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Joe Zee Gave a Commencement Speech on Ugly Cries and Failure for FIT's Class of 2016

With a few quotes from Beyoncé and Tupac, too.
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Joe Zee at FIT's 71st commencement ceremony. Photo: FIT

Joe Zee at FIT's 71st commencement ceremony. Photo: FIT

Top fashion school FIT held its 71st commencement ceremony for the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business of Technology and School of Liberal Arts on Thursday afternoon. (The School of Art and Design and Graduate Studies took place that morning.) According to the college, more than 2,700 students were awarded with associate, bachelor's or master's degrees in front of 1,800 attendees at the Javits Center in New York City.

Joe Zee, an FIT alum himself, had the honor of addressing the graduates with a keynote speech. It surprisingly highlighted more of his past failures, and the ugly cries that resulted from them, than his successes at W, Elle and Yahoo Style, where he is the editor-in-chief and executive creative director. Zee reminisced about his own graduation ceremony, back in 1992 at Radio City Music Hall, and how he wanted his speech to be free from cliché positive affirmations, despite that being off-brand for him. ("If Beyoncé can do dark with 'Lemonade,' why can’t I, right?") 

It was inspiring and relatable talk overall, and something that graduates everywhere could learn from. The main takeaway? Revel in the shitty times because they always lead to something so much better. Read Zee's commencement speech below, and congrats to the graduating class!

"I want to tell you about the day I cried. And I don't mean, that sentimental, watching 'The Notebook' kind of cry, but that guttural, ugly face, drooling, lying on the floor in a fetal position kind of cry. It was two very specific times in my life, both work-related. The first, right after graduation, I got a job interview to be a fashion editor and writer at WWD. Not an assistant, but a full on editor. What? Right out of school? When my only experience was an internship running some errands?

"Okay. I did cold call enthusiastically, write an awesome cover letter, sent in all the issues of W27 I had edited while I was here to score that interview. And I killed it. I mean, slayed. Everyone from the editor-in-chief down to the features director all paraded in one at a time to give me their stamp of approval. I did good. At the end, the number-two editor said to me, 'We want you to shoot a page one and double next week, so if you could get that together for us, that would be great. Someone here can give you all the details.' I had no idea what she was talking about, but I smiled and thought, 'I'll figure it out.' This is pre-Google days, too, mind you.

"That next day I got to work. This was the final part of my audition. I had made it through to the semi-finals, you know, that part when the chairs have already spun around, so I did not want to get voted off. I was determined to stay. I came up with the concept  — party dresses, I think — secured a location — some bar or lounge in Midtown — and I booked the model and had the photographer all lined up ready to go. I spent the rest of that week getting my outfits together, meticulously mapping out each look and mood; this shoot was going to be spectacular. The morning of the shoot, the model was a no-show. I kept calling and calling the agency only to find out that the model had a family emergency and wasn't coming at all. 

"By then it was noon and the booker said, 'Well it's already late, so I'll send you whoever I have that’s free.' Not ideal, but neither was my anxiety level. When the model arrived an hour later, she didn't fit the clothes I had pre-planned and I had to quickly re-jigger the looks on the spot. A skill I would later realize was tantamount to being a good stylist. By 3 p.m., after hair and makeup and the model was dressed, we were finally ready for the first shot. I placed her into position, the photographer took two Polaroids — again, the days before digital — and half a roll of film, when his light fell forward, and smashed onto the floor into a small puddle of water, which short-circuited all the electricity.

"WTF, except in my head it was the explicit version and in all-caps. This can't be happening. When all was said and done and new equipment had arrived and the electricity restored, I had less than one hour to get all of my shots done before we were kicked out of the location because they had to open. Let's just say my finest moment was one I wanted to forget. After that shoot, I just waited to see what everyone at WWD had to say. 

"I knew it wasn't about calling and complaining. The fashion industry — corporate America, in fact — isn't about excuses. Shit happens, you figure it out and you make it work. In years to come, all my bosses and co-workers would compliment me that I was the consummate problem-solver to making impossible things happen. I'd like to think that a no-show model and a close call with being electrocuted contributed to that.

"Long story short, I didn't get that job. 'The work just wasn't up to our standards,' I was told. I failed. So I cried. That ugly cry I talked about. My dream was just a mirage. After a day on the floor, I took a train home to Toronto. Maybe I wasn't meant to do this. 'Everything happens for a reason,' I told myself. But now, looking back, I'm glad that happened. While I was home I got a call from Condé Nast to come work with Polly Mellen at a brand new magazine called Allure. Polly was a legendary but tough editor who would go on to become an incredible mentor to me. And four years after that, ironically, I became a fashion editor at W, the biggest and hottest fashion magazine at the time... because of my training at Allure. And W — a sister publication of WWD — would never have given me that job had I started working at WWD. In that instance, I knew why I had to cry that day.

"Flash forward, 10 years later, after a decade as the fashion director at W, I was given the job of editor-in-chief of my own magazine, Vitals. One that I could launch in my own vision with a brand new staff, backed by Fairchild Publications and Condé Nast. It was surreal again. My only dream of moving to New York was working at a magazine, not actually conceiving and running one. Until that one fateful day. 

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"After almost two years of getting the magazine up and going — I mean I got Heidi Klum to pose naked for me seven months pregnant and Julia Roberts chose to do my cover over Vogue or Vanity Fair — the president of the company called me into her office to tell me they were closing the magazine. 'It was just a business decision,' I heard her tell me. But really all I could hear was a replay of 'The Peanuts' cartoon with the WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP. They were taking away the job I loved. The job I put all my blood, sweat and tears into, only to have it disappear into oblivion. I can't even say that my dream was zapped because this job, that magazine, far surpassed my dreams. And it was over. Just like that.

"So I cried. Again. I holed up in my apartment, devastated. I'd failed once more and I couldn’t believe it. I'd like to say that, after my week of wallowing, I learned something. But really all I learned was you can eat pizza every single day and it's still really good. But by that following year, the lesson sunk in. I was offered a job at both Harper's Bazaar and Elle Magazine at the same time, and after a tough decision, I became the creative director of Elle. My resume isn't important here and that's not the point of this story, but being at Elle opened my eyes and the doors to many new, exciting incredible opportunities I would not have gotten running a small magazine that I know now would not have survived a recession. 

"So closing it down would have happened eventually, just then or now. If it was now, I would be unemployed and overworked. But because it was then, I lucked out with those new jobs. I got my first TV show while at Elle, which led to all my television gigs since, as well as the opportunity to talk to a big audience and to write my column, which led to my book, and the chance to style every A-list celebrity working today, which led to my red carpet interview moments. 

"So this failure actually took me to a career trajectory worth a thousand nights of tears. I don't tell you these stories to deter you, or even to scare you, but I know a lot of you out there have tweeted me over the years to say, 'I'm going to be you one day,' or even those of you that cut right to the chase with 'can I have your job?' But either way, my hope is that you'll be inspired not just by my path to success, but also by my detours through failure. 

"Because the truth is, you are going to fail at some things. You are going to lose that job, or that venture capital funding or that contract. I did, and you will, too. But in that failure you will find success. And by success I don't mean the number of followers you have, or the company name you can drop to get 'Hamilton' tickets, or even that weekly paycheck. It's about being proud. Proud of seeing your ideas come to life as a living, breathing thing. Does your idea impact people? Did it make a difference?

"I do consider myself a success because I love what I do. I am enthusiastic about every project I get to be a part of, no matter if it's glamorous or not. I love it so much that I often fall asleep with my phone in my hand, trying to send out one last idea for the day. Being able to do what you love is the greatest thing in the world, whether it's starting a family, writing a story or launching a design business. 

"But it isn't — and shouldn't — be easy. Here comes that cliché: 'The road to success is not a straight line.' It requires risk. It requires passion. It requires failure. That F-word again. And when those tough days come, I hope you'll remember some of the strength I'm sharing with you today.

"I was going to bring up that Kierkegaard quote, 'Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards,' but I'd rather give you this one from Tupac: 'You can spend days, weeks, or even months overanalyzing a situation, justifying what could've been. Or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the F on.' I’m giving you guys a lot of F-words today. Sorry, faculty.

"The point is: Don't limit yourself. Don't be afraid of being innovative. Reach for that risk. I am not a success because I somehow got a lucky break when I was 22 and everything fell into place after that. I am a success because I stopped being afraid of being scared. When things don't work out, never say no to trying something else. No risk, no reward. Just order some pizza and get started because there is still so much left for all of you to do.

"I feel like I've talked a lot already, but if you are going to remember one thing from today, let it be this from Queen B: 'Hey! I'ma keep running. 'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves.' I look forward to working for all of you one day.

"Congratulations again, and good luck in all that you do, FIT Class of 2016!"

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