Hot, charming and a (very) nice guy — how Harry Styles became a modern male icon

·7-min read
 (ES composite)
(ES composite)

It takes something truly arresting to stop the flick of one’s thumb while scrolling through social media nowadays. So used are we to the deceptive blizzard of hyper-curated mirror selfies and tablescaped interiors that only something truly discombobulating — such a solitary egg against a white background, still the most popular Instagram post of all time with a cool 55 million likes — has us pause in soporific appreciation.

Yet last Monday, a 27-year-old man with a patchy beard and great abs, straddling a midnight black vintage BMW R75/5 motorbike did for me (and over five million others in under 24 hours) what thousands of memes failed to do. It got my undivided attention.

The man in question was, of course, pop’s very own Peter Pan — Harry Styles, captured for the continually juvenile style bible Dazed (that’s meant entirely as a compliment) by the photographer Rafael Pavarotti and styled by the tile’s vanguard editor in chief Ibrahim Kamara.

Styles straddles the motor in a pair of iridescent, well-starched, violet flared trousers, while Steve McQueen’s Papillon butterfly tattoo on his chest peaks out of a black vest that looks like one of Hulk’s shredded cast-offs. It’s very contemporary, very now; and that’s to say it’s uninhibited and unphased by its klaxon-loud nostalgic references.

Imagine if Prince (Purple Rain era, minus the frilly shirts) was cast in The Great Escape and you’re mostly there. It’s sexy, sure, but tender, authentic and unthreatening; precisely what a global pop star needs to be at the chaotic, nerve-shredded, dusty end of 2021.

Look, let’s face it: the time of the alpha male is over. Pete Doherty has long been lost to whichever boulangerie he now lives in, and the less said about Johnny Depp, the better. Long live the kind, charming, carbon footprint-conscious beta boy; gone is the appeal of the stroppy, dangerous, potty-mouthed, weed-smoking bad boy. Nowadays safe, inclusive, fully woke sex appeal sells: it’s no accident that comedic actor Paul Rudd was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive this week. Being nice is suddenly super hot.

Styles gets this unequivocally. And I dare say his inner circle, stylist Harry Lambert (the man behind Styles’s radical style evolution) and management do too.

 (Dazed Magazine)
(Dazed Magazine)

The Dazed cover is a brilliant image of Styles — one of the best, in fact — and I’ve worked in magazines for over two decades. But let’s not forget, we’re being sold something. This is promo time and he’s here to announce the launch of Pleasing, an umbrella company whose first products will include gender fluid lip gloss and non-binary concealer.

Styles tells us there is going to be much more from Pleasing than just product: it started with nail polish as this was what inspired the project for him and his creative director Molly Hawkins during the pandemic. But, “the essence of Pleasing,” he says, “is finding those little moments of joy and showing them to people.” Which could mean we can expect anything from a Korean face mask to a sex toy next.

Beauty lines are big business — Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty is worth $2.8 billion and Lady Gaga’s Haus Labs is one of the most successful celebrity beauty lines in the world. Styles is adamant, however, he wants to build a platform for empathy and learning. He goes on: “I think the true DNA of Pleasing is about working with talented people who might not necessarily have the light shone on them and collaborating.” If he needs to shift a few bottles of salmon-hued nail varnish to achieve this, who are we to stop him?

Nils Leonard, the founder of Uncommon Creative Studio — an ad agency with purpose, based in London, which has worked with everyone from H&M to Google — underlines Styles’s commercial appeal both to brands and fan alike: “In the brand salad of celebrity-founded businesses, authenticity is fast becoming the magic ingredient. The world doesn’t need another mezcal built for Instagram, it needs brands that perhaps leave the world better than they found it. Harry gets this, and Pleasing is a natural and delicately-landed extension of his voice into a world he is clearly interested in. Although his entry into beauty may feel predictable, it also feels very him — leveraging the most unexpected brand value of all, kindness.”

 (Dazed Magazine)
(Dazed Magazine)

Styles is authentically one of the good guys. I’ve met him. His charm, sense of wonder and his intent for goodliness is real, much like his desire to be one of one. I guess that’s what happens when you’re one of five in the biggest band in the world; you’ll do all you can, for the rest of your life, to be unique, whichever room or spotlight you find yourself walking into next. The shoe — with heel or without — fits.

In this post-pandemic world where the next lockdown is but a microscopic change in Covid’s spike protein away, and the true extent of the sexual abuse of women has been made shockingly visible, the men held up and celebrated need less hubris and more humanity. Give me men fuelled on empathy rather than cocky, teeth-grinding adrenaline.

In this context it perhaps sounds flippant to praise Styles as the role model and image of new masculinity the world needs. But I’ll take his supercharged tenderness, his soft masculinity, over old school, tough guy toxicity any day.

 (Dazed Magazine)
(Dazed Magazine)

As Leonard expands: “Many bemoan the arrival of yet another celeb-backed brand but Harry and his new venture feels like it has a story outside of sales. With any new brand the oldest question still applies, ‘why did you make this?’ Pleasing at its simplest is another way to bring Harry’s brand of gentle power to the masses.”

The rise of Harry Styles as both a thoroughly contemporary role model and as a shape-shifting style icon is a spell-binding one; he’s a bellwether for the softening of traditional masculinity, both now and in the future.

Going through the rest of the Dazed shoot, with Styles in kitten heels and Jean Paul Gaultier dresses, it is clear he is just getting into his stride with his non-binary approach to style. Wearing a dress on the cover of US Vogue last September was just the start of his fluid experimentation, one feels; he is clearly enjoying it.

So what of the criticisms made by American actor Billy Porter, who initially took a pop at Styles for wearing a dress on a magazine cover. Teo van den Broeke, style and grooming director of British GQ, feels we should cut the young star some slack. “It’s a little unfair. Harry Styles is a pop star, after all. He’s doing what he can within the bounds of his own lived experience and I think he should be applauded.” But Van den Broeke does wonder how original Styles’ peacocking is. “I celebrate what Harry Styles is doing, truly — he’s making it okay for regular blokes to experiment — but somehow I don’t think it feels quite as fresh as when Bowie was at his peak.”

A case of the emperor of pop’s new clothes? For me, there’s still a newness to Styles’ creative and commercial agendas. Styles dresses as he does because, sure, he’s a pop star and there is a long lineage of those musicians who have enjoyed playing with gender via make up and fashion, but he also knows that this fluidity is more representative of the world than ever before.

His is an ego devoid of arrogance. Partly because that’s just his style, and partly because he knows this won’t rub with his audience, his ‘community’. He doesn’t so much want to be a rebel as a reflection of the universe he sings to every night on tour. A sea of weeping, beaming, faces, as he kills them with kindness.

It’s Harry’s world alright. We just live - and now shop - in it.

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