Be it Lanvin pinstripes, an Elvis suit or a '50s Jamaican "rude boy" jacket, Ben Harper blurs sartorial boundaries with the same offhand flair he brings to music. The Claremont native moves easily from blues-rock with his band the Innocent Criminals to reggae to gospel with a recent project with the Blind Boys of Alabama. (This year the protean stylist bagged one Grammy for pop instrumentals and another for soul gospel.) Harper, 35, lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, actress Laura Dern, and his four children and also owns Folk Music Center, the beloved world-instrument store founded by his late grandfather in Claremont, where Harper got a head start on eclecticism in his pre-fame years. As a born-again popinjay who got the clothes bug about 10 years ago, Harper stays true to his mix-it-up credo: Whether ordering a custom suit in Paris or prowling L.A.'s vintage stores, this boundary-crosser demonstrates that style requires not a hefty pocketbook, but simply the willingness to assert one's uniqueness.
Is a clotheshorse born or made?
I think you become one, but you do have to have a knack. When you grow into it, you usually find that it's in your background. I was a thrift-store hound. You can be a thrift clotheshorse with taste. My grandfather was heavy into clothes, my grandmother, my mom, so it's a little of both.
Was there an epiphany that got you interested in clothes?
Your fashion is often defined by your surroundings. I started being around people who were stylists, or closet stylists, around 1994. You have a moment where you realize it's just completely unfair to let the girls have all the fun.
What do you think of the notion that real men don't care about their appearance?
I think that's from a bygone era. The attention to detail young people put into their fashion [now] . . . I see some of these punk-rock kids on Hollywood Boulevard, and I don't know if they're rich, poor or indifferent, but man, the time they're putting into their piercings, their mohawks, and into their boots and the tears in their pants.
Where do you stand on the metrosexual phenomenon?
Come again? Rephrase that for me. I don't know what that is.
A "metrosexual" is a straight guy with the stereotypical tastes of a gay man. He gets interested in interior design, fashion, grooming, and in cocktails instead of a six-pack.
I didn't know it wasn't masculine to be into that kind of stuff. About the time I got into fashion, I was traveling. When you walk around Europe, the men are dressed and their apartments are thought out, tastefully done. And they've been in the French Foreign Legion and, like, killed 40 or 50 people. They don't have the fashion-equals-gay-male stigma. That's a strictly American stereotype.
Who are your style icons?
The pillars for me are Run-DMC, Jam Master Jay and Gram Parsons. The rodeo tailor Nudie Cohen in North Hollywood defined rock 'n' roll style. He made Elvis' gold lame suit. Western moved from cowboy boots and shirts to what became the Nudie Cohen style. Gram Parsons is like the signpost for that style. Gram was waving the Nudie flag longer and louder than anyone. And then Run-DMC and Jam Master Jay with their Borsalino hats, and the leather three-button blazers with the sneakers and the denim. That crossed over from Jamaica to Brooklyn. Jamaican "rude boy" style from the 1950s is a huge influence.
How big is your wardrobe?
I've lost track. Just T-shirts alone are a closet. I mean, it's immense.
What's your biggest splurge?
Custom suits to your exact specifications. Lanvin [in] Paris. Etro. And Jaime Castaneda [of Jaime Custom Tailoring] in North Hollywood. He worked for Nudie Cohen, and he's still doing the original Nudie [style].
Do you spend a lot on suits?
I'm over the top. I'll admit it. But I'll go into a thrift store and find the perfect burgundy velvet double-breasted jacket. So that dramatically lowers my average on expensive suits.
Do women go for a sharp-dressed man, as ZZ Top put it?
If a woman doesn't think a guy's cute and he comes on to her, he's a cad. [But] if she likes his vibe and he comes on to her, then he's got great one-liners. That's a bigger conversation. I think [most] women dig guys who pay attention to fashion detail. Johnny Depp is great. That guy's got incredible attention to detail.
Do you think the average Angeleno puts much effort into fashion?
Does the average person have time in their busy lives to care about fashion? Fashion is a byproduct of having time--and money to a degree. I saw a great interview with Kurt Cobain, who was like, "Man, when I didn't have any money I used to relish going into the thrift stores and finding that $10 cashmere sweater." So I'm not saying you have to have money to be stylish. But you have to have time, and you have to care.
Is style more important for performers?
If you're a public figure of any stature in any arena, it's totally irresponsible to dress poorly. Look, every picture I've ever seen of Kurt Cobain, the guy is so styled out and looks so perfect. His cashmere sweaters fall in the perfect spot. His jeans come down perfect. He paid attention to detail. It doesn't have to be extravagant, it just has to fall correctly. Especially in the arts. There's no more pitiful sight than a poorly dressed rocker.
Is dressing a form of self-expression?
We're the only bird that can change its feathers daily. That's to be taken full advantage of.