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Zayn and One Direction are a fever dream created in what we can only imagine is the hellscape of Simon Cowell’s mind. Each member auditioned separately for Britain's The X Factor. None made it through the competition as a solo artist, but together they made it to third place and captured the attention of an infatuated British public. The very first single from their very first studio album, Up All Night, is a song that anyone who has ever listened to the radio can sing along to, "What Makes You Beautiful."
As The Atlantic notes, there were skeptics from the get-go. In early interviews the band is forced to ponder how they can keep the hype going. But the band was always propelled by the force of social media, as if American Idol voters never stopped texting in their votes. The Atlantic called One Direction "the only truly dominant millennial boy band," and it’s all because they were one of the first groups to really harness the power of the Internet — of the Directioners. And that’s why Zayn is poised for success. No matter what, he’ll probably always have a dedicated army of fans even if he was never that zealous about the band.
Zayn was always most likely to follow the old Yoga Berri adage: if there’s a fork in the road, take it. From a young age, Zayn was influenced by the kind of music that he didn’t get to make in One Direction. His dad put him onto music from R. Kelly, Usher, Prince, and 2Pac. And his desire to make music outside the group was with him even when they were still a group. He told The Fader he spent many off nights penning music that he knew would never jive with what One Direction was doing. "That was my therapy, like outside of the band," he said.
Zayn was also the only person in the band who wasn’t white. He’s one of the biggest Muslim superstars in America and Britain. He received death threats after tweeting #FreePalestine and rightwing critics chalked his presence in the band up to tokenism. Blogger Debbie Schlussel claimed he was only put in the band because "Islam sells in Britain." With nut jobs like that around, it’s hard not to blame Zayn for wanting to jump off that platform.
To that end, he’s checked every box a former boy band member needs to in order to give his image a fashion makeover: model girlfriend, haircuts that appear to be administered by Brooklyn’s most on-trend salon, a wardrobe that’s the envy of every Hypebeast across the globe, and, of course, a presence on the #FROW. "Zayn's definitely done some style rebranding," The Verge’s social media manager and 1D superfan Kaitlyn Tiffany tells Racked. "He is leaning hard on associating himself with American hip hop and R&B — very Timberland, sherpa denim jackets, the Miguel haircut."
Men’s fashion week in Paris happened just two months after Zayn officially left the band and the event served as a coming out party for the newly solo artist. It was also around when Zayn started working with a new stylist (He's also worked with former One Direction stylist Caroline Watson). He signed on with Jason Rembert, who has worked with celebs like Rita Ora and Ciara. Most memorably, Zayn attended the Louis Vuitton show with his bleached blonde hair and gave us the incredible "SQUAD" photo with fellow former boy bander Joe Jonas and a smiling Kanye West. Sitting front row next to Kanye gives Zayn instant cred among the fuccbois of the world. It’s also worth mentioning his navy silk jacket looks awfully similar to the souvenir jackets every trend-following dude in the world is currently rocking (we’re looking at you, Bieber).
"Obviously fashion, first and foremost, is the way to rebrand ourselves," Kat Typaldos, a stylist who works with a wide portfolio of musicians that includes Alicia Keys, Chairlift, and Tanlines, tells Racked. "Fashion is a way to reconfigure [a brand] so people understand that [Zayn is] in a new phase of his identity." Typaldos adds that this is of particular importance to musicians who can use what they wear to express the type of music they make. "He's entered a new chapter," she says. "And how do you set yourself apart? You have this visual vocabulary to say I don't want to be associated maybe with this mass-market boy band. And bad-boy imagery has heavily been associated with tattoos or the rocker hair or an attitude. So it's taking and using these cues that are built into our collective cultural vocabulary that we all know."
Zayn's addiction to clippers has also garnered Zayn plenty of press. The "battle of the haircuts" waged by Jonas and Zayn feels like the most masterfully orchestrated non-Kanye PR stunt of the year. First, Joe copied Zayn’s blonde ‘do, then Zayn was after Joe’s pink mane. Finally, after years of standing behind the curtains of Harry Styles’ lustrous locks, Zayn’s hair is causing all the fanfare. The former boybander alsor evealed to Complex that he wasn’t even allowed to have a beard when he was part of One Direction. "It's probably an easy aesthetic change to make that will handily associate him with the kind of music he wants to be a part of," Tiffany says.
The hair was certainly a symbolic way to shed himself from the image he had when he was in the band. We can’t help but wonder if he also learned a thing or two from Britney Spears after feeling like he was not a boy, not yet a man. "It's corny as hell, but fashion and style is a way of expressing yourself," Typaldos says.
His very public relationship with Gigi Hadid was another massive change Zayn made post-1D. During his time with the boy band, Zayn maintained a relationship with his former fiancé Perrie Edwards. Months after leaving the band, his representation confirmed that Zayn and Edwards’ relationship was over. Fast forward a couple months more and you have Zayn and Hadid sucking face in his video for "Pillowtalk." If you’re suddenly going to get into fashion, shacking up with one of the industry’s most buzzed about figures certainly doesn’t hurt.
Zayn’s inroads into fashion have also served as a very visible way for him to contrast himself against former band mate Styles. While Styles flaunts in floral Gucci suits that would scare off most men, Zayn has embraced today’s trendiest fashions. You can find him in slashed and distressed jeans, sleek minimalist coats, full monochromatic black outfits, and hoodies from popular streetwear brand Billionaire Boys Club. It smacks of the same type of fashion transformation that Bieber recently made, the kind that says, "I dress like you, it’s okay to like me!"
Fashion has never been more popular among men — recent studies show that guys have overtaken women when it comes to spending time and money on clothes. Zayn is positioning himself as part of the zeitgeist in this way. Because even if his music falls off — and from the first singles he’s released, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to — he can be one of the dozens of celebrities that sustain themselves merely off the merit of dressing well.
Zayn is letting what he claims are his personal interests shine in hopes of carving out territory in this crowded pop landscape. He’s a grown up man who wants to show you, through his clothing, that he’s really different now. Every boy band member has to go through this transition, from child star to regular star. Justin Timberlake navigated these waters by introducing us to a new sexy sound. Bieber’s successfully used fashion and stylish merch to reinvent himself. There’s two successfully forged roads, Zayn. Take ‘em.