Joe Zee Talks 'All On The Line,' 'The City,' and Mentors V. Dictators

joe zee
Photo courtesy of Sundance
Joe Zee talks about his new show on Sundance.

Joe Zee’s no stranger to television—see 2008’s Stylista and MTV’s now-cancelled The City as evidence. But his newest project outside the printed world of Elle magazine, where Zee serves as creative director, is a show that he calls the first “authentic” fashion program ever to make the air. (Sorry, Whitney Port.)

All On The Line, which airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel, debuted last week. The premise? Zee takes struggling designers and tries to help them make it—from streamlining their aesthetic to offering missing business-savvy. On the March 5 episode, Zee is challenged with taking Kara Janx, a Project Runway alum, from being seen as just a reality TV star to a respectable designer; check out the sneak peek below!

FashionEtc talked to Zee about why All On The Line is different from his previous forays into reality TV, what mistakes young designers make…and why his friends call him Papa Joe.

What did you think watching yourself in the first episode?

I always cringe when I watch myself on TV, though over the years it’s gotten progressively easier. This one is great to watch because the show is so good—and I have to say that is not because of me! It’s so good, so I can step out of it and become a third person observer. It’s smart, it’s entertaining, it’s sophisticated, it’s informative—but it’s dishy! It doesn’t make you feel dirty, but you’re not bored either.

What kind of feedback have you gotten?

It’s been really, really well received—and we’re talking bout the internet, where people are vicious! People really loved it. There’s such a lack of programming that’s genuine and real. There obviously has been plenty of fashion programming, but authentic fashion programming has never really existed. This is something that’s not about red carpets and flashbulbs or awards shows. This is what fashion is!

Different from The City, then?

The City was totally different. It was great for what it was, but it’s a different audience, and it’s about pretty girls at the office and dysfunctional moments—it wasn’t a genuine assessment of the industry. This is. This is jacket off, sleeves rolled up, real business. This isn’t girls not getting along.

What’s the biggest mistake these designers are making?

There are really two big mistakes. The first is that they have a difficult time understanding how to bridge art and commerce. They can’t sell it their clothes, and they think to make money they have to make a little black dress and sell out. You don’t have to sell out! That’s not the case. You just have to find it in you. The other mistake they make is that they all want to expand too quickly. They say they want to be the next Calvin Klein—but it took him four decades to get where he is! You can’t expand that quickly. In one of the episodes we did with Dana Maxx, who worked at Betsey Johnson and Marc Jacobs. She said she wants to build a business like Betsey or Marc. You can’t just start a business like Marc Jacobs’—who do you think you are? That was an eye opener.

Do you ever want to tell someone to give up? That it’s beyond hope?

Give up, no. I wouldn’t be there wasting my time if I didn’t think there was some potential. But when they won’t work with me, it’s frustrating. I’m not there to be a dictator; I’m there to be a collaborator.

Everyone wants to be a designer these days. Do you think there’s realistically a place in the market for all of them?

I think that’s a big note I address. If you go into any department stare, it’s teeming with clothes. The fashion calendar is packed full. There’s no shortage of designers, so if you want to be in the game, you have to give me something: a point of view, a vision. Something women will want to buy. Will it work for all of them? There’s no way. But it will work for some of them.

Are you staying in touch with the designers or continuing to mentor them at all?

I think that’s the nature of me! My friends call me Papa Joe. I’m so proud of all of them! I’m very, very independently proud of all of them! I do keep in touch with them. I track their progress, and I’ve been to their presentations. I want to keep supporting them—I’m not doing this just for a show.

You are great on TV, though. Do you like people recognizing you on the street?

I love it. If people come up to me and say they love Elle magazine, that’s great. I get to help sell them an idea and share the things I’m passionate about. I don’t wake up in the morning and say today I’m going to be a personality, but it’s just the way I am. Bring it on, that’s what I do!

Do you feel like you have to keep the show and Elle separate? Do these designers think that because you’re helping them they’ll get a feature in the magazine?

When you watch the show, Keith Pollock, who’s the editorial director of, is a big component. He’s my sounding board, and he’s the gatekeeper to We get 2 million uniques a month, and he’ll say to these designers, you don’t deserve a feature—or you do deserve a feature. You think you’ll get a story on Why should we write about you? It’s a process, and they have to work through it all.

In a nutshell, what’s the advice you’d give to the struggling designers that aren’t on All On the Line?

I tell them all that you have to give me strong point of view that’s not derivative, over the top, or ridiculous. What are you bringing to the game?