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All photos by Driely S. for Racked
All photos by Driely S. for Racked

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Winning the Internet: Joe Zee Talks Print vs. Web

Joe Zee made the surprising leap from Elle to Yahoo, so just how is he doing when it comes to digital?

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"Can you believe it's my four-week anniversary?!" Joe Zee exclaims when he realizes it's been one whole month since Yahoo Style launched.

We're sitting in his office—modest by both fashion and tech startup standards, though the company is weeks away from a relocation. He's visibly beaming. Fashion Month is just winding down, but Zee, who sat out most of the European shows save for a quick appearance at Burberry, looks unusually well-rested for the editor-in-chief of a fashion publication.

I enter Yahoo HQ in Midtown right as the staff is preparing for an afternoon Oktoberfest celebration, the smell of fresh-baked soft pretzels in the air and the promise of pumpkin beer buzzing around the halls. It's safe to assume Elle, where Zee was creative director before jumping ship to the internet giant, didn't observe the German holiday in the same way, or at all.

I ask Zee how the transition from luxury magazine to tech company has been. "I'm an adaptable kind of guy!" he says, smiling such a convincing grin it's impossible not to believe him. "Do I look like your typical fashion person?" In a crisp button-down layered under a striped sweater, he decidedly does not. "The typical fashion person probably didn't even understand the move I was making, and that's okay!"

Zee has always been obsessed with the internet. "You have to ask my boyfriend," he continues. "He's like, 'We have to have rules about retiring the computer.' I fall asleep with my hands still on the keyboard all the time, and then I'll wake up and just finish writing the email." As addicted as he may be, it never crossed him mind to leave the world of print behind to work on the web. ("I love food, but it's not like I'd ever open a restaurant," he reasons.)

Then Marissa Mayer came calling with an offer too tempting to turn down. From the start, a key part of the Vogue-endorsed CEO's strategy was to launch dedicated verticals framed as digital magazines. In April, Mayer tapped Zee to head up the fashion site. He'd just clocked seven years at Elle, where he'd became an increasingly prominent part of the brand, even morphing into a small-screen favorite on The City and his own Sundance series All on the Line, and he was ready for a new challenge.

The move was surprising, at least from an outsider's point of view. Prior to that, Yahoo's biggest hire had been Bobbi Brown, Zee's fellow editor-in-chief who oversees the beauty vertical—and who has no previous editorial experience. (Since he signed on, Cherry Bombe founder Kerry Diamond has joined to head up Yahoo Food.) But the leap made sense to him. He loved the idea of starting something from scratch and having his hand in everything from site design to editorial direction. Besides, how can you say no to Marissa?

According to Zee, what he's doing now is not much different than what he did at Elle. Content is what matters most to him, regardless of whether it's being consumed on a laptop, a TV set, or in a print glossy. "I just love media. I love storytelling. That's why I always wanted to work in magazines. But then as the media landscape changed, I loved finding different ways to tell the story," he says. "When I was editor-in-chief at a Condé Nast magazine called Vitals in 2004, I went to them and said, 'I really see this as 50% internet, 50% print.' And they were like, 'What?' They didn't understand what I was even talking about." Vitals only lasted a year.

Ten years later, though, Zee's interest in digital hasn't waned. If anything, he's wondering what took him so long to make the plunge. At Elle, "it was really segregated. Web had its own staff, and it fell under other people," he explains. "I certainly would pitch things. I livestreamed a fashion shoot, and it was a
huge hit, but it was a very difficult undertaking because Hearst isn't by nature a digital company. To execute a livestream required so many third parties. Here, we livestreamed a day during Fashion Week. It was six hours, and we programed it like a real television show, with guests, segments, and a former Today Show producer. That would never have been able to happen at a print magazine."

He loves the sky's-the-limit thinking at Yahoo, as all as the immediacy, which allows him to bang out a story on his iPhone and publish in seconds. "I get to design and create. I get to plow forward. I get to experiment, reinvent, reimagine!" he enthuses. "Print was always storytelling for me. This is storytelling too, but the stories I tell and the way I tell them are very different."

That's not to say he regrets working in magazines as long as he did. It's clear he loved his time spent in traditional media, as evidenced by the print fashion editorials covering his walls. "I'm not dogging print. I love print! But I don't miss it at all," he says. "I'm not a look-back kind of guy. I'm very much about, 'This is the future, this is what I'm doing, and this is kind of awesome.'"

He adapted quickly, but there was quite a learning curve. After years at Elle and a long spell at W before that, Zee was used to speaking to a very specific readership. Yahoo is, of course, about as mass as you can get. "Every time I changed jobs, I grew more eyeballs," he says, "When I was at W, it was a very small audience. Then I got to Elle and was like, 'Whoa!' We're going from 400,000 circ to 1.1 million, and now we're talking about 800 million-plus a month here at Yahoo."

While there's very much an Elle girl, the same can't be said for Yahoo Style. Exclusivity and aspiration have been replaced by, well, everything else. "The site's like a really fun party that everyone's invited to. There's no scary red rope or door policy." Rather than trying to appeal to everyone, Zee's editorial strategy boils down to this: As long as he enjoys making it, people will enjoy reading it. "All I can do is what I love and believe in and am passionate about. Will it resonate with everybody 100% of the time? No, but I don't think it should."

This means you'll find Chanel vs. Zara shoe comparisons, celebrity news (welcome, Esmerelda Gosling!), runway trend styling stories, and highly produced original shoots. There are pieces written by DJ-slash-It girl Leigh Lezark and fashion's favorite astrologist, Susan Miller, as well as Zee himself.

Speaking to an audience that includes middle-age moms, teenage girls, and industry insiders has proved liberating rather than daunting. "You can be that diehard who's walking up at 3am to watch a fashion show in Paris, or you can also be that person who wants to check out an award show or see some breaking news," he says. "It's all about how fashion affects your day-to-day life. I try to tackle each of those things with a very fun, entertaining point-of-view."

He speaks highly of his staff, and they return the sentiment. As Sarah Cristobal, who joined from V Magazine, explains, "Joe is the whole reason I came to Yahoo. His positive energy is infectious. He brought me on to help him lead the Yahoo Style team, and it has been such a thrill so far. Every day is fun and different! It's an exciting time to be at Yahoo and working with Joe."

Fellow Elle album Nick Axelrod, who left Into the Gloss in August to consult for brands and contribute to Yahoo Style, agrees: "As I build my consulting business, I jumped at the opportunity to work with Joe again. He is one of the most creative, informed, and enthusiastic people I know. I learn a ton from him on every project we do. He really knows how to bring out the best in his team, whether in the office or on a shoot."

Though it's only been live a month, the reception from readers has also been overwhelmingly positive. "When we launched, I had so many people write me on Twitter to say, 'I bookmarked this! I can't wait to come back every day.' That's such a vote of confidence for all the work my team does," Zee says. "I love that people will wake up with a cup of coffee and click on to Yahoo Style."


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