Frisky Q&A: Joe Zee Puts It “All On The Line”

If you’re not familiar with Joe Zee, you’re about to be. The much-loved creative director for Elle magazine, and one of the few voices of reason on MTV’s reality show, “The City” — where he had to contend with the likes of scheming socialite Olivia Palermo, ugh — Zee is heading back to television once again. He stars in the Sundance Channel’s new show “All On the Line,” where he’ll help young designers shape and sell their struggling lines. We spoke with Zee about the show, his creative vision, and what makes some designers succeed where others fail.

For the uninitiated, can you talk a little bit about what you do as the creative director at Elle and how you got into fashion?

The role of the Creative Director is different from person to person, but for me, I oversee all the visuals and fashion you see in the magazine from styling the cover to the fashion shoots inside. I really started in fashion from an early age. I knew I liked the idea that clothes can say a lot about you and define your personality at any given moment.

Reality TV fans got to know you through your role on “The City.” Can you talk a bit about what that was like?

“The City” was an incredible experience, though it really was just me at my office. But I think what people loved about it was that it provided an insider’s look at what my job entails and if you liked that, then ultimately, “All On The Line” will be a much bigger glimpse into that.

What made you decide to do “All on the Line?”

Sundance came up with the idea and I was immediately sold. I love the idea that for one of the first times on television, we can actually really show all the trials and tribulations behind such a glamorous industry. It isn’t perfect; there aren’t always happy endings; it doesn’t always unveil the way you expect, but we all push through regardless because it means that much to us. And it’s that passion I was drawn to and it’s that passion you’ll see. And to actually document clothing being made and put into stores — you don’t see a lot of that level of fashion design on TV right now.

What are the most common mistakes you see young designers make? And what’s the biggest misconception you think people have about the fashion industry?

Young designers — though this can be said of many veteran ones, too — can lack a point of view. Vision! That is most important trait you can have in any field. I know exactly how I want to style something. I know what I want a picture, a collection, the magazine to look like. If I lacked that, there wouldn’t be clear focus. It’s the same with these designers; they need to see what their ideas are and do it. I always say, you can’t chase a trend. You’ll never catch up.

What can fans expect to see of you this season on the show?

I think they’ll be able to see many sides of me. I can be mentoring, supportive and funny, but I can also be tough and impatient and demanding — and most of all, honest. It’s a tough business and without that honesty, it’s all a waste of time.

What was the most surprising thing you learned from working with these young designers?

How driven they all were. To listen to people younger than me speaking about debt up to their eyeballs and the potential of losing their homes without the slightest hesitation in their voice is so admirable. Their drive and their passion for designing never let up, despite their circumstances.

In the wake of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, can you talk about some of your favorite style icons, both past and present?

Elizabeth Taylor really was a true style icon in so many ways. I love “The Butterfield 8″ and “A Place in the Sun” and that whole era. So chic and so effortless. But today, I can admire everyone from Kate Moss, my first boss Polly Mellen, Nico Icon, Romy Schneider, or even Kurt Cobain and John John. I take so many different things away from each person I see.

And with that in mind, what do you see as big street trends for spring and summer 2011?

Color is big, of course, thanks to a beautiful collection like Prada’s. I love anything bright and bold. But the ’70s just won’t go away and I love that. The sleek silhouettes, the sexy jersey dresses, the glitzy heels. I love smolder like that. Maxi-lengths are back and it looks very refreshing. I’m really feeling long dresses for summer with the chicest flat sandal — easy and effortless.

Any words of wisdom that have helped you become as successful as you are?

Keep looking forward. I think it’s easy to get comfortable with what you’re familiar with, but anytime I start to feel comfortable, I tackle something new and out of my comfort zone. Think big and think out of the box. And most of all, stay curious. Without curiosity, you just can’t accomplish any of the above.

“All on the Line” premiers on the Sundance Channel on Tuesday, March 29 at 10 p.m. EST. [Be sure to watch Julie on “What Not To Wear” first. — Editor]