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THE MEN’S BATHING POND in London’s Hampstead Heath at daybreak on a gloomy September morning seemed such an unlikely locale for my first meeting with Harry Styles, music’s legendarily charm-heavy style czar, that I wondered perhaps if something had been lost in translation.
But then there is Styles, cheerily gung ho, hidden behind a festive yellow bandana mask and a sweatshirt of his own design, surprisingly printed with three portraits of his intellectual pinup, the author Alain de Botton. “I love his writing,” says Styles. “I just think he’s brilliant. I saw him give a talk about the keys to happiness, and how one of the keys is living among friends, and how real friendship stems from being vulnerable with someone.”
In turn, de Botton’s 2016 novel The Course of Love taught Styles that “when it comes to relationships, you just expect yourself to be good at it…[but] being in a real relationship with someone is a skill,” one that Styles himself has often had to hone in the unforgiving klieg light of public attention, and in the company of such high-profile paramours as Taylor Swift and—well, Styles is too much of a gentleman to name names.
That sweatshirt and the Columbia Records tracksuit bottoms are removed in the quaint wooden open-air changing room, with its Swallows and Amazons vibe. A handful of intrepid fellow patrons in various states of undress are blissfully unaware of the 26-year-old supernova in their midst, although I must admit I’m finding it rather difficult to take my eyes off him, try as I might. Styles has been on a six-day juice cleanse in readiness for Vogue’s photographer Tyler Mitchell. He practices Pilates (“I’ve got very tight hamstrings—trying to get those open”) and meditates twice a day. “It has changed my life,” he avers, “but it’s so subtle. It’s helped me just be more present. I feel like I’m able to enjoy the things that are happening right in front of me, even if it’s food or it’s coffee or it’s being with a friend—or a swim in a really cold pond!” Styles also feels that his meditation practices have helped him through the tumult of 2020: “Meditation just brings a stillness that has been really beneficial, I think, for my mental health.”
Styles has been a pescatarian for three years, inspired by the vegan food that several members of his current band prepared on tour. “My body definitely feels better for it,” he says. His shapely torso is prettily inscribed with the tattoos of a Victorian sailor—a rose, a galleon, a mermaid, an anchor, and a palm tree among them, and, straddling his clavicle, the dates 1967 and 1957 (the respective birth years of his mother and father). Frankly, I rather wish I’d packed a beach muumuu.
We take the piratical gangplank that juts into the water and dive in. Let me tell you, this is not the Aegean. The glacial water is a cloudy phlegm green beneath the surface, and clammy reeds slap one’s ankles. Styles, who admits he will try any fad, has recently had a couple of cryotherapy sessions and is evidently less susceptible to the cold. By the time we have swum a full circuit, however, body temperatures have adjusted, and the ice, you might say, has been broken. Duly invigorated, we are ready to face the day. Styles has thoughtfully brought a canister of coffee and some bottles of water in his backpack, and we sit at either end of a park bench for a socially distanced chat.
It seems that he has had a productive year. At the onset of lockdown, Styles found himself in his second home, in the canyons of Los Angeles. After a few days on his own, however, he moved in with a pod of three friends (and subsequently with two band members, Mitch Rowland and Sarah Jones). They “would put names in a hat and plan the week out,” Styles explains. “If you were Monday, you would choose the movie, dinner, and the activity for that day. I like to make soups, and there was a big array of movies; we went all over the board,” from Goodfellas to Clueless. The experience, says Styles, “has been a really good lesson in what makes me happy now. It’s such a good example of living in the moment. I honestly just like being around my friends,” he adds. “That’s been my biggest takeaway. Just being on my own the whole time, I would have been miserable.”
Styles is big on friendship groups and considers his former and legendarily hysteria-inducing boy band, One Direction, to have been one of them. “I think the typical thing is to come out of a band like that and almost feel like you have to apologize for being in it,” says Styles. “But I loved my time in it. It was all new to me, and I was trying to learn as much as I could. I wanted to soak it in…. I think that’s probably why I like traveling now—soaking stuff up.” In a post-COVID future, he is contemplating a temporary move to Tokyo, explaining that “there’s a respect and a stillness, a quietness that I really loved every time I’ve been there.”
In 1D, Styles was making music whenever he could. “After a show you’d go in a hotel room and put down some vocals,” he recalls. As a result, his first solo album, 2017’s Harry Styles, “was when I really fell in love with being in the studio,” he says. “I loved it as much as touring.” Today he favors isolating with his core group of collaborators, “our little bubble”—Rowland, Kid Harpoon (né Tom Hull), and Tyler Johnson. “A safe space,” as he describes it.
In the music he has been working on in 2020, Styles wants to capture the experimental spirit that informed his second album, last year’s Fine Line. With his debut album, “I was very much finding out what my sound was as a solo artist,” he says. “I can see all the places where it almost felt like I was bowling with the bumpers up. I think with the second album I let go of the fear of getting it wrong and…it was really joyous and really free. I think with music it’s so important to evolve—and that extends to clothes and videos and all that stuff. That’s why you look back at David Bowie with Ziggy Stardust or the Beatles and their different eras—that fearlessness is super inspiring.”
The seismic changes of 2020—including the Black Lives Matter uprising around racial justice—has also provided Styles with an opportunity for personal growth. “I think it’s a time for opening up and learning and listening,” he says. “I’ve been trying to read and educate myself so that in 20 years I’m still doing the right things and taking the right steps. I believe in karma, and I think it’s just a time right now where we could use a little more kindness and empathy and patience with people, be a little more prepared to listen and grow.”
Meanwhile, Styles’s euphoric single “Watermelon Sugar” became something of an escapist anthem for this dystopian summer of 2020. The video, featuring Styles (dressed in ’70s-flavored Gucci and Bode) cavorting with a pack of beach-babe girls and boys, was shot in January, before lockdown rules came into play. By the time it was ready to be released in May, a poignant epigraph had been added: “This video is dedicated to touching.”
Styles is looking forward to touring again, when “it’s safe for everyone,” because, as he notes, “being up against people is part of the whole thing. You can’t really re-create it in any way.” But it hasn’t always been so. Early in his career, Styles was so stricken with stage fright that he regularly threw up preperformance. “I just always thought I was going to mess up or something,” he remembers. “But I’ve felt really lucky to have a group of incredibly generous fans. They’re generous emotionally—and when they come to the show, they give so much that it creates this atmosphere that I’ve always found so loving and accepting.”
THIS SUMMER, when it was safe enough to travel, Styles returned to his London home, which is where he suggests we head now, setting off in his modish Primrose Yellow ’73 Jaguar that smells of gasoline and leatherette. “Me and my dad have always bonded over cars,” Styles explains. “I never thought I’d be someone who just went out for a leisurely drive, purely for enjoyment.” On sleepless jet-lagged nights he’ll drive through London’s quiet streets, seeing neighborhoods in a new way. “I find it quite relaxing,” he says.
Over the summer Styles took a road trip with his artist friend Tomo Campbell through France and Italy, setting off at four in the morning and spending the night in Geneva, where they jumped in the lake “to wake ourselves up.” (I see a pattern emerging.) At the end of the trip Styles drove home alone, accompanied by an upbeat playlist that included “Aretha Franklin, Parliament, and a lot of Stevie Wonder. It was really fun for me,” he says. “I don’t travel like that a lot. I’m usually in such a rush, but there was a stillness to it. I love the feeling of nobody knowing where I am, that kind of escape…and freedom.”
GROWING UP in a village in the North of England, Styles thought of London as a world apart: “It truly felt like a different country.” At a wide-eyed 16, he came down to the teeming metropolis after his mother entered him on the U.K. talent-search show The X Factor. “I went to the audition to find out if I could sing,” Styles recalls, “or if my mum was just being nice to me.” Styles was eliminated but subsequently brought back with other contestants—Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik—to form a boy band that was named (on Styles’s suggestion) One Direction. The wily X Factor creator and judge, Simon Cowell, soon signed them to his label Syco Records, and the rest is history: 1D’s first four albums, supported by four world tours from 2011 to 2015, debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard charts, and the band has sold 70 million records to date. At 18, Styles bought the London house he now calls home. “I was going to do two weeks’ work to it,” he remembers, “but when I came back there was no second floor,” so he moved in with adult friends who lived nearby till the renovation was complete. “Eighteen months,” he deadpans. “I’ve always seen that period as pretty pivotal for me, as there’s that moment at the party where it’s getting late, and half of the people would go upstairs to do drugs, and the other people go home. I was like, ‘I don’t really know this friend’s wife, so I’m not going to get all messy and then go home.’ I had to behave a bit, at a time where everything else about my life felt I didn’t have to behave really. I’ve been lucky to always feel I have this family unit somewhere.”
When Styles’s London renovation was finally done, “I went in for the first time and I cried,” he recalls. “Because I just felt like I had somewhere. L.A. feels like holiday, but this feels like home.”
Behind its pink door, Styles’s house has all the trappings of rock stardom—there’s a man cave filled with guitars, a Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks poster (a moving-in gift from his decorator), a Stevie Nicks album cover. Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” was one of the first songs he knew the words to—“My parents were big fans”—and he and Nicks have formed something of a mutual-admiration society. At the beginning of lockdown, Nicks tweeted to her fans that she was taking inspiration from Fine Line: “Way to go, H,” she wrote. “It is your Rumours.” “She’s always there for you,” said Styles when he inducted Nicks into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. “She knows what you need—advice, a little wisdom, a blouse, a shawl; she’s got you covered.”
Styles makes us some tea in the light-filled kitchen and then wanders into the convivial living room, where he strikes an insouciant pose on the chesterfield sofa, upholstered in a turquoise velvet that perhaps not entirely coincidentally sets off his eyes. Styles admits that his lockdown lewk was “sweatpants, constantly,” and he is relishing the opportunity to dress up again. He doesn’t have to wait long: The following day, under the eaves of a Victorian mansion in Notting Hill, I arrive in the middle of fittings for Vogue’s shoot and discover Styles in his Y-fronts, patiently waiting to try on looks for fashion editor Camilla Nickerson and photographer Tyler Mitchell. Styles’s personal stylist, Harry Lambert, wearing a pearl necklace and his nails colored in various shades of green varnish, à la Sally Bowles, is providing helpful backup (Britain’s Rule of Six hasn’t yet been imposed).
Styles, who has thoughtfully brought me a copy of de Botton’s 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness, is instinctively and almost quaintly polite, in an old-fashioned, holding-open-doors and not-mentioning-lovers-by-name sort of way. He is astounded to discover that the Atlanta-born Mitchell has yet to experience a traditional British Sunday roast dinner. Assuring him that “it’s basically like Thanksgiving every Sunday,” Styles gives Mitchell the details of his favorite London restaurants in which to enjoy one. “It’s a good thing to be nice,” Mitchell tells me after a morning in Styles’s company.
MITCHELL has Lionel Wendt’s languorously homoerotic 1930s portraits of young Sri Lankan men on his mood board. Nickerson is thinking of Irving Penn’s legendary fall 1950 Paris haute couture collections sitting, where he photographed midcentury supermodels, including his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, in high-style Dior and Balenciaga creations. Styles is up for all of it, and so, it would seem, is the menswear landscape of 2020: Jonathan Anderson has produced a trapeze coat anchored with a chunky gold martingale; John Galliano at Maison Margiela has fashioned a khaki trench with a portrait neckline in layers of colored tulle; and Harris Reed—a Saint Martins fashion student sleuthed by Lambert who ended up making some looks for Styles’s last tour—has spent a week making a broad-shouldered Smoking jacket with high-waisted, wide-leg pants that have become a Styles signature since he posed for Tim Walker for the cover of Fine Line wearing a Gucci pair—a silhouette that was repeated in the tour wardrobe. (“I liked the idea of having that uniform,” says Styles.) Reed’s version is worn with a hoopskirt draped in festoons of hot-pink satin that somehow suggests Deborah Kerr asking Yul Brynner’s King of Siam, “Shall we dance?”
Styles introduces me to the writer and eyewear designer Gemma Styles, “my sister from the same womb,” he says. She is also here for the fitting: The siblings plan to surprise their mother with the double portrait on these pages.
I ask her whether her brother had always been interested in clothes.
“My mum loved to dress us up,” she remembers. “I always hated it, and Harry was always quite into it. She did some really elaborate papier-mâché outfits: She made a giant mug and then painted an atlas on it, and that was Harry being ‘The World Cup.’ Harry also had a little dalmatian-dog outfit,” she adds, “a hand-me-down from our closest family friends. He would just spend an inordinate amount of time wearing that outfit. But then Mum dressed me up as Cruella de Vil. She was always looking for any opportunity!”
“As a kid I definitely liked fancy dress,” Styles says. There were school plays, the first of which cast him as Barney, a church mouse. “I was really young, and I wore tights for that,” he recalls. “I remember it was crazy to me that I was wearing a pair of tights. And that was maybe where it all kicked off!”
Acting has also remained a fundamental form of expression for Styles. His sister recalls that even on the eve of his life-changing X Factor audition, Styles could sing in public only in an assumed voice. “He used to do quite a good sort of Elvis warble,” she remembers. During the rehearsals in the family home, “he would sing in the bathroom because if it was him singing as himself, he just couldn’t have anyone looking at him! I love his voice now,” she adds. “I’m so glad that he makes music that I actually enjoy listening to.”
Styles’s role-playing continued soon after 1D went on permanent hiatus in 2016, and he was cast in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, beating out dozens of professional actors for the role. “The good part was my character was a young soldier who didn’t really know what he was doing,” says Styles modestly. “The scale of the movie was so big that I was a tiny piece of the puzzle. It was definitely humbling. I just loved being outside of my comfort zone.”
His performance caught the eye of Olivia Wilde, who remembers that it “blew me away—the openness and commitment.” In turn, Styles loved Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, and is “very honored” that she cast him in a leading role for her second feature, a thriller titled Don’t Worry Darling, which went into production this fall. Styles will play the husband to Florence Pugh in what Styles describes as “a 1950s utopia in the California desert.”
Wilde’s movie is costumed by Academy Award nominee Arianne Phillips. “She and I did a little victory dance when we heard that we officially had Harry in the film,” notes Wilde, “because we knew that he has a real appreciation for fashion and style. And this movie is incredibly stylistic. It’s very heightened and opulent, and I’m really grateful that he is so enthusiastic about that element of the process—some actors just don’t care.”
“I like playing dress-up in general,” Styles concurs, in a masterpiece of understatement: This is the man, after all, who cohosted the Met’s 2019 “Notes on Camp” gala attired in a nipple-freeing black organza blouse with a lace jabot, and pants so high-waisted that they cupped his pectorals. The ensemble, accessorized with the pearl-drop earring of a dandified Elizabethan courtier, was created for Styles by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, whom he befriended in 2014. Styles, who has subsequently personified the brand as the face of the Gucci fragrance, finds Michele “fearless with his work and his imagination. It’s really inspiring to be around someone who works like that.”
The two first met in London over a cappuccino. “It was just a kind of PR appointment,” says Michele, “but something magical happened, and Harry is now a friend. He has the aura of an English rock-and-roll star—like a young Greek god with the attitude of James Dean and a little bit of Mick Jagger—but no one is sweeter. He is the image of a new era, of the way that a man can look.”
Styles credits his style transformation—from Jack Wills tracksuit-clad boy-band heartthrob to nonpareil fashionisto—to his meeting the droll young stylist Harry Lambert seven years ago. They hit it off at once and have conspired ever since, enjoying a playfully campy rapport and calling each other Sue and Susan as they parse the niceties of the scarlet lace Gucci man-bra that Michele has made for Vogue’s shoot, for instance, or a pair of Bode pants hand-painted with biographical images (Styles sent Emily Adams Bode images of his family, and a photograph he had found of David Hockney and Joni Mitchell. “The idea of those two being friends, to me, was really beautiful,” Styles explains).
“He just has fun with clothing, and that’s kind of where I’ve got it from,” says Styles of Lambert. “He doesn’t take it too seriously, which means I don’t take it too seriously.” The process has been evolutionary. At his first meeting with Lambert, the stylist proposed “a pair of flares, and I was like, ‘Flares? That’s fucking crazy,’ ” Styles remembers. Now he declares that “you can never be overdressed. There’s no such thing. The people that I looked up to in music—Prince and David Bowie and Elvis and Freddie Mercury and Elton John—they’re such showmen. As a kid it was completely mind-blowing. Now I’ll put on something that feels really flamboyant, and I don’t feel crazy wearing it. I think if you get something that you feel amazing in, it’s like a superhero outfit. Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with. What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away. When you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play. I’ll go in shops sometimes, and I just find myself looking at the women’s clothes thinking they’re amazing. It’s like anything—anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself. There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never really thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something.”
“He’s up for it,” confirms Lambert, who earlier this year, for instance, found a JW Anderson cardigan with the look of a Rubik’s Cube (“on sale at matches.com!”). Styles wore it, accessorized with his own pearl necklace, for a Today rehearsal in February and it went viral: His fans were soon knitting their own versions and posting the results on TikTok. Jonathan Anderson declared himself “so impressed and incredibly humbled by this trend” that he nimbly made the pattern available (complete with a YouTube tutorial) so that Styles’s fans could copy it for free. Meanwhile, London’s storied Victoria & Albert Museum has requested Styles’s original: an emblematic document of how people got creative during the COVID era. “It’s going to be in their permanent collection,” says Lambert exultantly. “Is that not sick? Is that not the most epic thing?”
“To me, he’s very modern,” says Wilde of Styles, “and I hope that this brand of confidence as a male that Harry has—truly devoid of any traces of toxic masculinity—is indicative of his generation and therefore the future of the world. I think he is in many ways championing that, spearheading that. It’s pretty powerful and kind of extraordinary to see someone in his position redefining what it can mean to be a man with confidence.”
“He’s really in touch with his feminine side because it’s something natural,” notes Michele. “And he’s a big inspiration to a younger generation—about how you can be in a totally free playground when you feel comfortable. I think that he’s a revolutionary.”
STYLES’S confidence is on full display the day after the fitting, which finds us all on the beautiful Sussex dales. Over the summit of the hill, with its trees blown horizontal by the fierce winds, lies the English Channel. Even though it’s a two-hour drive from London, the fresh-faced Styles, who went to bed at 9 p.m., has arrived on set early: He is famously early for everything. The team is installed in a traditional flint-stone barn. The giant doors have been replaced by glass and frame a bucolic view of distant grazing sheep. “Look at that field!” says Styles. “How lucky are we? This is our office! Smell the roses!” Lambert starts to sing “Kumbaya, my Lord.”
Hairdresser Malcolm Edwards is setting Styles’s hair in a Victory roll with silver clips, and until it is combed out he resembles Kathryn Grayson with stubble. His fingers are freighted with rings, and “he has a new army of mini purses,” says Lambert, gesturing to an accessory table heaving with examples including a mini sky-blue Gucci Jackie bag discreetly monogrammed HS. Michele has also made Styles a dress for the shoot that Tissot might have liked to paint—acres of ice-blue ruffles, black Valenciennes lace, and suivez-moi, jeune homme ribbons. Erelong, Styles is gamely racing up a hill in it, dodging sheep scat, thistles, and shards of chalk, and striking a pose for Mitchell that manages to make ruffles a compelling new masculine proposition, just as Mr. Fish’s frothy white cotton dress—equal parts Romantic poet and Greek presidential guard—did for Mick Jagger when he wore it for The Rolling Stones’ free performance in Hyde Park in 1969, or as the suburban-mom floral housedress did for Kurt Cobain as he defined the iconoclastic grunge aesthetic. Styles is mischievously singing ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” to himself when Mitchell calls him outside to jump up and down on a trampoline in a Comme des Garçons buttoned wool kilt. “How did it look?” asks his sister when he comes in from the cold. “Divine,” says her brother in playful Lambert-speak.
As the wide sky is washed in pink, orange, and gray, like a Turner sunset, and Mitchell calls it a successful day, Styles is playing “Cherry” from Fine Line on his Fender acoustic on the hilltop. “He does his own stunts,” says his sister, laughing. The impromptu set is greeted with applause. “Thank you, Antwerp!” says Styles playfully, bowing to the crowd. “Thank you, fashion!”
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Watch Harry Styles Sing an Acoustic Rendition of “Cherry” in Vogue’s Cover Video: