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Justin Timberlake takes the tailored path to style

By Guy Trebay
New York Times

More Information

  • The Justin Timberlake file

    • Appeared on “Star Search” and “The New Mickey Mouse Club” as a child.

    • Lead singer for ’N Sync (“Tearin’ Up My Heart”); first studio album: “Justified.”

    • Film acting credits include “The Social Network,” “Bad Teacher,” “Friends with Benefits.”

    • Has won six Grammy and four Emmy awards.



The Justin Timberlake who took to the airwaves to promote his album “The 20/20 Experience” and who also cranked ratings to a 14-month high on “Saturday Night Live” is in certain ways a Tom Ford creation, right down to the modified pompadour.

“I happen to like the hair straighter,” said Ford, Pygmalion to Timberlake’s male Galatea.

Long gone and perhaps best forgotten is the boy-band alumnus with frosted curls and cornrows, the man who turned up for photo sessions in gray pleather jump suits and who once wore a stonewashed bell-bottom denim get-up to an awards show, with matching hat and armpiece – his girlfriend at the time, Britney Spears. The idea of a former Mouseketeer toying with sartorial reinvention is nothing new.

Few performers have undergone such a makeover: teenage heartthrob in a knit cap transformed into a new Cary Grant.

Beginning in 2011, Ford began playing paper dolls with the singer and actor, dressing him for the Oscars, the Grammys, the Brit Awards, the SAG Awards, the annual gala of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his $6.5 million wedding in Italy last year to actress Jessica Biel.

In a developing theme-and-variation essay on modern tailoring, the two men conjured up an image of “Mad Men” suavity with matinee-idol suits, butterfly bow ties, Savile Row checks and spectator shoes.

“He learned well,” said Amy Fine Collins, a Vanity Fair correspondent and guardian of that magazine’s roster of the world’s fashion plates. She was referring to Timberlake, who was named in 2011 to the International Best-Dressed List. Think of the earlier and unfortunate iterations of Timberlake, Collins suggested, as sketches for a finished work of art. “Some are awkward, some are flawed,” she said. “What matters is you get there somehow.”

The Cary Grant look

His generation is taking its style cues again from stars of an earlier era, men like Grant. A onetime itinerant acrobat, Grant ruthlessly gauged his physical liabilities (he had a short neck and only one front tooth) and assets (pretty much everything else), and assessed fashion history to craft a style in the 1930s that designers have been sampling ever since.

Grant’s crisp two-button suits, his subtly elongated collars, his fitted shirts, his French cuffs and his aura of impeccable masculinity became so much a part of his image that even now few are aware that his clothes were often created by a personal tailor and not the costume department at his studio.

“Cary Grant didn’t start out knowing how to dress,” Collins said of an actor whose wardrobe for classics such as “North by Northwest” “had nothing to do” with Paramount Pictures. “He’d been a circus performer, but he studied and he got it,” she said.

Like Timberlake, she said, Grant turned his research into results that made what for most men would be difficult look effortless.

“When you’re someone in your early 50s, and a major global pop star who’s barely 30 identifies with your style and wants you to make all his clothes, you think, ‘I’m still valid,’ ” Ford said. (Timberlake is, in fact, 32.)

“These kids grew up in a generation of baggy shorts and baggy athletic clothes, and now they want some kind of little formal touch to something,” he said. “They want the glamour of suits and ties.”

That glamour, which had gone missing for a long time from Hollywood, made Ford a natural go-to for film moguls and players. He had already dressed a number of stars (Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Colin Firth) before being approached by a performer looking to use clothes to change his career narrative.

Clever chameleon

Nearly a decade ago, when Jim Moore – creative director of GQ – first styled Timberlake for a pictorial photographed by Bruce Weber in Montauk, N.Y., it was clear the performer was more than a well-made shop dummy with a pretty falsetto and an unfortunate tendency to beat-box.

Like some of Timberlake’s other collaborators, Moore noted the performer’s chameleon nature and ability to adapt to whatever tools fashion provides. “He’s clever because he took that moment and said, ‘I’m going to push it,’ ” Moore said of a 2009 GQ cover on which Timberlake appeared in a three-piece suit, a tightly knotted necktie and a pocket square.

“None of it works unless the person looks the part and is willing,” Moore said. “Yes, we turned up the volume, but Justin brought his openness and willingness. Whatever we suggested, ‘Hit me!’ was his first response.”

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