How I Shop: Alex Newell

The "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" star (and Critic's Choice Award nominee) walks us through his favorite fashion follows, how his style has evolved and what it's like to collaborate on Mo's costumes.
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Alex Newell as Mo on "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."

Alex Newell as Mo on "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."

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."

Alex Newell has an entire closet dedicated to gowns. 

The actor and singer — currently starring as Mo on NBC's "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," a role that earned him a Critic's Choice Award nomination — recently made the move from L.A. to New York City, to an apartment he describes as having a "full-fledged Carrie Bradshaw closet," where the second bedroom isn't actually a bedroom. One of the actual closets, though, holds his eveningwear collection, which represents some of the biggest moments in his career, like when he performed at the Tonys for the first time or when he sang at Carnegie Hall. 

"They're my keepsakes," Newell tells me. "To me, it's just like someone keeping their wedding gown."

Newell describes his style as "a smorgasbord of things" — something that's evolved over the years, as he tried and played around with different pieces and formulas until he landed on what felt right. "Fashion is just an expression of who you are," he says. "I think that's where my fashion really stems from. Now, it's just more refined and it's more palatable than what it used to be. But it's still unique to who I am."

Ahead, Newell talks his favorite fashion follows on Instagram, the TV shows that have had an impact on his style and Mo's outfits on "Zoey's." Read on. 

Alex Newell 3

"I really just dress to make myself happy, at the end of the day. And comfortable — that's really what it is. It's just expressing my mood so I don't have to say much on the day.

"I tried a lot of things and experimented with a lot of things at the beginning. A lot of things were just too crazy and outlandish. Looking back, [I'm] like, 'What was I actually thinking?' Once I found something that worked, I kind of stuck with that for awhile — the combination of blazer with a tight pant and a heel. There was one GLAAD Awards where I had a baby blue blazer on with a white button-down, a tight black form-fitting pant and a heel. That's kind of a look that we went for for very long time.

Alex Newell 2015 GLAAD Awards

"[I look for inspiration] everywhere. I scroll through Instagram like it's my job, because I feel like it is sometimes, especially if I have a lot of downtime. When I'm shopping, I'm looking at how they're styling, looking at what works and what doesn't work and what I would do differently.

"I love @fashionbombdaily. It's one of my favorite accounts to follow and just see how people are dressing right now. There's another one called @fashionbombafrica, which is just African fashion, that I'm really into right now. I want to express more of that in my day-to-day. I just love Jackie Aina in general and for fashion, what she does and what she brings. There's Misses Brielle, she's absolutely gorgeous, but I love how [there's an] everyday, but still fashion-forward way that she dresses. She's plus-sized at that, so it's nice to see someone that's expressive with their clothes and plus-sized as well. I follow damn near every designer and stylist, between Christian Siriano and Jason Bolden. There's too many.

"I watch so much television — like, constantly watching television. That's also another inspiration because you see all these characters and you learn what they're going for in how that person would dress. Growing up and literally watching all of 'Gossip Girl,' I think that was a big thing — the Upper East Side fantasy that everybody had while watching that show, the distinct difference between a Serena and a Blair and how they use the fashion in that. Kelly Rutherford is probably one of the most stoic actors that I could ever see on television, and watching Lily van der Woodsen... It was all so clean and expressive. Everything was cold yet warm at the same time. I just loved how they dressed her on the show, specifically. I saw the press shot [for the upcoming HBO Max reboot] of them just on the steps... Even that fashion that they have that's updated and new to what we know fashion to be now is brilliant and beautiful, because it's showing these distinct characters and who they are. And it's just a photo.

"More recently, I want to say 'Katy Keene.' That was really good in looking at all of those individual lead character characters and how expressive they were with their fashions. Even 'All Rise' and how they dress Simone [Missick], the juxtaposition in how they're dressing Lindsay Mendez... I take these everyday fashions that look really good because they're fashionable.

"[On 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist,'] since the character is so solely based off of me, it's my own personal fashion, at the end of the day. There's a line of, 'Would I wear it, or would this character wear it?' that's very blurred and muddy. Sometimes I don't agree with what the character would wear but then I have to remind myself that it's a character and just because I [wouldn't] wear it doesn't mean that the character isn't going to wear it. But for me, how I get dressed, it's really more so of: Will I be comfortable in this all day? Because a lot of the time, I'm very uncomfortable in half the stuff that I wear on 'Zoey' all day — I mean for 12, 13 hours — because it's either a heel that's too high or a statement piece that shouldn't be worn all day. We've all been there, where we've worn something and it fits and is great for the picture but then once the picture is over and done with, we want to rip it off our bodies.

"I do get a say in [costumes]. Heidi [Higginbotham], our costume designer, is absolutely brilliant and stunning — everything that I want to collaborate with. She's like, 'Tell me what you're buying. Tell me what you're looking at. Just give me an idea.' We talk and we make things together. We build things off of just my fittings. I feel like a giant Barbie doll because my fittings are two to three hours, where we stand there, we have the seamstress there and we make things work. Sometimes we go for an idea and we're just like, 'It's not doing anything that we want it to do.' I'm very fortunate and happy that I have this opportunity to do that because it's not like that often. 

Newell on "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."

Newell on "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."

"ASOS is my number one source of clothing. It has everything that I could ever want. I think it's nice to have a department store that's directly on my phone, that I can get everything from, [where] the algorithm now knows me and pushes things that it knows I would like. I love PrettyLittleThing, ASOPH. I'm a huge online shopper. When I'm out and about, I like to do boutique-y stores for accessories, for finding these one-of-a-kind things that nobody else is going to have — and if they do have it, it's not like a lot of people have it. I'm strange like that, I'm selfish like that. I'm the only child. I feel like my Leo is always rising in fashion.

"I just bought these lovely boyfriend jeans. They're like hybrid boyfriend/mom jeans — high-waisted and ripped in the knee and thigh. I'm so obsessed with them because they go with everything. It was kind of a new thing for me, because I've worn form-fitting things for so long. To find this new silhouette on my body and make it work in a different capacity than what I was used to is just so much fun. Because you do get so bogged down with the same silhouette all of the time. You think that that silhouette is the only silhouette that looks good on you, but you're not trying a lot of times. When you're younger, you just do what you think looks best and you stick to that and you don't really want to move on past that. As I've gotten older, it's like, 'I'm so sick of looking the same.' You have to evolve your fashion with you. I'm more so willing to do different silhouettes now than I was back in yesteryears. It comes with understanding your body and accepting your body more, at the end of the day.

"Back in the day, you wouldn't have caught me dead in a pencil skirt, which is super strange to say. Because I didn't like how my stomach looked in a pencil skirt, and I would just cast them off. Then [I thought,] 'No. Why would I do that to myself?' I was prone to just hide, hide, hide. Now I'm just like, 'I love a pencil skirt.' Also, I was never one to wear off the shoulders. I think as I get older, I'm taking more and more clothes off and showing more skin.

Newell on "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."

Newell on "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist."

"I'm in New York City. I have a two bed, two bath apartment, and let me tell you that my guest room is not a guest room: It's a full-fledged Carrie Bradshaw closet. [In] my bedroom closet, one side is everyday clothing and [the other is] dedicated to just gowns and gowns — like every gown that I've ever worn, every sparkle-spangled top that I've ever worn, everything that's too big that I just want consolidated in one place, that I can just reach in and grab and go if I need to. And I can tell someone, 'Hey, it's in this closet. Go get it.' Even when I had a guest room closet in L.A., it was always just a disorganized mess. I keep asking Home Edit to just come over and get my life together.

"I remember my gown from my very first time performing on the Tony Awards. I went to my friend Christopher Palu, who's on 'Project Runway,' and he made me this gorgeous off-the-shoulder sequined corset gown in a black shiny [fabric] on one side and black matte on the other. It just reminds me of a really good time. A chunk in my life was watching the Tony Awards and wanting to be on the Tony Awards and wanting a Tony. I didn't get that Tony on that night, but that's neither here nor there. I still got to perform. I just see so much hard work in that gown. 

"He made me another gown for my performance with The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall. They're these giant staples in my life. To have a garment that is so gorgeously beautiful, that can correlate with that moment, is just a phenomenal blessing. I always say, 'Wear your gown sparingly. And if you do want to wear it somewhere else, just don't get a photo taken in it.' But it's hard to wear the Carnegie Hall one because there are these two giant ostrich plume sleeves on it, that's photographically so wonderful and gorgeous. 

"I was a big, big, big, big shoe fan growing up. I would try all of my mother's shoes on until my foot got a little bigger and then didn't fit anymore. I love a heel, but I do have these Ferragamo sneakers that are high tops. I call them my twins because the left foot says 'Ferra' and the right foot says 'Gamo.' Love Ferragamo — like a little accessory that you could wear all the time but still let the hoes know. I love Jimmy Choo. I love a Miu Miu heel, they're always so classic and pretty. Also, I don't own a Manolo, but if I did, you would know. 

"I love scarves now, which I didn't a long time ago. I have this Alexander McQueen scarf that was a gift from one of my producers on 'Once on This Island' that I wear a lot. There's just so much — I think I have too much. 

"I love vintage things as well. I have this Tiffany vintage necklace that I found randomly on The RealReal — I was just like, 'I want it. Give it to me now.' There's one thing that I wear everyday that's of no value, I don't think — I'm wearing it right now: It's my mother's wedding necklace. It's just this very simple little rhinestone crescent moon thing that just fits perfectly at the base of my neck. It's like a choker, but it's at where my neck meets my chest and sits so perfectly right there. For accessories, I look for things that are so uniquely different that they go directly to the person that you see's eyes. I want someone to be like, 'Oh my God, that's so pretty. Where did you find it?' I want the conversation of, 'Where did you find it?' So when I'm scouring these websites, that's what I'm looking for." 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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