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Joe Zee’s Captivating Inside Look at the Fashion Industry

In his new tome, the iconic editor shares tales of hilarious, heartwarming and sometimes quite brutal experiences from his career thus far

Joe Zee’s career is a real-life fashion fairy tale. He started out as a stylist at Vanity Fair, tackling shoots that, to the average reader, seem to have required superhuman capabilities, and now he’s a household name. In his storied decades in the industry he’s styled countless celebrities, hosted shows and starred in shows, started a magazine and, most recently, been the creative director of ELLE. Today, he is the editor in chief of Yahoo Style and cohost of the new talk show FABLife. And his new book details it all. From the set of a photo shoot where an unnamed (but alluded to) celebrity tortured Zee with beyond-diva behavior to the insides of the best closets in Hollywood, That’s What Fashion Is: Lessons and Stories from My Nonstop, Mostly Glamorous Life in Style has the inside scoop.

Joe Zee on the red carpet with Julia Roberts

Here, Zee expands on a few of the most unique parts about the new tome. 

The story of Blondielocks, a celebrity who was just horrible to you on a shoot, was fascinating. Did you ever hear from her again?

It was one of my first shoots as a stylist and not an assistant, so I chalk it up also to me being green at the time, but it was definitely an experience that made me question whether I would really ever make it as a stylist. Honestly, I have no idea if that actress ever liked her shoot because I never heard from her or saw her again; but then again, no news is usually good news. Sadly, there were no flowers or a thank you note, but there was also no death threat either, so I think I did OK. Though each shoot is different, I haven’t really had another situation like that again because I learned a valuable lesson from that shoot. Whether you know what you are doing or not, you have to take control of the shoot and being confident in your vision and creative and that ideal has helped me tremendously in dealing with tough situations.

Joe Zee with Julianne Moore

You talk a lot about Fashion Week—what are a few of the best shows you’ve been to and what made them special or memorable? 

When I was writing this book, it was a real exercise in tapping into all the great moments of fashion history that I have been able to be a part of. When it comes to fashion shows, I love being able to look back and say I was there. When it comes to the best shows, it was those moments that always stay with you. Like Tom Ford’s first Gucci collection and seeing those models like Amber Valletta and Shalom Harlow come out in smokey eyes and neon blouses and velvet bell bottoms made it fashion history—or Helmut Lang’s last show or the Alexander McQueen show with the Kate Moss hologram or Shalom Harlow getting spritzed with spray paint in the finale look. I would even say Alexander Wang’s first show in the basement of a club downtown and styled by model Erin Wasson. All those memories make up my fashion show history.

Joe Zee with Sarah Jessica Parker

You intersperse a lot of physical paper notes that you’ve collected over time throughout the book.  What’s the importance of a paper card in the digital age?

I love notes. They mean so much to me when someone writes and acknowledges something they’ve seen or read that I’ve done. It feels so intimate and personal, and I have saved almost every single note I have ever received. Today, I communicate only digitally and even barely make physical phone calls, but the “Thank You” notecard is still the one handwritten thing I refuse to give up.

A thank you note to Joe Zee from Allure Editor in Chief Linda Wells

You truly seem to have the power to convince celebrities to do whatever you need them to do on a shoot. Was this a skill learned on the job?

It’s less about “convincing” a celebrity to wear something or do something against their will, but I think it’s more about a collaboration and earning that trust. I would never not make them look good or not put them in the most flattering situation possible, but that’s earned. You can’t just walk into an unknown situation and demand everything go your way. It’s not how that works, especially when it comes to actresses or pop stars who aren’t models, but working professionals with a very assured image of themselves. I learned that very quickly working with celebrities because that is a training school all of its own. 

A thank you note to Joe Zee from Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Graydon Carter

You work with so many A-listers. Do you ever actually feel starstruck at this point?

I’ve always tried hard to not get starstruck when I am working. I think being professional allows the celeb and I to be more collaborative but don’t be fooled, I am always geeking out on the inside. I realized I love styling celebrities because I am so inspired by them and their body of work, so it’s only natural I get starstruck (at least on the inside) each time I work with someone.

Joe Zee and Kelly Rowland