Joe Zee: Isn't the Effort Part of the Ultimate American Dream?

In my personal opinion, I believe reinvention has become the unofficial gateway to the American dream. I did it. My friends did it. Hell, even Madonna did it.

As a teenager, I very distinctly remember thinking that once I leave behind the confines of my Canadian childhood and migrated to Manhattan with only $400, an armful of fashion magazines and a whole lot of gumption, I would be able to "reinvent" myself from gawky fashion nerd to gawky fashion diva. How hard could it be? Wasn't 42nd street paved with sequins and gold?

I arrived in Manhattan in the dead of a hot summer, driven down by my dad in his old Oldsmobile station wagon. I had no idea where to start (I landed at FIT) and no plan b. Naively, I just thought that if I could just get that lucky break, the perfect mentor, everything would fall into place. That wasn't the case at all. And those hard lessons were the beginning of my career in 1990.

That same year, as an intern and eventually an assistant, I met a quirky Korean designer named Gemma Kahng. A designer who reminded me more of an anime cartoon than Halston but was none the less a name to be reckoned with. Her showroom was at 550 7th Avenue, on the corner of 40th Street, an infamous address still considered the holy grail of garment district showrooms (today that building houses Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta among others); her clothes were featured on supermodels on the cover of Vogue that year and you couldn't walk into a single department store and not bump into her signature powersuits. In other words, she was a big deal. HUGE.

Cut to today, it's a different story. Back in November when I was working with Kara Janx, one of the featured designers on my new Sundance Channel series, All On The Line (on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. et/pt on the Sundance Channel), I bumped into Gemma (after a 10-year hiatus) in a dirty, moldy bathroom at the back of a costume shop where Kara rents an office. After a moment, we both gasped and said "What are you doing here?" simultaneously. And that question just led to a verbal assault from both of us, frantically trying to catch up. There's a lot to say about ten years and there we were -- sandwiched between the toilet and the door doing it.

When Gemma finally told me she was trying to resurrect her business for a second time after losing it all, I felt a tinge of guilt. I had nothing to do with the demise of her business that first time but part of me couldn't help but think that whatever problems she encountered (and to this day, she still won't be specific), it was a harsh reality that could happen to any of us. Living that American dream can go away. At any time. And it could happen to me.

I told Gemma I wanted to help her. This time I was in a position to be that mentor I wanted back in 1990. I could help her kickstart her business -- help her be relevant again in the world of fashion but most of all, help her reinvent herself for a second chance at fashion stardom. If America loved a breakthrough star, they loved a comeback even more. It just had to be done right.

And that was ultimately the theme of last week's episode of All On The Line. In the end, I knew that I couldn't guarantee Gemma instant success, but I could guarantee that I was sure as hell going to try. And isn't that effort part of the ultimate American dream?

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