Joe Zee's Advice for Breaking Into the Fashion Industry: Say Yes to Everything

"My whole life, I have been Tracy Flick."
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"My whole life, I have been Tracy Flick."
'Yahoo Style' Editor in Chief Joe Zee. Photo: Andrew Lampard/Fashionista

'Yahoo Style' Editor in Chief Joe Zee. Photo: Andrew Lampard/Fashionista

On Thursday evening we kicked off our new monthly meetup series by hosting a one-on-one panel with Joe Zee, editor in chief of Yahoo Style, at Space 530 in New York. Over his career, Zee has worked with many brands (Allure, WElle, the Sundance Channel and Old Navy, among others) and mediums (print, television, digital), but he told our editor in chief, Lauren Indvik, that fashion has always been a gateway for his real passion — telling stories and connecting with people. 

Zee was full of candid advice on breaking into the industry and getting the most out of each job throughout one's career. Read on for the best career tips he shared at the meetup, plus his perspective on the relationship between print and digital media. 

Career Advice

Reach out to people who inspire you. "I finished school in 1992 and I remember getting all my favorite magazines and looking through all the mastheads and literally writing letters to everybody whose work I admired. I remember writing them and, you know, not being a pest because I understand not everybody is going to respond, but I wrote them from a very genuine place so it wasn’t a generic cover letter. It wasn’t like, 'I need this job from you,' but it was, 'I just want to write you because I really liked that story and you inspire me to do this, and I thought that was really great and I’m graduating and I love to...' — and all those things. I think that sort of connected with people better than the generic, 'I’m writing you a cover letter for this, I’m applying for a job as this,' because they must get those every day. I sent out maybe 17 letters and I got 16 job interviews. I mean, some of them didn’t have jobs, some of them just wanted to meet me."

Just because there isn't a job open now, doesn't mean there won't be one later. "One of the people that I met when I was graduating school in 1992 was Robbie Myers, and she was the managing editor of Seventeen magazine at the time, and Sasha Charnin was the fashion director. I interviewed with both of them. There was no job; they were like, 'We just wanted to meet you, we kind of like the letter you wrote and your name is interesting.' And they remembered me, and when I went to go work for Robbie [at Elle] in 2007 after interviewing with her in 1992, she said, 'I never forgot you from that time in the office, and I always followed your career,' and I thought that was so sweet. If you make an impression with someone, you never know when you’ll run into them again."

Say yes to everything at your first job. "When I was an assistant at Allure, I literally sat outside the closet. My whole life, I have been Tracy Flick. You guys are too young to know, but that Reese Witherspoon movie, "Election," she would raise her hand and say 'Yes, I can do that,' and I was doing that at Allure and saying, 'Yes, I can assist on that photo shoot,' 'Yes, I can come down to this, I can do that.' And [my boss] Polly Mellen was always the first one in the office and the last one to leave and I remember I always stayed with her. And then I assisted Lori Goldstein, who was a stylist, and I remember going up to her at a Christmas party and saying, 'I love the last photo shoot you did with Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue, I want to work for you,' and she was like, 'Okay, crazy stalker, but okay.' And she’s still a really good friend of mine."

Zee with 'Fashionista' Editor in Chief Lauren Indvik. Photo: Andrew Lampard/Fashionista

Zee with 'Fashionista' Editor in Chief Lauren Indvik. Photo: Andrew Lampard/Fashionista

Keep your mind open to several career paths. "I wanted to be a writer when I first applied for jobs and even when I was interning. And then along the way I was thought, 'Oh, I like styling.' I love being able to use fashion to tell a story."

Every job is what you want it to be. "You look at me and think that I just fell into the perfect job because I'm doing everything that I love? I created what I love within the job. I was a creative director at Elle, but the creative director before me and after me are doing something completely different. The title is just nebulous. You can get a job, but when you get there, make sure it's the best and most incredible experience for you. Make it what you want to make of it."

Never take no for answer, especially when it comes to access. "I think I’ve become a master problem solver. That’s all access is and fashion is one place that there is no access, literally. If you’re in the inner sanctum and you’re invited to that party, everyone else is shut out and they want to make sure you’re shut out. So I’m always like, 'Okay, how do we figure this out?' There are so many ways into a room, not just through the door that you think you see. If you tell me no, I’m going to find a way in and I'll still get there. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but we’ll get there."

Don't worry about being an insider. "The fashion industry is the island of misfit toys. It's like the eccentric kids from every high school got assembled in one industry and are now applauded and celebrated for their eccentricity. So the kooky person in school that might have been ostracized? It's now like, 'Oh, she’s so cool, she’s so different, she’s so interesting.' But at the end of the day, there's still that insecure kid inside that eccentric person being applauded, so those feelings haven’t gone away. And that's what makes it so hard; we’re all just insecure and we all just want to belong and it takes a lot to get to a place where you don’t care. If you don’t invite me, it's fine, and if you invite me, great. I try to shed that light on a lot of people, but you’ll grow into it. It's not something anybody could have told me in my 20s that I would have believed, but that was something I had to find out for myself. It doesn’t really matter, it's just about the work that you do."

Transitioning from Print to Digital

On the freedom of being online: "Everything is so quick and so disposable and we're so quick on our Instagram, you're on Twitter and clicking on links and looking at things like zoom, zoom, zoom and even when you're on websites you're like okay, okay, okay. I can tell you most people don't even read a story, they read a headline. So I thought, how can we do this? When I created Yahoo Style, it was really about bringing together all the things I've been doing in magazines for 25-plus years. How do I make people not swipe like crazy and make people not leave, but still make it fun and entertaining? We do covers — we started with the intention to do one every month and we've done one every week since we've launched. The conventions are no different from a conventional magazine, but instead of eight pictures, if you love someone you're going to get 25 pictures because the confines are just endless. Great stories, really well-reported stories, fun things — some things are short and some things are long and some things are video and some things are GIFs and some things are live programs, and the great thing is that we can do any of that."

Thanks for coming, guys! Photo: Andrew Lampard/Fashionista

Thanks for coming, guys! Photo: Andrew Lampard/Fashionista

On what makes a Yahoo Style story: "I think my editors [decide] what makes a Yahoo Style story by the very fact that it excites or invigorates or energizes any one of them. For them to say, 'Look at this or look at that,' then that means if they care about it, then we need to put it out there. What I've always tried to do with all my editors is really push them to develop their own voices and have their own sense of identity. I'm just sort of a ringleader."

On the speed of print versus digital: "It's March now. I think people at Elle are talking about the September and October issues. I'm talking about tomorrow, I'm talking about tonight, even. It's very much about having real-time conversations. On our site, we have that conversation and say, 'This is going on, let's just get it up there.' No joke, I got up at three in the morning to get some water and I was going through my social media and was like, 'Wait, Kim [Kardashian] cut her hair?' I got my computer, I wrote the story, pulled the Instagram picture, built it and published it on the site. Because I thought if I waited until 8 a.m, it would be too late. That's sort of what the Internet trains you to be, because you can talk about news — albeit if Kim cutting her hair is news to you — in that way, whereas in a printed magazine, you couldn't. We would do a story on short hair and hope to God it's still on trend eight months from now, or six months from now."

On sacrificing quality for speed: "I hate to tell people that it's not about being perfect, but I think it's more about not being precious. I think it's a combination, there's a middle ground there and I think sometimes quality was about quantity and speed. Sometimes things can be fixed along the way. When Mr. de la Renta passed away, I was in Los Angeles and I was driving on the way to a work dinner and somebody called me and said, 'Oh, we have to write something right away,' and I said, 'I'm on the freeway so I can't write anything.' So I actually dictated a story as I was driving to dinner. I looked at it quickly in the restroom before sitting down for dinner — so if I'm gone for a long time, I'm really editing copy. But I thought, let's just get it up because it's timely, it's not the kind of thing were we can wait a few more hours to talk about, and I really wanted to give him a proper tribute. I did my business dinner and we left and when I finished the dinner two and half hours later, I got back in the car and I called my editor and said, 'Can you reread that back to me, can you change that word to this? Maybe we should clarify that a little bit.' I think those are the lessons I learned in transitioning from print to digital. It's not about being inaccurate, but it's about knowing that we can always add to a story, finesse a story, move a story but time is always of the essence."

On the relationship between print and digital: "I think print will always be a part of the conversation. Print clearly isn't dead: the newsstands are still packed, there's still towers full of people, advertising is still robust enough to keep everybody employed. I think print will always be complementary to digital, it just needs to find it's place. I use the radio/television comparison all the time. When television was invented in the '50s, nobody turned to radio anymore for breaking news and radio didn't just go away. It wasn't dead, they just had to change it. It became specialized and they understood what people were coming to them for. In this sort of growing pains period that we are in right now, print will find a way to be complementary to digital. There is a place for television, print, digital and all those things together, and I think there always will be."

This story was updated with information about the event's location.