Joe Zee is revolutionizing standards of beauty -- and you can, too

Becoming @MrJoeZee
Becoming @MrJoeZee

There are countless Hollywood starlets, technological geniuses, and political heroes who change our world for the better every single day. Along with these incredible influencers are fashion icons like the legendary Joe Zee. So what happens when your body type or your look isn't reflected by the fashion icons you look up to?

That legend steps in to make a change.'s editors were lucky enough to talk to the legendary fashion mogul and get some insight into his thoughts on changing beauty norms, his influential book, and even Kim Kardashian.

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How has the fashion industry's acceptance of different body types changed over the years?

It's definitely changed a lot. It used to be just one thing. I started in the '90s when it was about supermodels and they were all one body type, but now when you look back at that time, the supermodels were a size 6, which is, by today's modeling standards considered bigger, because our standards were constantly changing. After the supermodels came the androgynous Belgian models and then the Brazilian bombshells and for a while all the models were 0s and there wasn't much of a diversity in terms of body types for a long time, through the '90s and through the 2000s even.


It was more in recent years with the onset of Internet, and different mediums, definitely digital and definitely broadcast, with all these things are coming together, that changed it. I think people in fashion are just finally waking up to the fact that there is a lot more diversity in body types, and people are celebrating it. Before I think it used to be, 'oh well we do some plus size.' And now it's a thing that more people are really getting behind. Are we there yet? No way. It's just the beginning. I wish fashion was much more egalitarian in that way, because when was the last time you saw a curvy model walk down a runway show? But I think Ashley [Graham] on the cover of Sports Illustrated is poised to change that.

%shareLinks-quote="I think people are just finally waking up to the fact that there is a lot more diversity in body types, and people are celebrating it." type="quote" author="Joe Zee" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

Yes, also the Aerie campaign!

Yeah, all of that. It's all beginning to tip the iceberg in a way where it's necessary.

What do you think is next, when it comes to inclusivity?

I'm hoping that there's just a homogenous idea of what fashion is. We've tried, especially seeing it as a magazine editor. For example, there were those times when Italian Vogue would do the all black issue, and then they did the all plus size issue. Which is great but also not solving the problem entirely. I'm still of two camps – I don't actually know if that's actually good or bad for us. You're shining light on the diversity issue which is fantastic, but you're also grouping everybody together and then throwing it at once - for one time only - on the cover as a gimmick. I hope one day, and you know this is with Hollywood, too, and not just fashion – I just hope that everything can be casted in a very sort of color blind/body blind type of way, where, if Ashley's the best person for that story, Ashley's the best person for that story. Not that we're necessarily looking for a curvy girl or a straight girl.

Totally -- stripping away all the labels.

Yes! I hate that editors have to think, should we put an Asian girl in this story?

It shouldn't be something you should have to think about, it should just happen.

That's what I mean. It should just be, 'Oh, I just love her!' And bam, she's casted. You know? And I think that has a lot to do with Hollywood as well. That role should just go to whoever's best for that role. Not necessarily cast it where you're looking for someone who's blonde, in their 30s...

Right, yeah, no one should be type cast. And, actually you said something really interesting when you mentioned media and I was just curious from that thought you had about how you think the role of social media has played in what's happened with body image.

I think social media played a lot of roles in terms of opening the discussion, being free with the discussion and then turning things upside down. I don't know that anybody's saying, oh we're going to have diverse bodies because of social media, but I think social media is causing people to shed light on the situation and say, we do actually have to represent more people – look at all these women that are feeling left out because now they have a voice to say it. Previously, when I worked in the 90s, if women felt left out, how the hell would you know? They weren't going to cosmetic counters and saying 'I wish you would have more ethnicity in your cosmetic ads.' Nobody cared: It was in a vacuum. And now it's out there.

Now there's also Instagram where people can model on their own and post their own stuff and break down all those barriers without needing all of that representation.

And I think that street style is a big proponent of that, and people started celebrating real people and real bodies. And I think street style stars and everyday women who were posting allowed us to have that 'not a model' mentality which is great. It made us appreciate all the different standards of beauty and style that were out in the world. Even taking into consideration the recent thing with Kim [Kardashian] and her naked picture. People will always have strong opinions about anything to do with our bodies but it made us all start talking about how important our bodies are.

It was so divisive.

Yes! Divisive but it's her body and it's her life. She's a grown woman and she should make her own decisions, so who are we to judge. Personally I loved that it was really about the body and how great she looked and how that is creating a conversation.

Also because of the personality that Kim brings to the table.

Kim and entire family have always been media bait but that's not even the issue here for me. It's about the celebration of your body and that bigger discussion about that topic which is just becoming louder and louder and I'm glad we are having it. I love that Kim picture for that reason. In the end it's a win win for me.

And if a supermodel were to share a photo, a nude photo, it might be seen as art, versus what Kim does.

It would have actually caused a lot of ruckus too, though probably not Kate Moss. So Kim is Kim, but you have to remove that part. The bigger discussion about body is just becoming louder and louder and I'm glad we are having it. I love that Kim picture for that reason.

%shareLinks-quote="That discussion about body is just getting louder and louder." type="quote" author="Joe Zee" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

Yes, that's so true. So, in particular, what do you think actually has done to help to broaden people's ideas about what a model should look like?

In this particular genre, I think she's part of the brigade who just doesn't want to use the word plus-size, which I like and I'm going to discuss that at our panel as well, should we just get rid of that word? If we really want to break down that word, is it really just kind of not PC? You know, that everybody else is a size, but that you're the extra size. Why?

I think there was a clothing brand recently that just stopped selling clothes with that label.

Yeah, and a lot of people are getting behind it – Rachel Roy just launched a new line that she's calling curvy, she won't use the word plus size, and it is all the way up to size 24. And, in a way, it's just a size. It's not like the petites are half size. It's putting a label on something that inadvertently body shames people, and I think there's so much of that. I know people are going to be out there arguing with me, being like, ugh we're too sensitive about everything...

But you're not saying that someone who's plus size is the same size as someone who's small, you just classify it differently. There's slender, there's peach, there's curvy. There are different ways to describe it.

Yes, but at the end of the day, it's all just a size. Whether you're 0 or 24, that's just a size. Now the discussion has shifted to people wanting to ban that word. All these words that you thought were PC five years ago are now words you can't use and I think this is one of them.

%shareLinks-quote="At the end of the day, it's just a size. Whether you're 0 or 24, that's just a size." type="quote" author="Joe Zee" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

What makes you personally passionate about this issue in this panel?

I've been in this fashion industry for 26 years, I started in the 90s, and the thing is, before the Internet, and I've done it all. This is a very scary, intimidating, cutthroat industry for a lot of people, so there's that group that sits inside the bubble, and there's that group that looks in from the outside, and it's like 'OMG those people are so scary!' And we've never inside that bubble been able to address everybody around us, and I love the idea of making fashion democratic. Fashion wasn't really like that before the Internet. Here's a chance that the conversation's actually getting more democratic than ever before. And I think that's great. I love it when it's inclusive versus exclusive. And we've worked so hard to make it exclusive in the past, but that's just not the world we live in anymore. So that's what I love about it.

I love how you put that – making fashion democratic.

Yeah, I mean, we all get dressed! It's not just for a certain group of people. So whether you like or don't like fashion, everybody gets up in the morning and makes a conscious decision to put on whatever they put on. I always meet women who say, oh I don't really care about fashion, and I'll reply, you still chose to put on those yoga pants because you want to be comfortable. That is a decision. If you were going to a dinner you would put on something else, if you're going to a job interview you put on something else. That's all a decision.

What are you most excited for about SXSW, Austin, all of this?

My first time was last year, the energy is so electric. It's like Sundance for geeks, and I kind of love that because I'm just at heart a geek too. So Yay, I'm here with all my geeks! It's my like-minded folk. I don't know! It's also electric because I just walk around thinking, 'you must be so smart, you must have brilliant ideas!'; these are all self-starting, brilliant, passionate game-changing people. I don't know everyone here, but I am assuming that in 10 years there will have been game changers who came through here that seriously affected the way we live our life through technology, and that part to me is interesting. We're this pod of people that can make a difference and it's all right here, congregating. That's what I love about SXSW.

I feel the same way, whenever I'm in line somewhere I'm thinking, 'Could the next Mark Zuckerberg in front of me?'

Right! And maybe they're just selling brisket, but they could still come up with the best app next year! In a way, that's also very democratic. I didn't grow up where I could be 20 and think that I could run the world. And now anyone who's 20 today can really own a piece of the world. By having their phone and having an idea. And I'm excited for my book signing here, too!

%shareLinks-quote="I didn't grow up where I could be 20 and think that I could run the world. And now anyone who's 20 today can really own a piece of the world. By having their phone and having an idea." type="quote" author="Joe Zee" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

Yes! What's been one of your favorite things you've heard about your book coming out? What kind of reception have you received?

My best part is hearing it on social media; seeing people Instagram it, or random people read the book and quote it on Twitter, or they'll write me and tell me that certain parts really helped them or inspire them. That's all I really wanted to do – I just wanted to share my stories and my path and my journey and the mistakes I made and all the silliness I went through, and how fashion is fun to people who would appreciate and learn from it.

And you spoke about your book at AOL BUILD!

Yes! I love BUILD, that was so fun. That's what I like the most, when I feel like it's impacted people. That part's exciting.

That must be a good feeling. So shifting a little to discuss fashion trends, what are you most excited for 2016?

Oh gosh, I always like new! I'm on a kick with all these new designers and maybe I just have red carpet on the brain but all the new designers are doing red carpet, and you never get a ton of that, but you have Brandon Maxwell who's has ideas that I love, and a good friend of mine Elizabeth Kennedy, who just debuted at NYFW and she's doing eveningwear and it's really beautiful. She did Laverne [Cox]'s gown for the Globes, the white one, and she just did Mindy Kaling at the Oscars. Her clothes are just gorgeous old world Hollywood glamour. I'm really into that now - new old Hollywood - because Brandon is at heart that too.

I was just reading an article about how there's a lot of classic stuff going on right now!

But it feels really modern, and it's being done by these hip, cool edgy kids, which I'm into! I also am into things that are changing all the time. I love that I don't even have to go to fashion week anymore because I see it all on my Instagram feed – all of it! I actually see it faster on my Instagram feed than I would in real time.

We livestreamed a couple of fashion shows!

And you can see it on your own time! You don't have to get dressed up – I've done it for 20 plus years. No complaints, but it's exhausting and running around is expensive, but with social media, There it is. I love all the changing of the guard right now, so that's exciting. I just love new, and I always loved that about fashion, because fashion in and of itself is new every 6 months.

So you've done magazine editing, books, fashion, you have your own talk show. What's next on the horizon? Is there anything you haven't conquered that you want to, project-wise?

I don't know! I never thought I'd do all of this, so things constantly evolve and change. I thought I was just going to come to NYC from Toronto and be a magazine editor and call it a day. I never knew I'd be able to do all of this, which is so incredible. That's a tough question because people always ask what are you going to do in five years? And honestly, I don't know, we didn't even have an iPhone 7 years ago. I'm open to everything, so even leaving Elle to do Yahoo. That's an incredible adventure. I'm totally open to new and new and next and whatever that is. Right now I just love Yahoo and FABLife and some Snapchatting.

So true, you don't even know what you're going to wear tomorrow, let alone what you'll be doing in 5 years.

Right, you can't be so rigid that you fail to see incredible things that are around you. I have a mantra that someone quoted me on social media: Have a path, but also throw it out and take the detours because that part's the most interesting. I had such a rigid path when I was in my 20s thinking I HAVE to do this. And then when something didn't happen and it fell apart, I was devastated. I look back now and think, thank God that didn't happen, because I wouldn't have been able to accomplish what I did in my career. Everything leads to the next and My life would have been so different, and not in a way that would have been interesting. Let it go. Don't wander aimlessly, but be open to things. Take every meeting, be open to everything. Anything is possible! You just have to be open.

%shareLinks-quote="Have a path, but also throw it out and take the detours because that's the part that's the most interesting." type="quote" author="Joe Zee" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%

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