With the third season of his Sundance Channel docu-series All on the Line with Joe Zee premiering in a matter of days, New York Fashion Week sashaying into town this week and his duties as Elle‘s creative director taking up whatever time is left, it’s no wonder Joe Zee works 18-hour days. We caught up with the industrious industry insider in a rare quiet moment to discuss All on the Line‘s new season, the state of gay-male style and the gentlemanly grapple with color.
In each episode of Line, you help a designer who is struggling. What can we expect this season?
I think it’s bigger, better, bolder than the previous seasons—I’ve been calling it super-sized. It’s really about these designers. Half the season takes place in Los Angeles so we really put a lot of focus on West Coast design, which we haven’t done in the past. The whole L.A. fashion scene has really changed: I mean the idea that there is Rodarte, there is Band of Outsiders, the fact that people are saying [Yves Saint Laurent creative director] Hedi Slimane and [John] Galliano are living out there now, the fashion scene out there has really changed. In highlighting some of these designers you really get a sense of how fashion is different out there now.
We also have a lot more amazing guest stars—everyone from Octavia Spencer and Mary J. Blige to Zoe Kazan, Whitney Port, Mario Lopez. I think it’s interesting to bring different personalities into the design world because we live in a culture that is so much about red-carpet dressing, about celebrity, that you can’t ignore it if you want to work in fashion.
New York Fashion Week is upon us again. Are you excited for it?
I’m always excited for Fashion Week! I get to be home after the summer, after Labor Day. It’s kind of like a back-to-school that’s really fun.
Which designers are you looking forward to seeing?
I always want to see Marc Jacobs because it’s always completely unexpected. Other designers are really good at staying true to who they are but I think there’s something about Marc—you never know what you’ll get. I have no idea if he’s thinking ’60s, ’20s, ’90s, Dr. Seuss or Studio 54. Whatever it is, I love his brain—his point of inspiration. So going to a show, I have absolutely no expectations and I think that’s what makes it so fun.
What trends in menswear can we expect?
I think much more color—we saw a lot of color creep into menswear, but it’s still tough. A lot of men find it very difficult to wear color if it’s not on a tie, me included. When I say color, I’m thinking, “Ooh, I’ll put on gray!” So trying to even squeeze in something that is not your traditional gray, black, navy or white is still something that a lot of men are grappling with. I tried on a royal-blue suit the other day and at first I thought, “You know, I kinda like this.” But then I thought, I might look like a bit player in Hairspray.
What’s your take on the style of today’s gay man?
It’s gotten better. Men’s fashion has always been sort of a peculiar thing to me. We’ve never done a menswear designer before and we do it for the first time this season. I think menswear is really tough—you fall into the very conservative, the very classic, or you have fashion victim. I have to be honest, I think gay men probably do that in-between really well.
What trends do you wish gay men would embrace and what do you think we need to retire?
I love when gay men embrace something that is classic but do it in a much more modern way. There’s always such a subtle, slick edge to it that never feels wrong. My number one pet peeve is men wearing suits that don’t fit. Maybe I’ll put it on straight men, but they love a baggy suit, a droopy shoulder, a baggy pant. I love a slim suit: I love something that feels very polished, smart and sharp. The shoulder fits perfectly and the armhole is high and the leg is more narrow—I love that look. That’s the subtle difference between something being great and something being terrible. It’s the same idea: they’re both wearing suits, but one’s wearing it better based on fit.
I’m not a giant fan of jewelry either. That’s the one thing I always have a problem with someone—straight or gay—embracing. It’s sort of tough for me seeing men wearing a lot of jewelry, I don’t know, that’s a personal thing. Some men love a handful of rings, some men love a wristful of bracelets. I wear my watch and even then sometimes it’s too much.
Who’s a style icon that gay men should pay more attention to?
I always thought John Kennedy Jr. had the best style… there was always this casual, effortless, cool element about the way he dressed. He could wear a sweatpant and a sweatshirt in the park with a really gorgeous cashmere overcoat. Or he could wear a puffy ski parka over his 3-piece suit. There was always some contrast. Whether it was thought out or not, I always loved that look. It felt really effortless.
Is style something inborn or is it something that you have to learn?
I think it’s personal. I’m a big, big supporter of personal style. For me, there’s no bad taste, just individual taste. You can only appreciate what works for you. That’s really what I love—helping people embrace who they are.
When I started in fashion 20-plus years ago—pre-Internet, pre-anything—people used to ask what’s happening on the runway. And if it was about the miniskirt, people from 16 to 60 would try to squeeze themselves into a miniskirt because that’s what they showed on the runway. I don’t know one single person that lives their lives like that anymore. Everybody wears what they love, everyone wears what they’re comfortable with and I think that’s what makes fashion much more democratic and much more fun.
All on the Line with Joe Zee premieres Monday September 10 at 9 pm EST.