For a woman who only wants to forecast the weather, Ginger Zee more often than not creates her own storm just putting on clothes in the morning. As NBC5 Chicago's weekend meteorologist, she's on TV for minutes each week, and people have had a lot to say about her on-air wardrobe.
But when you're on the news in Chicago, you end up doing a lot more in the city than just the weather. The list of charity galas, conferences and events Zee attends, and often emcees, would make most people dizzy.
And with each event comes another peek into her closet, another cocktail dress to choose, another pair of heels to stuff into her bag on the way to work.
IN VOGUE ON-AIR
Zee, who grew up near Grand Rapids in Belmont, Michigan, contends she doesn't see herself as particularly fashion-forward, but her career in weather forecasting on television has naturally attuned her to the world of fashion. "We're in the service industry—you put yourself out there," Zee says. "And when it's good, you don't hear anything."
While it's difficult not to be bothered by the steady flow of critical Facebook messages she receives about her clothing, Zee sees her time in front of the camera and her growing knowledge of fashion as a positive. "I've been able to meet people who work in the industry and who have a lot of knowledge about fashion," she says. "It's been a lot of fun."
Dressing for the news was an adjustment for Zee, in ways both financial and stylistic. At one of her first jobs in Flint, Michigan, at WEYI, Zee remembers herself as not as polished compared to one of her coworkers who was a former beauty queen. "I didn't wear heels for the first three months of that job," Zee says. "I was wearing flip-flops and suits."
Zee learned several lessons quickly—if not from watching her own broadcasts on TV, then from her viewers directly. "Picking out work clothes is more of a chore, because I get a lot of response from viewers," she explains.
For her work, Zee likes classic, simple looks that don't detract from what she's doing on-air. Solid, bold colors are a must, but prints are where she says disaster strikes. "Prints just never translate on-camera—they can look really sloppy. And structure is huge. You cannot wear a cardigan. It always looks horrible."
She recalls a thick, stretchy belt that recently caused a ruckus with NBC viewers. "Someone wrote me to say they're pretty sure I have a ‘bun in the oven,' and another guy called it a Braveheart belt. I bought it from French Connection. Everyone's going to have an opinion."
Zee draws inspiration from her favorite characters on the AMC show Mad Men for her professional attire. She likes the variations of a straight, fitted silhouette; for instance, she'll pair a structured, clean-lined shirt with a belted skirt. You'll find standard pieces from Ann Taylor and Trina Turk and suits from Marciano in her professional clothing closet.
But after being on the job for several years, Zee's become more comfortable with eschewing traditional ideas about women's professional attire protocol. "I used to think I had to wear a jacket because people do associate credibility with certain pieces," she says. But no more. "I have that credibility now."
As for repeating outfits, Zee says there's no real rule for women on TV, especially since her salary doesn't allow a one-and-done closet. "I just don't have the wardrobe capacity," Zee says. "I switch things up like everyone else; roll the sleeves on a jacket up one time, down the next." This past winter, Zee wore tights with skirts to work every day, then changed into sweatpants at home. "I didn't wear pants the whole winter, so that's been an adjustment!"
THE CHICAGO SOCIAL SCENE
After waking up at three o'clock in the morning each day, preparing her forecasts, building graphs and going on-air from 6 to 10 a.m., Zee isn't finished. In-between forecasts, she rushes to and from NBC studios to attend to a startling amount of other obligations.
She travels constantly, teaching college courses, visiting elementary schools, and appearing on Storm Chasers, where her boyfriend Reed Timmer works. And she attends tons of events, which means keeping her office at NBC stocked with spare clothing for almost any type of engagement.
"I've got slippers, flip-flops, rain boots, a gown, a change of work clothes, a nice black dress and a lot of jewelry," she explains. "I go through a lot of shoes." Her favorite pair of boots is from Joan and David, and she's a big fan of PiperLime, an online shop for, among other things, the trendiest shoes in season. "I absolutely love my Burberry rain boots, which have lasted me three or four seasons."
And like her rain boots, some things just come with the weather-forecasting territory. "I feel like I should have a nice umbrella, which I do."
Timmer says that luckily, Ginger's fashion sense is enough for both of them. "Mine wasn't the best before I knew her," Timmer says. "I've owned the same pairs of shorts and shirts for years, but she helps me."
In the midst of navigating through all of these events and her time on-air, Ginger Zee has established an individual sense of style that she's truly comfortable in. Born in Orange, California, she wishes she could "pull the cool surfer thing off. I love the beach hair look, and I think I have some of that type of mindset in me, but it never really looks right on me." And she doesn't identify with the rougher, darker brand of fashion that revolves around New York City.
Instead, she gravitates toward bright colors, clean lines, and simple silhouettes that complement her figure.
NBC reporter Natalie Martinez, who works with Zee and often attends events in Chicago with her, describes her style as very fun and very flirty. "NBC is a very conservative station, and Ginger's not the most conservative dresser, so she gets comments," Martinez says.
Zee played muse when Lara Miller, her favorite designer based locally in Chicago, created a dress made from bamboo for her: a floor-length, tiered evergreen gown with an open back, which Zee can't get enough of. "I like open backs and draping fronts—and anything that gives me a waist."
For her cocktail dresses, she prefers a sleeved dress with a shorter hemline and a great pair of heels. "I have some great friends who have the nicest gowns, and we all circulate our dresses to each other, which is so helpful."
And who does she pay attention to on the Hollywood red carpet? "I like the simplicity of Jennifer Aniston's evening wear," she says. "She stays very solid. And on the brighter side, I do like some of the pieces Gwen Stefani wears."
DRESSING GREEN, ON-AIR AND OFF
A few years ago, NBC conducted a station-wide push toward establishing an environmental reporting presence, and Zee says she couldn't have been a more perfect person for the job. "My family had a compost [heap] when we were growing up, and we collected pop cans. I remember watching people throw away pop cans in college—that's really when I began noticing that type of thing more. My mother was a hippie, and my dad was extremely cheap and Dutch, so that's just how we grew up. I've always been pretty frugal."
And while her job at NBC downright requires her to think sustainably, she's always leaned toward socially responsible and environmentally friendly habits like shopping consignment and researching the businesses she purchases from. She can't stand the cheap, throwaway clothes and jewelry from stores featuring mass-produced accessories.
"If you just take the time to look up the company on the Internet, it's easy to find people with a sustainability initiative," she says. "If I find a company who cares a little bit and is making some sort of effort, I feel better about it."
Zee favors Lara Miller because Miller designs most of her clothing in a bamboo fabric. "She does a lot of reversibles, too," she says. "There's this jacket of hers that turns into a scarf that I love." She also frequents a fair trade store in Chicago called Greenheart Shop, which she says does an excellent job of bringing in socially responsible products that don't harm the environment.
"[Ginger] is the most green person I know," Timmer says. "She drives a hybrid vehicle, and she walks whenever possible. And a lot of the stuff she wears looks great, but is really functional, too. One thing I love about Ginger is that she can do the news or come from an event all dressed up, and then hop in a non-air-conditioned van for hours on a storm chase."
Zee likes to keep things green on the skin care front, too. She uses skin care products from Elina Organics, a company based in Kalamazoo that blends natural ingredients with cutting-edge technology to create safer products. "The lotions that so many people put on every day are filled with chemicals, and it can be really unhealthy for your body," Zee says.
Zee has hosted green fundraising events, written an article against fast fashion for Michigan Avenue magazine and tries to keep her wardrobe sustainable in cost-conscious ways like shopping consignment ("Or vintage—that's the hip word for it, I guess").
She thinks a little bit of innovation on the wearer's part can go a long way. "It's always money that people complain about," Zee says. "You have to be creative, but that doesn't mean you have to end up at Goodwill."
Her schedule is brutal, but Zee feels like her future is wide open. Her career as a meteorologist at NBC has catapulted her into countless new opportunities in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, and her closet grows every time she says yes. Her innovative thinking and sense of humor have kept her ahead of Chicago's fashion scene. And you can bet that her tough skin can weather much more than a few opinionated messages about her fashion sense.