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Kate Berlant: How I Shop

The comedian and actor talks stealing makeup, raiding celebrity friends' closets and being a "materialist, capitalist pig."
Kate Berlant for 69US. Photo: 69US

Kate Berlant for 69US. Photo: 69US

We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in our column "How I Shop."

Kate Berlant insists that she doesn't know much about the worlds of fashion or beauty. But if you're a fan of her comedy — from her Netflix episode on The Characters to her Vimeo series with longtime comedic partner John Early to every YouTube short or Instagram "banana phone" video in between — you've undoubtedly picked up on the fact that Berlant is aesthetically driven. Whether she's donning an Issey Miyake dress or dad jeans for a role, Berlant has an acute instinct for what clothing will make her characters come alive. And while her own signature red lips and glorious mane of curls show that she enjoys playing with beauty, her comedy is just as quick to skewer the industry that peddles it. We chatted with the comedian and actor about why reading about skin care gives her heart palpitations, the reason she believes in stealing lipstick and how she dresses for the red carpet without a stylist.

"I've always aspired to be a woman whose closet has 15 timeless pieces, but instead I'm a West Side LA bitch who cannot resist Zara even though it's a violent corporation that steals from artists. But I'm in the middle of a purge; I'm trying to move away from that. My boyfriend calls me a tornado because I make such a mess when I come home. I know deep down I'm never going to be the minimalist who has multiples of one pair of clogs — I need a little chaos. But I'm 30 now! I refuse to hold onto a Madewell shirt I despise.

I have been wearing a lot of my clothes for years. I have a ton of hand-me-downs from my mom. I'm very aesthetically driven so I appreciate fashion, but I don't feel like I'm knowledgeable about it. I have friends who are, so I eavesdrop on their conversations and absorb some of their closet runoff.

One of my friends is Jemima Kirke. When I did the Tonight show, I went over to her house and she sweetly went through her closet, pulling out things for me to try on. She loaned me the Samantha Pleet jumper I wore. It's fun to wear things that I love and think are special, rather than a schmatta I secretly hate.

There was this Elle Women in Comedy thing that I did last year. The day before, I talked to a few of my girlfriends who were in it and they had stylists and people helping them. I had this sinking feeling like 'Oh no, I don't have that. What am I gonna do?' So I bought this insane red dress that has gloves attached. I was with John [Early], and I think he kind of gave me the permission to buy that, whereas I might have been scared to make such a bold choice alone. My friend Alia Penner is an amazing style icon in LA. She says, 'What's the point of fashion if there isn't some humor in it?'

Kate Berlant wearing LRS Studio. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Kate Berlant wearing LRS Studio. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

One of my oldest friends is Emma Wyman, who's a fashion editor at Dazed magazine, and she's so cool and worldly. If I hang out with Emma, I go home thinking, 'I wanna wear pants that I'm scared of!' And I have this friend Kim who's a stylist with encyclopedic knowledge of '70s clothing and she has all these Stevie Nicks dresses and I see them and am like, that's how I wanna be.

I hold onto pieces that have become characters for me. Years ago I worked in Soho at this vintage store that mostly sold cowboy boots that I was later fired from. (I was like, 'I'm gonna be gone for a month,' and they said, 'You're fired!' and I was like, 'Oh, is that how that works?') This woman wanted to sell an '80s white Armani skirt suit and for some reason I bought it. That became a character I worked with for years.

For my Netflix Characters special, I did this character called Denise who's a wealthy contemporary artist. I knew she needed to have long white hair and wear an Issey Miyake frock. When I put that on, it immediately makes the character come alive. Clothes are a huge part of it. I'm working on a character right now who's a man, and it's really amazing to wear super boring, gross football-coach-at-a-bar clothes. It's wild to put on that outfit and feel like a completely different person.

I used to go to this consignment store on the Upper East Side in New York and there was this floor-length crazy coat. All the Jewish women in their 60s were gathered around me being like, 'You have to buy it.' I did, and I know it will serve a purpose one day. I believe in holding onto some things even if you've never worn them and have no immediate plans for them. But I can't have 10 things like that. I can only have like, five.

It gives me anxiety to buy clothes online, although I will say that I'm a slave to Reformation since they make it so easy to return things. I like vintage stores like Painted Bird in Silverlake or Squaresville. I really like Claire Vivier and have a couple of purses from her.

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I also love skin care and I'm putty in Into the Gloss's hands. It's embarrassing. My heart pounds when I read about skin care. I am such a materialist, capitalist pig. I'm like, 'I'll know I've made it when I buy Vintner's Daughter.' I think of myself as being more interested in art, but I'm totally a hedonist. I'm trying for this lifestyle of minimalist glory of like, 'here are my five potions that I rotate between,' instead of 'here are 8,000 samples I can't bring myself to throw away.' Sephora is where I go to feel at peace, which is so sad.

For my hair, I keep things simple and just use a diffuser. I like DevaCurl's Light Defining Gel. I've been using the Fekkai Brilliant Glossing Creme for years and it almost doubles as perfume because it has a nice smell to it.

I wear a lot of red lipstick, specifically Nars. Stila is one of my favorite lipstick brands that stays on truly all night. I used to swipe lipsticks from big box stores. I actually have no guilt about stealing from huge corporations; I think in some ways it's a means of protest. Like I have a standup bit about how, when you're a femme woman, you spend so much money on makeup and skin care and these corporations really benefit off of your objectification.

I also recognize this as the ultimate sign of white female privilege that I can just lift a Nars mascara from Sephora and they don't have their eyes on me. I stopped because I got scared, but I absolutely still have that in my blood. It's the ultimate adrenaline rush. There were periods when I took a lot from them. Oh god, don't expose me! My life would be ruined if I was banned from Sephora. I would truly be devastated.

I really enjoy dressing up, which is something that I received shame about early on. I had people tell me, 'You shouldn't look pretty when you're doing standup.' I was told that by women and men. I was just like, 'I'm performing! I want to dress up.' I kind of romanticized the stage and what it means to be an entertainer.

Red lipstick goes a long way emotionally. I think a lot of people would be like 'Oh, it's this devastating system of patriarchy.' And I agree that there is something there, but people present in different ways and high-femme gear, for me, feels good. It feels like part of the ritual of getting ready. So much of femininity is performance. The two collide when I'm onstage.

I think in standup, typically it's men in jeans and hoodies who can look like absolute slobs and it doesn't matter. Women are not afforded the same lenience when it comes to their appearance.

We're in this crazy moment of 'wellness,' which is centered around rich white women and the excess they're able to afford and preach as this religion to achieving a better life, and I think that that's really inspiring comedically. That white Armani skirt suit created this character who was kind of an Oprah Gone Wrong personality because she had no idea what she was talking about but had an empire built on it.

We all know that those people exist, and we see them on the GOOPs of the world. It's not like I have hatred or animosity toward it, it's just so fascinating. I can't look away.

It all goes back to capitalist excess, which I talk about because I want to interrogate this attitude in myself that the right to consume is going to free me from death. Hopefully in being open to it as a source of comedy and thinking about it critically, it won't overtake my life. I know deep down the right serum is not going to be my salvation.

Of course I fear getting old in the way we all do, but I actually think I'm going to feel better as I get older. I feel like young women are this high currency and then once you age out of that, you're invisible to the culture. But I hope to push against that. I didn't have the big meltdown when I turned 30. I guess I'm just getting into the clichés of like, 'the older you get the less you care what people think.' All of that is true.

Feel free, any of the brands reading, to send me free stuff; it gives me a brand allegiance beyond reason! I'll be waiting for my free Vintner's Daughter."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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