On Saturday, Harry Styles completed the thirteenth show of his debut world tour as a solo artist. It was his last concert in North America before he takes his act overseas, first to Europe, then in November, to Asia and Oceania. By any estimation, the tour was a success. The shows were sold out, which bodes well for business; various clips of his performances went viral (in certain corners of the internet, at least), which bodes well for celebrity; he's racked up glowing reviews, which bodes well for industry credibility; and, of course, he's gone full Gucci, which, actually, bodes well for all of the above.
It's not like Styles hasn't already infiltrated the fashion world — that happened years ago, when he was still in One Direction — but now with a tour on the line, his clothing holds real weight. Before, he wore Saint Laurent and won style awards. Now, he's inked some semblance of a partnership with a big-deal design house, Gucci, which announced in September that Styles will wear "a selection of one-of-a-kind pieces," designed by Creative Director Alessandro Michele, for his 2017 tour dates.
So far, a uniform has emerged: a patterned suit (in colors like fuchsia and butterscotch or prints like metallic brocade and embroidered silk) worn atop a black, often pussy bow-adorned blouse. It's a look Styles has preferred for red carpet events since 2015, when he wore a flared black-and-white floral suit to the 2015 American Music Awards. With this being his official tour uniform, it's becoming an integral part of his larger cult of personality, too.
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In the eyes of Jon Caramanica, pop music critic for The New York Times, this is intentional. "I think especially at the highest level — we're talking the true global superstars, you know, a Madonna, even up to a [Justin] Bieber — what you're buying into as a fan is buying into a big picture narrative," he says. "You're buying into a kind of multi-sensual experience. It's auditory, it's visual, it's all these things happening at once, and people who have made pop icons of themselves understood that part of it was creating a character."
Caramanica discusses the concept of narrative, which guides every channel of celebrity. There's a difference between Madonna, the 59-year-old woman from Bay City, Mich., and "Madonna," the Grammy-winning pop legend. To help delineate the latter, she first wore tutu skirts and bustier tops with fingerless gloves and fishnet stockings. Clearly, it worked.
Pop and rock— and the music Styles is creating, which lives nebulously between the two genres — have a long history with fashion, but Meredith Rutledge-Borger, associate curator for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, traces its origins to one very classic outfit. "It seems like since the early days of rock and roll, there's been a uniform that's consisted of jeans, T-shirt and black leather jacket," she says. Elvis Presley, though, served his version with a twist: The King was very much influenced by African American style on Beale Street in Memphis and incorporated everything from shiny suits to the poet-sleeved shirts his mother made for him into his wardrobe. But Presley wasn't exactly one for playing by the rules; neither was Madonna. And to a certain, albeit gentler extent, neither is Styles.
Take Prince, for example. "When we think about musicians who have been well-known for their fashion sense, we tend to think of people who, in the moment, somehow looked what was probably perceived then as wrong, as making imprudent or incorrect choices," notes Caramanica. "But of course, history tends to be kind to people who were ahead of the curve or who were moving left when everybody was moving right."
Caramanica refers to Prince as being "one of one," a prime illustration of a star who cultivated his own visual aesthetic with the help of one or two go-to designers, his ranging from Karl Lagerfeld to Giorgio Armani. Even within the context of his hometown of Minneapolis and the "dandy-ish" local music scene of which he was a cornerstone, Prince's style choices were more extravagant, luxurious and gender-fluid than any of his contemporaries.
Of course, the same was also the case for David Bowie, who also thrived as a chameleon in every aspect of his work. For Rutledge-Borger, Bowie was most recognizable when he wore the science fiction-inspired playwear that defined his androgynous Ziggy Stardust days, a uniform that was followed by the theatrical Kansai Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen wares that came later in his career.
Then there was Michael Jackson, who, like Styles, made a conscious effort to evolve beyond his years-long boy band aesthetic. Rutledge-Borger explains that Jackson loved the Beatles and the majesty of their Sgt. Pepper military dress, so when he went out on his own after the Jackson 5, this aesthetic was top of mind. Balmain was a label he was loyal for most of his adult life, and that he saw through multiple creative directors — from Pierre Balmain in the early '80s all the way through Christophe Decarnin. "You look at an artist like [Jackson], and his style definitely reflected his step away from being a member of his family," says Rutledge-Borger. "[He went from] his sibling band to being an individual with a very distinctive personality that drew on his inspirations."
Styles has been closely linked with fashion for years, with his inclination toward the effeminate being analyzed scrupulously since his boy band days. But coverage reached a fever pitch last October with the release of Another Man's A/W 2016 issue, which Styles fronted. The world was still six months away from the release of his self-titled album, and Another Man offered a first glimpse at what a solo-era Styles might look like. The project also confirmed every suspicion that Styles was using fashion to separate himself from his past, and even his bandmates.
"One thing I noticed from the very start of One Direction [was that] you [would] look at that line of guys and he [was] the one that always stood out to me," remembers Rutledge-Borger. "It certainly set him apart and made him the center of attention in a lot of ways. It seems like he just ran with that, in terms of his style choices." More specifically, he ran straight into the arms of Gucci — where he'll stay for the foreseeable future, or at least through the 2017 leg of his tour. (In June, Styles announced that he would be extending his tour into 2018, when he'll play an additional 54 shows over four months.)
But, why Gucci? Styles has been a relentless advocate for those causes nearest to him, particularly the empowerment of young women. He comes to his fanbase's defense constantly, in interviews or otherwise, and recently, spends a significant portion of his limited on-stage time reminding audience members how much he admires them. Guitarist Josette Maskin of MUNA, the all-girl pop group opening for his 2017 tour, told Billboard that this isn't an act. "The little we've got to know him, he truly embodies what he's trying to tell his fans," she said earlier this month. "It makes me want us to truly commit to sticking with our values and not just talking about it but living it."
Certainly, Gucci's charitable actions speak to Styles's own interests: Since 2005, the company has contributed more than $20 million to UNICEF and the organization's "Schools for Africa" initiative, which helps the world's most underprivileged children — particularly girls — to receive a quality education. Did Styles do his homework on this aspect of the brand beforehand? If not, it's a very welcome coincidence.
Styles isn't exactly going against the grain by favoring Gucci itself; the brand is enjoying a renaissance that's unlike anything we've seen in recent industry history, becoming enormously popular among just about everybody, famous or not, as a result. Despite having an entirely different sound than Styles, rappers-of-the-moment — including ASAP Rocky, 2 Chainz and the members of Migos — have adopted Gucci as their label of choice. The house's appeal is universal, as its booming sales figures and editorial pervasiveness further prove. Even so, Styles's airtight aesthetic sets him apart from his contemporaries with whom he's competing on the Billboard charts.
"Harry is obviously working hard in his music to reference the late '60s and '70s, so his sonic references are very different from what's popular right now for other singers of his generation," says Caramanica. "In choosing to dress the way he's dressing, I think he's trying to say, 'I don't want to be treated like Justin Bieber, I don't want to be viewed that way,' and, if we're really going to go there, 'I don't want to be treated like Zayn.' He's saying, 'I need to be assessed on my own terms. Part of that means you need to accept me presenting this way with this fashion sense.'"
With pop music very much in bed with fashion, it's played a critical role in revamping the careers of several heavyweights, including both Bieber and Zayn (who dropped his last name, Malik, upon going solo). Onstage, the two aforementioned stars have gravitated toward uniforms of their own; Bieber's head-to-toe streetwear and Zayn's edgy, tough-guy designer looks also reflect their music in some way — Bieber with the saccharine top 40, Zayn with electro-alternative R&B. Styles, however, isn't doing any of those things — he's far more glamrock than he is a Chainsmoker — and his Gucci suits have been his main accomplice throughout. They're his jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket.
"Seeing that he's chosen to go with Gucci, with Gucci being in this extremely extravagant phase, tells you a lot about how Harry wants to be perceived," says Caramanica. "He's not wearing things that other male singers of his temporal generation — not his aesthetic generation, but his temporal generation — are wearing. He's not interested in that, or at least not on camera."
More than anything, Styles just loves clothes — what they look like, how they're made, what they convey. His greatest predecessors did, as well, and we know he's taking both musical and stylistic cues from them. But Presley, Bowie, Prince and Jackson rarely stood still, at least not for more than several years at a time, with their uniforms evolving as their music did. Styles may well be on the same page, and with the industry at his fingertips, his next act could look like anything at all. For now, at least, we can enjoy the period one he's in — it's still fresh, still compelling and still, there's plenty of fashion to go around.
Homepage photo: Harry Styles at Radio City Music Hall. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Sony Music