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How I Shop: Hari Nef

We talked with the actress and model about Los Angeles vs. New York style, the sustainability movement and letting her clothing speak for her.
Hari Nef for ModCloth. Photo: Courtesy of ModCloth

Hari Nef for ModCloth. Photo: Courtesy of ModCloth

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."

Hari Nef has already worn many, many hats during her career, from internet "It" girl to boundary-pushing writer to Gucci model to film and TV actress. But throughout all of it, she's remained remarkably articulate about her relationship with fashion.

For those who remember Nef's days as the embodiment of New York's downtown scene, the fact that she swapped her Zana Bayne leather harness out for a pink '50s housewife dress to star in the latest ad campaign from ModCloth might be surprising. But as far as Nef's concerned, her fashion choices should be expected to undergo as much creative evolution as she has over the years.

"I think that as I have been able to become more articulate with my words and particularly my actions, my fashion has quieted down a bit because I have felt the liberty to choose things that sort of frame me and are not necessarily statement-making distractions," she explains on the phone.

As for her decision to sign on with ModCloth, she approached it the way she's made so many other creative choices: She saw a chance to work with artists she respected, and she took it.

"What got me really excited to do the campaign was that they had sought out Alex Prager to direct," Nef says on the phone. "She's a fine artist and the collaborations she's done with actors and actresses are super elevated. I was really impressed by that taste level."

Coming from someone who's walked the runway for Eckhaus Latta, modeled for Inez & Vinoodh and been on the cover of Elle UK in the past, Nef's judgements on who's worth working with in fashion aren't without weight.

These days, Nef's more focused on her acting than the modeling that helped make her famous — the reason she's back in New York City for a few months after relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago is because she's appearing in an off-Broadway play called "Daddy." But juggling theater gigs, appearing in films like "Assassination Nation" and TV shows like "Transparent" and Netflix's "You" hasn't made Nef any less thoughtful about the clothes she wears and buys.

Calling from a New York diner while eating a plate of eggs, Nef shared her musings about the differences between how New Yorkers and Angelenos engage with fashion, avoiding retail therapy and why she's enjoyed toning down her style lately.

"I do a mix of shopping online and in-store. When fit is super important or I'm traveling, going into the store can be nice. But I'm much better equipped, being a lifelong internet user, to find exactly what I want on the internet. Especially if a website has a really detailed and nuanced metric for finding your size. I tend to zero in more specifically on what I want and need when I shop online.

I like to go shopping with friends. I think it's fun to come out of a dressing room and flaunt a little bit. Right now I'm in the market for some really amazing knee-high boots. I usually start with an intention for one thing but then I see what's there. I also have a lot of friends who are very into fashion or work in fashion and they often have retail intelligence I don't or connections at certain stores, so I like to go along for the ride.

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Nef walking the Gucci runway in 2016. Photo: Imaxtree

Nef walking the Gucci runway in 2016. Photo: Imaxtree

Retail therapy is very real, but I try not to do too much of that. If I'm trying to look for the feeling that I could get from a 'reward' purchase or a therapy purchase, I'd much rather find that feeling in the room with my therapist or on the couch with some friends. I try to shop out of necessity, not out of emotion. 

I haven't done a lot of shopping over the past year. But I've definitely been getting into the thrift stores in LA; a lot of people out there are super into vintage. My favorite brick-and-mortar store of this past year is called Hidden Treasures. It's in Topanga Canyon. It's one of the hotspots that a lot of creative directors in the fashion industry like to hit to get inspired. It's in the middle of nowhere and it's just packed to the gills with stuff you can't find [anywhere else]. There's a whole rack of beautiful vintage silk nightgowns that they hand-dye in all these candy colors.

I think the energy differences between New York and LA kind of manifest themselves in the shopping experience. In LA people let you shop and they're not necessarily trying to sell you up on something or steer you in the direction of this piece or that piece. I feel like in New York, the shopping is very involved and hands-on and entering a shop is entering into an agreement to interact with the people who work there in a way that you don't necessarily get in LA.

I've doubled down on my all-black New York style since moving to LA. I stick out like a sore thumb but I don't mind it. I like bringing a New York sensibility to the LA weather. There's a lot of clothes swapping there in a way that I don't experience in New York. People are so territorial about their wardrobe here, and in LA I'm constantly sharing. There's more of a socialist sense to fashion and garments moving through social circles in LA; I really like that aspect of it.

I feel like there is perhaps a stronger appetite for ethical fashion in LA because LA is so far away from the high-fashion industry itself. So it feels like there's less of a consensus in terms of who the top designers are or what's the thing to wear. I feel like the trends are more pronounced in New York. New York has a lot of incredible artists who are based here and continue to set the international agenda, but the sustainability conversation is I think a newer thing for New York. 

Nef at the  LACMA Art + Film Gala in 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Nef at the  LACMA Art + Film Gala in 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images

There are also brands like Eckhaus Latta that were kind of one of the first high-fashion labels to pioneer using deadstock and upcycled materials. They have a really big presence in LA. Zoe Latta, who's a longtime friend of mine, is based there and they have a store there as well. 

I also have been thinking about Rodarte and Laura and Kate Mulleavy and how their approach to fashion has always been about artistry and things that are done by hand, about doing something beautiful and specific and uncompromising on a smaller scale. Not necessarily in terms of the impact of their design — I don't mean a smaller scale in that way — I just think they're very intentional about the garments they put into the world. How LA people approach fashion definitely feels different. Business and selling and production, production, production are not the bottom line and I think that lends itself to a retail and ethical practice that's softer, in a way.

Choosing what I want to wear is very intuitive for me and I think it does change as I change. I feel like the clothes I wear are a reflection of the intentions that I'm trying to set. I allow my clothes to speak for me before I have to speak for myself. At a time where I had a lot of intense and colorful things to say, that was the way I dressed. Scaling back to essentially a more classic, timeless, conservative style has been developing in direct proportion to my confidence and my comfort with myself regardless of what I wear.

I'm more likely to splurge on cosmetics than anything else, just because I feel like the quality differences are more evident than the difference in quality in terms of top shelf versus mid-shelf or bottom-shelf garments. 

I'm not saying that I have the best style in the world. But I know how to dress myself and what works for me and what I'm trying to say through my garments. I think that if you have that, you don't necessarily have to wear the chicest luxury brands or clothes to look the way you want to look. I think style is ultimately more interesting, more valuable and more important than fashion, but also probably harder to find."

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