Recap: It's Anthropologie on TV with Joe Zee's All on the Line!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

(note: all screencaps in this post were captured by me.)


Anthropologie may not be much for marketing but every once in awhile they craftily sneak onto our TVs. The Sundance Channel's All on the Line with Elle Magazine Creative Director Joe Zee is one of my favorite shows. Now in its second season, the show follows Mr. Zee as he critically and precisely evaluates struggling designers' looks, presentations and business plans and mentors them through a mini project and a buyer's presentation. Mr. Zee hand-selects the designers featured on the show so you know these are people whose talent he believes in, not some producer-selected drama queens.

This week Anthropologie got involved with a designer who's young, whimsical and hopefully right up the brand's alley. How did she do? Full recap after the jump.

I first heard about this show last season when Mr. Zee visted Kara Janx, one of my favorite Project Runway alums. I went into the show expecting harsh judgment and some eye-rolling fantastical ending, a la someone swooping in with a $1 million loan to save her business. Instead, the show is a pleasantly low-key but dramatic look inside the struggle for creative geniuses to manage not only the designs but also the production and business sides. It's no surprise to find that many exceptionally creative people struggle with details such as, oh I don't know, business plans or budgeting or or line sheets or record keeping. But what is surprising is how empathetic Mr. Zee is. Yes he is blunt but in a well-meaning and urgent manner. He doesn't want to waste time appealing to designer egos or laying fake compliments to smooth feathers. He's very matter-of-fact yet sincere in his advice and because of his stature and the respect he commands designers respond. I know I would! Since the episode with Ms. Janx, Mr. Zee has evaluated more than a dozen designers in weekly one-hour doses that move along quickly with a fantastic mix of humor, empathy and cutting critique.

Earlier this year Mr. Zee was a keynote speaker at the IFB conference in NYC. Before the convention I really didn't know much about him, except that to me he seemed to be the person who replaced Nina Garcia at Elle. I was impressed by his frank recounting of his journey up the magazine editorial ladder and even more inspired by his advice to the bloggers in the audience. His charisma was infectious and his advice was sweepingly accurate. It was nice to see someone in the traditional media world who really gets it and it's no surprise to me that he earned his own TV show. I do miss his partner in crime from last year, the former editorial director Keith Pollock, who is now with The Coveteur. But Mr. Zee holds his own nicely.

Each episode follows a procedural-like formula: the designer introduces themselves to us and gives a mini presentation to Mr. Zee. He then gives feedback, meets the team, and gives the designer a project which is usually designing a piece for a celebrity. A media type (or sometimes a successful designer) comes in to evaluate the designer's editorial-readiness and finally the designer presents a small collection to a buyer from a major retail store. In the past buyers have included Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Scoop NYC and Nordstrom. This week it was Anthropologie's turn to be the buyers! I'll mostly be focusing on this recap from the Anthropologie lover's point of view.

If you'd like to watch this episode, it will re-run on the Sundance Channel (which is also available on-demand on many cable systems) or can be purchased via iTunes. As of now this episode is not available on the Sundance Channel's site to stream. And if you want to catch up on the show I can't recommend Tom & Lorenzo's All on the Line recaps enough. They do a great job of breaking down the episode with the right mix of viewer snark and fashion-y insight. Here's their recap of this episode.

Let's meet our potential new Anthropologie collaborator, shall we?

Andrea Diodati is a 24-year-old Toronto native who studied at Parson's in New York City. She presented in The Gallery and achieved some initial success but her business is now struggling to stay afloat. Here on a 1-year visa, she's in danger of being deported if she can't prove her business's worthiness.

The show makes no qualms about emphasizing Andrea's quirky (god I hate that word), free-spirit, out there personality. She's got rainbow-colored hair!! She wears sparkly eye shadow!! She talks with an ethereal lilt!! She may not be living in reality!!

In high school I used to love making my own clothing and to this day I still enjoy sketching ideas. While it's only natural to want to critique designs, I get really annoyed when people make assumptions about the designers themselves or call items things like ugly, tasteless, etc. There are ways to critically assess clothing without insulting the designs. This show is wonderful at doing exactly that, critiquing constructively. So it's always a little funny when the episodes start by showing how clueless these designers seem, usually in terms of how they present themselves.

And yet on this show all we really care about is the talent...

(click on this or any photo for a larger version)

...and her portfolio shows that Ms. Diodati's got the goods. In fact, I was very optimistic when I saw these shots. They'd fit right in with a lot of Anthropologie's Made in Kind collections. Well, maybe not the harem pants.

But then it was time to show Joe Zee her mini collection and instead of anything like the portfolio photos, instead Andrea showed...umm...see for yourself.

To his credit Mr. Zee kept a straight face during the presentation. I would not have been able to. While the talent here is clear the question is who on Earth is Ms. Diodati designing for? I'm not sure even she knows.

But Mr. Zee saw through the eccentricity and even found something to love within the designs. He complimented Andrea's use of handstitched lace with beading on the piece above, which she called "Barbie camo." It was exciting, according to Mr. Zee, to see expression like that. He cited the emergence of what he calls "homespun" fashion -- people emphasizing handmade details over machine-made ones in clothing. It's a movement that's slowly gaining momentum and one Andrea could really capitalize on.

The issue here is not one of talent and Mr. Zee recognized that. It's of taking the incredible design skills and helping Andrea express herself in a marketable way.

Electric Love Light's team. From left to right: Jeanise the stylist, Camilla the assistant designer, 
Emily the design assistant and label founder Andrea Diodati. 
In the foreground is Elle Magazine's Joe Zee.

After the presentation Joe Zee meets with the team. He asks why they think the label is not more successful. They cite the usual reasons this show uncovers -- a lack of accountability from the designer, no real business direction or plan and a lack of organization. For example, Ms. Diodati neglected to bring a line sheet or a one-sheet to the presentation and had no business plan ready for Mr. Zee to review. To her credit she realized the error and was appropriately embarrassed by it. It's moments like that where the humanity of the show really shows through. Though Mr. Zee gave her a hard time he did it through facts, by making her realize all the potential business she was losing by not being ready for her meeting with the creative director of a big-time magazine. 

After the meeting Electric Love Light gets its first assignment -- design an outfit within a week for indie darling Zoe Kazan to wear. This is a huge opportunity and Andrea knows it. Sometimes on this show the designers will wallow in their critiques and lose momentum, focus and their self-confidence. To her credit Andrea took the criticism seriously, embraced the challenge whole-heartedly and kept a positive attitude. It was so easy to root for her!

I do have to wonder how much Ms. Diodati researched Zoe Kazan though. As we began to see glimpses of the outfit I saw a lot of Andrea and not much of Zoe. And from a public photo op point of view, I was really worried.

Joe Zee checks in with Andrea the day before the presentation to Ms. Kazan...and he's worried. He's looking at a photo of the outfit which includes a swaddle cape and a blouse with a huge pussy bow. He likes the whimsy of the outfit but is concerned that it's venturing into "tea party costume time." We only get close-range views of the outfit so it's a little hard for me to evaluate. But his critique is respected by Andrea, who makes some changes to the final design.

Andrea didn't yet know she'd be designing a collection for Anthropologie but as the all-knowing viewer I evaluated this look for its Anthro worthiness. I like the sheer top layer a lot, especially if the under lacy tank came with it. But I hate the sleeves. They need to be updated to a more modern cut. The shorts are alright, appropriate for a young, eclectic starlet but certainly not something I'd ever wear.

Ms. Kazan (paraphrasing): Well it's not really something I'd ever wear, but I'm on TV right now and don't want to look like a mean girl. I can rock pretty much anything so yeah I'll make this work!

Bravo, Ms. Kazan. You presented yourself well and kudos to you for agreeing to rock this! The final product is interesting but missing some maturity. It seems very young, perhaps something a teen starlet would wear and look lovely in.

After Ms. Kazan leaves, Joe Zee lets Andrea know that her next assignment is to put together a mini collection for a small group of Anthropologie buyers! I think this is such a great choice for Electric Love Light's aesthetic and one of the most masterful parts of the show -- they always choose buyers that fit within the designers' aesthetics. She has just a few weeks to put the collection together.

In the middle of her work an AP fashion designer comes to visit. I'm going to skip that part almost entirely though because while I feel some constructive feedback was needed I found the reporter overly harsh and judgmental. Not impressed.

One thing worth noting is that the reporter asked what Andrea's target market was. She said 20 and 30-somethings who make $150K+. Ahahaha. I am in the top 15% of NYC female earners and I don't make that much. Yes I make six figures before taxes decimate me but no, no no, not that much. Not even close. Making $100,000 in NYC is like making $40K anywhere else. The cost of living, plus extra city fees, kill the extra income quickly. And while I've no doubt that nationwide there are many successful women that do make that much the likelihood of them being in their 20s is very low, and 30s is also not too likely. So the reality check Andrea got there was a good one.

Andrea gets to work in my favorite part of the episode. Though All on the Line tends to gloss over the production side, they do a really good job of showing the thought process behind the designs. The time-lapse sketching was just fantastic and Andrea's voiceover was illuminating.

Her mini-collection concept was "Butterflies learn to fly" and the designs were inspired by a butterfly's wing. When I heard this I was really excited! I was picturing open knits, capes with movement, dresses with flowy potential and tops made in vivid colors like a butterfly's wing ornamentation.

My god I was so impressed by Mr. Zee's initial critique of the sketches and samples. He immediately honed in on the crop top sketch and said "No one wears crop tops." HALLELUJAH. Preaching. To. The. Choir. Then he evaluated a dress and noted that the waist was too high, making it look like a pregnancy dress.

Joe Zee, can you please walk through Anthropologie and critique the current assortment? I will simply walk behind you, nodding at everything you say. You. Me. We're on the same page sir.

Mr. Zee also asked about the price points which were initially creeping up towards $300. He correctly urged them to lower that, considering ways to save on production to come in under $200. Once again, are you listening Anthropologie?

Then it was time to show the collection to Anthropologie. Electric Love Light gets a pep talk from Joe Zee and then it's go time. Who did Andrea present to?

Meet Kirsten Bowen (far left, in the Mineral Chance Shift). She's the Head Buyer for Women's Apparel at Anthropologie. To her right is Maggie Schuler, the Director of  Made in Kind for Anthropologie. Our lovely blonde in this shot is Ms. Andrea Diodati herself, whose hair was suddenly monotone and the incomparable Mr. Joe Zee.

And what is Anthropologie looking for?

Ms. Bowen: "We're really looking for something unique and undiscovered...It needs to be commercial but still unique."
Ms. Schuler, talking about  Made in Kind: "We want to allow her to discover things and experience things in a way she really hasn't before."

I thought both buyers did a fantastic job with their feedback. But these descriptions of the Anthropologie customer? Yikes. Could it be any less specific? No wonder the brand is disappointing me right now. I realize these are just TV soundbites but the buyers in the past have done a much better job at succinctly summing up their brands. After this all I know about Anthropologie is that I'm supposed to be unique...while shopping at a chain with over 150 stores nationwide. Alrighty.

It was interesting that Ms. Schuler was there, as earlier in the episode Mr. Zee had chastised Andrea for making one-of-a-kind pieces. And yet that's exactly what some of the Made in Kind capsules are. I understand his point was to knock her into thinking of a more viable business model, but it was an odd choice given the buyer pool.

Ms. Diodati prefaced her presentation thusly: "We love the boho chic of Anthropologie and we want to offer the whimsical version."

Yay! That's just what I want too. Girl, I am ready. Hands on chin, leaning forward, Amex ready.

Let's start the show.

You always want to start with a look that really wows the buyers. While this was clearly the most put-together outfit I wasn't overly impressed by this as the beginning. In her portfolio, Andrea showed some amazing pieces that mixed colors, lace, layering and boho chic. This outfit is a little too mass-market, as though she felt pushed in that direction.

Still there were some great touches. Although the Anthropologie buyers were right on that the flares are too flared, I love the eyelet white pants. In a straight leg they'd be great. In a knee-length a-line skirt, even better. The top is cute but not something I'd pay $78 or $88 for, the current average price point at Anthropologie. It also felt young to me -- even at 22 I'd be a little hesitant about it. I love the swing jacket but hate the color. As I mentioned on Twitter last night, the lining is way more appealing to me than the shell color.

Seriously. How cute would a swing jacket in that floral print be? Missed opportunity there in my opinion. So not a bad start but not an incredible one either. It's worth noting that the tailoring here was very good. Many a designer on this show has suffered from poorly made garments. Here, that wasn't an issue.

Again, this look feels very young. The Anthropologie buyers loved the vest. I really liked the top and love the shorts, though they have execution issues. The funniest part of this look's evaluation was when Ms. Bowen praised the double-layering of the top to prevent it from being sheer. Oh lordy, if only Anthropologie listened to their own advice!

The buyers didn't like the shorts at all which made me sad. I think they were very cute...

...and when I saw them during the pre-presentation prep it was the only item that made me go "Oooh!". Customer incongruence.

This butterfly print was a smooth move, because Anthropologie loves them some butterflies. Back in 2006-2008, Odille and Elevenses (two in-house Anthropologie lines) released several pieces with similar lepidopteric prints. Unfortunately, those shorts from the Zoe Kazan look are back and I don't like them any more here. The sweater is fine if unexciting. Love the green bangles -- was that some Joe Zee styling magic at work?

Anthropologie's buyers loved the butterfly print. The placement of the monarch is a little strange to me but I like the symmetry. It's a nicely tailored blouse that would make many Anthro customers happy.

This was the dress that Joe Zee had nailed for having the waist too high. I was thrilled to see the waist was properly placed in the final version.

Ms. Schuler noted that Anthropologie had seen this look before...and it's so true. About 9-12 months ago Anthropologie released a whole bunch of these open-shoulder dresses and tops which screamed Donna Karan circa-1991 gone whimsical. They didn't sell well. I have to wonder how much research Electric Love Light did into recent Anthropologie collections, because while the print is lovely this dress is a real mis-step because it feels like a retread of something they just did.

Had the shoulders been closed this would have been a winner. And I hope that it somehow still makes it to Anthropologie because it's gorgeous. Love the mary janes too.

Here's a lovely, lovely dress. And here's its totally impractical back. When Ms. Bowen from Anthropologie noted that it was open but still hiding what needs to be hidden, I said oh really? to myself. I don't know what kind of bra you wear with this -- corset I guess. Just what I want under my airy summer dress. A corset bra.

The print and color of the dress are beautiful. I adore the shoulder and the sweetheart neckline. I don't love the jacket, mostly because the print feels too small for the long silhouette.

This last look is such a sad ending. Too loose, too grandma of a print, not a complete design thought. I get what Ms. Diodati was going for and I wish she'd dropped the waist as the Anthropologie team suggested. They were right on in that assessment -- this dress needs something to give it some attitude.

In the end, the pieces were in the $80-$180 price range which nails the Anthropologie demographic. And from the idea stage I feel like Ms. Diodati knows the Anthro customer. Her designs would make great additions to the line!! Anthropologie felt the same way, ending the show by offering to do business with her. Hopefully we'll see the results of that collaboration soon!

Did you watch this episode of All on the Line? What did you think? Do you like the designs?

Further reading:
All on the Line -- Sundance Channel
All on the Line season 2 -- iTunes
All on the Line season 1 -- iTunes
All on the Line recaps -- Tom & Lorenzo
All on the Line airs Mondays at 9 PM ET on Sundance Channel

Here's the episode teaser: