing up in Toronto, I just wanted to fit in. I was an Asian kid in a mostly upper-class Jewish school. Everybody wore Lacoste and had everything I wanted to wear. In seventh grade, I saved all of my lunch money for a month—I got $10 a week—so that I could buy a pair of Jordache jeans at a thrift store called Thrifty’s. I remember my mom and grandparents asking me why I spent so much money on a pair of jeans, but I wore them every single day. I would put them on and feel like a different person. I was obsessed with the triangle on the back pocket. In hindsight, that was the first time I realized that clothes could create an image for people, and create confidence and allure—that they could be a secret signal to those who are ‘in the know.’ Those jeans were everything to me. Of course, I realize looking back, I was wearing women’s jeans the whole time.
In high school I dressed like a punk, with cobwebs and tic-tac-toe squares shaved into the side of my head, and the next day I would wake up and say, ‘OK, I’m preppy now,’ and I would pop the collar on two Polo shirts at once and wear whale pants. [Laughs] I would literally go from Robert Smith hairspray and eyeliner to Sperry Top-Siders. I knew exactly how to twirl the laces into that coil, too, and how to put a penny into my loafers. I was a crazy person. Part of it was about acceptance and part of it was about rebellion. As a teenager, I wanted to tag it as rebellion, but I really just wanted to be accepted by the world of rebellion. Everyone wants to be sitting at the 'A' table at lunch, and everyone wants to be invited to the party—I was no different.
When I finished school, I went to the University of Toronto. One day I saw a job listing to work at Holt Renfrew in the advertising department. I applied and didn’t get that job, but they were also looking for someone in the buying department, so I ended up working as a buyer instead of finishing school. I thought ‘ Wow! The buying department!’ But I literally sat all day in an office looking at a green screen staring at units—I was just moving around numbers and signs. I never saw a piece of clothing, a designer, or a showroom. I can still see that green computer screen flashing numbers in my head! So, I managed to get myself on the advertising side, but after a year I realized that I just really wanted to work in magazines.
Back then, I read everything that I could get my hands on, page by page— Vogue, Elle, Flare, and Toronto Life Fashion. I saved up all of my money, packed all of my stuff, and moved to New York City. I went to FIT [the Fashion Institute of Technology]—I was actually too late to register for that school year, but I was just so persistent that they called me in August and asked if I still wanted to come. Classes literally started in four weeks, but I said, ‘Uh, yeah!’ and packed my entire life to move to a new country with no visa. [Laughs]
FIT had a job fair where I met a representative from Allure— this is when it launched in 1991 under the creative direction of Polly Mellen. At the time, I was interning at Mirabella magazine and my job was to do research for Grace Mirabella's autobiography. I also spent some time researching Polly Mellen because she was Grace’s fashion director at American Vogue. I became obsessed with Polly's work ethic, everything she created, and every iconic image she was a part of: Lauren Hutton at the beach, Nastassja Kinski and the snake—those were all Polly. At the job fair, I walked up to the Condé Nast representative and said, ‘I want to work for Polly Mellen and here’s my resume.’ The woman said, ‘Well, I think there are openings at the magazine.’ But I wasn’t graduating for another year, and, even if I'd wanted to, I couldn’t get a work visa without finishing school. The following year, a few months before I graduated, I called the same woman in human resources and said, ‘Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but I still want to work for Polly Mellen.’
I graduated in a recession, and I applied for 17 jobs, interviewed for 16 of them—one of them with Robbie Myers at Seventeen—and didn’t get anything. I was devastated and went home to Toronto, thinking ‘Maybe I shouldn’t even do this.’ That’s when I got the call that Polly wanted to meet with me. I got on a 12-hour train ride to New York. I was so nervous about my outfit—I had no money, and I didn’t want to look like a kid, so I wore this Gaultier leopard vest that I'd bought at Century 21 over a white shirt and these black pants that I got on a student trip to London. The meeting was great. I was so impressed by her energy and by how grand she was. She was everything I had researched. She told me that I'd need to meet with the editor-in-chief, Linda Wells, later that week. I, again, had nothing to wear, so I put on the exact outfit to meet Linda. And on the way out of our meeting, where Linda had told me how much Polly had raved about me, Linda said, ‘Why don’t we go say hi to Polly?’ I was dying. That woman’s eye notices everything! Attention to detail is what Polly Mellen is about! I was imagining her thinking, ‘This person not only doesn’t have any other clothes, but he doesn’t even do laundry!’ [Laughs] But you know what? I got the job anyway.
My first day at Allure, I ran something down to one of Polly’s shoots and Steven Klein and Kate Moss were in there. I remember seeing a closet full of clothes and Manolos and saying to myself, ‘Oh. My. God.’ And a couple of months later, [stylist] Lori Goldstein joined the team. I was such a big fan of her work and convinced them to let me assist both Polly and Lori, and I stayed with the magazine for four years. They each approached work in very different ways, and I learned that, as much as I thought I was a fashion person, I’m really an ideas person.
I didn’t really figure out how to be a 'stylist.' In Toronto, I had a friend who was a hair dresser and maybe 15 years older than I was, and one day we were talking, and he said, 'If you love this so much, you should just be a stylist.' I told him, 'I don’t want to cut hair, I don’t think I could ever see myself doing that.' He said, 'No, not cutting hair, a stylist deals with clothes. They put clothes together and you dress models.' I thought, That can’t be a real job and who would ever pay you to do that? That stayed with me. But in general, there are two camps of stylists: the ones that are obsessed with the clothes, and the ones that are obsessed with the picture. I love the picture. Concept became very important to me.
In 1995, I went to work for W as the fashion editor when it changed from a newspaper to an actual magazine. There wasn’t even a fashion director yet, and they had no idea how to get items from fashion houses to feature in the magazine. But the needle moved overnight, because by the end of 1996, W was a zeitgeist magazine. Every other magazine in the U.S. was very commercial at the time, but W was ready to push it, and people started to notice. The level of photography shot through the roof—[Creative Director] Dennis Freedman got Philip-Lorca diCorcia to start shooting fashion for the first time. Everything went from being really difficult to being really robust. I became the Senior Fashion Editor, then the Fashion Director. And I got to work with so many fine artists. There’s a lot of creativity, ego, and collaboration that go into shoots, and you have to learn how to draw the best out of everyone. That’s what I took away from being at W: hire the best team of people, and then, rather than having them do what you want them to do, give them enough creative freedom to do the best thing they can do. You don’t want to stick someone in a box, you want to step back and say, ‘What can you do?’ and the result will always be stellar.
The same thing goes for working with celebrities. I love a big personality, and I've worked with the best: J.Lo, Madonna, Julia Roberts, Sarah Jessica Parker. They have so much chutzpah. Actresses and supermodels are three-dimensional subjects. They have careers and opinions, so, for me, shooting a big star for the cover of W became ‘I’m going to watch every single video that Britney’s ever done, then I’m going to think about making a new moment for her, without making her something that she’s not.’ Fashion magazines need to have an element of 'wow' every month, to make you run to your mailbox and rip it open. So, it was about taking someone to the next level, kicking it up a notch, but still maintaining the essence of who they are. I want them to feel excited and inspired, and the most gorgeous versions of themselves, not forced into something. If they’re not feeling it, we move on. I’m not married to ideas. I’m married to people doing the best possible thing. That respect permeates, and people walk away having a liberating, good experience.
That’s how I ended up styling Mariah Carey’s ‘Honey’ music video [below]. I met Mariah on a shoot for W, and we hit it off. She was in the middle of her divorce from Tommy Mottola, and working on Butterfly. She wanted to project a younger, sexier image. Of course I wanted to work on her video, I was obsessed with them—this was the heyday of multi-million dollar, 20-minute music videos; they were basically mini movies. It was crazy. We rented an island off of the coast of Puerto Rico and brought the best hair and makeup team for what was supposed to be a three-day shoot. Six days later, I was still there. They were playing the song on set non-stop. There were dancers to dress, background people. And, for Mariah, I put her in a white bandeau by Norma Kamali—I think—and the dress she rips off when she jumps off the balcony was Betsey Johnson. We had to make multiple versions because there was a stunt double. And Mariah had to swim in those patent-leather Guccis with the spike heel—they were so bitchin’. I did not realize they would get a close-up in the video—it was one of Tom Ford’s first collections for Gucci—but it became a big deal.
I also worked with Justin Timberlake on the FutureSex/LoveSounds cover and album, setting the looks and all of that. He was coming off of ‘N Sync and Justified when I styled his Details cover [in 2002], which was the beginning of our collaboration. We wanted to make him look really cool in this kind of Steve McQueen-meets-William Claxton way that Justin loved. That cover shoot still includes some of my favorite photos. So when it came time to release FutureSex/LoveSounds, we had a conference call in the middle of the night. He was in LA and I was in Spain, and I remember saying to him, ‘A lot of people want to see you transition from boy band to grown man. Your fan base needs to see you grow up.’ At the time, he had a cool hip-hop thing with Nike Air Force 1s with jeans and hoodies, but I wanted sophisticated. Hedi Slimane was at Dior Homme, too, so the look was really like a modern-day Frank Sinatra but through the filter of Dior Homme. We went for what I was calling 'Reservoir Dogs': skinny black suit, white shirt, skinny black tie, and a vest. I mean, we brought the vest back! Nobody was rocking a vest at the time, but then here's this cool kid rocking a vest. It was awesome for Justin. He’s so smart, too, because he committed to the look and wore it throughout his tours, all the press, and videos. That was how I always dressed—black suit, white shirt, black tie—because it's so easy, you don't have to think about it. Who didn't watch Reservoir Dogs and think those guys looked so friggin' cool? It's funny, years later I would be wearing that, and people would say, 'Oh, you’re dressing like Justin.' I was like, 'I’ve been wearing this for a while, thank you very much!' [Laughs]
I got the call from Elle in 2007. It was already hugely successful, because Robbie [Myers] had a really strong vision, but they had never had a creative director before, and, for fashion shoots, I brought in all new people. It felt like a start-up. There were moments at the beginning when it was hard to get the things we wanted for shoots, and I knew that at a certain point I would run out of favors to call in. I didn’t know what was next, but I was certain that, eventually, people would be begging to work with us. It was a wait-and-see moment. But, under Robbie, we really were able to take everything to the next level. No matter what, it was such a strong product. And we're having fun. Now the ‘90s are back, and that’s really who I am. Any of my friends can tell you, ' Oh Joe, he loves wet hair and a smoky eye.' [Laughs] And I do because I love when a girl has that super sexy, tan, J. Lo moment. I think I grew up envisioning women to be sexy like that. Sure, I love the grunge girl—I love all those things, and I can do all that—but there’s always something about that sexy Versace girl that’s near and dear to my heart.
At the end of the day, I like to have fun at work. I want to laugh, I want to be silly because it’s just clothing and pretty pictures, we’re not going to sit in a dark room and be serious. Of course I take my job seriously, but shit needs to be fun. That’s important for me. Then people walk away and say, 'I love working for Elle,' because it felt so good and we got a great photo out of it, too. It’s not about manipulating people, being married to ideas, or getting people to work for you out of fear. I want to see work that’s made from inspiration.”
—as told to ITG
Joe Zee photographed by Emily Weiss in New York on November 13, 2013. Read Part 1 of our interview (Joe's Top Shelf) here.