Without fail, the very first thing you’ll notice when you meet Tan France is his gravity-bending, strand-perfect hair. I do not use the descriptor, “stand-perfect” lightly. Honestly: this is Disney-Prince-Level styling mastery, a brilliant cacophony of genetics, product, blow dryer and shape. (France recently started a YouTube channel, and quickly gave into demand for an unedited, step-by-step hair styling tutorial.)
The past 18 months – and the runaway success of his Netflix show – have seen the 36-year-old British-Pakistani transition from fashion designer and entrepreneur, to full-blown man of the moment: as likely to be spotted in a Taylor Swift video or walking an Emmy red carpet as he is in your Netflix queue.
France’s role is as fashion expert, tasked with taking everyday folks from across middle and rural America, and gently persuading them to transform their personal style to something sleeker, chicer and altogether more congruent.
He’s become something of a cult figure – celebrated, championed and referenced by a litany of stars from Oprah to the Hadids to Pete Davidson. Maybe chalk that up to him being a calming, witty foil to the chaos of the reality show. That his stature has grown to such a global magnitude still feels somewhat intimidating to the man who, by nature, is more discreet and understated than your average star.
Jacket, cape, trousers, prices on request, Dries Van Noten. Turtleneck, $1250, Bottega Veneta. Shoes, $950, Prada
“It is very anxiety-inducing to know that people are looking to you as a role model, whether you like it or not. I always used to say when I was interviewed within the first few weeks of the show coming out, ‘No, I’m not a role model – I never professed to be. Don’t live your life the way I live my life, that’s not what I’m suggesting.’ But whether you like it or not, you are seen as a role model if you are on a show that represents a certain community that are underrepresented,” he says.
Fame is still taking a little adjustment for France, who, when not engaged on a frequent-flyer production schedule from Atlanta to Tokyo to Sydney, lives with his partner in a quiet pocket of Utah. (He’s not had a full week-off since December, last year.)
Coat, $3880, Bottega Veneta. Turtleneck, $2300, Hermès. Trousers, $900, Lanvin. Shoes, $1360, Balenciaga
“I would like to believe I’m a very nice, kind person and I’ve built my whole life on that. I like to treat people well. However, I’ve always said ‘Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness,’” he laughs.
The intimacy of modern celebrity and the always-on access of social media has seen him put in increasingly absurd encounters with fans who, while emotionally moved from the feel-good factor of the Netflix series, have a trickier time acknowledging boundaries.
“The hard thing is, when you’re on a show of this scale you have to be Mr Nice Guy all the time. You don’t get to say, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m currently squatting on this Smith Machine…maybe let’s not take a selfie right now?’ Or, ‘I’m literally at the urinal – would you mind if we didn’t take a video?’ It’s really hard to be Mr Nice Guy at those times.”
Wait. What? Urinal?
“Someone followed me in and said, ‘I know this is super weird but it might be my only chance, can I take a video for my girlfriend real quick?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t do this. I’m really sorry, I can’t do this – I need you to wait outside.’”
Sweater, price on request, Ermenegildo Zegna. Sweater (Under), $780, Lanvin
Yikes. But, for all the love (and excessive fandom), it’s crucial to understand that France is far more than an affable guy with a sweet quiff. He’s every part the expert that Netflix has billed him as. He went from a skinny, brown, Muslim boy in the British north, exploring his grandfather’s denim factory, to founding and selling a series of fashion and retail businesses. The style credentials are bonafide. The man is not a one-trick (that being a French Tuck) pony. Case in point: the day I met France, about two years ago, he was mid-way through a shoot day, and casually pointed at me, a solid 20 meters away, and successfully identified the designer of my (kind of non-descript) field jacket. It was a sartorial Jedi flex: a kind of statement of intent that stuck with me.
But the thing that makes France so special is that he combines this expertise with a sensibility that’s totally unpretentious. In an industry that’s forever had gatekeepers, France doesn’t bother with hard rules or an upturned nose. No, he’s just as likely to recommend Miansai as he is Cartier. He’s far more likely to champion a thrifted party outfit as he is a stylist-prescribed red carpet ensemble.
Jacket, sweater, prices on request, Versace. Trousers, price on request, Acne Studios
“It would be very easy for me to look at people like the Timothée Chalamets – who look incredible, don’t get me wrong – but that’s a stylist at work. That’s somebody who’s planning that whole look for them,” says France. “I’m more inspired by the people in the street who are doing it for themselves, who have to cobble dollars together to make sure they stand out from the crowd. That’s always been a lot more fascinating to me.”
And really, the same authenticity that France brings to his approach to fashion, carries through to the rest of his life. He tackles modern life with an attitude that’s as polite and gentlemanly as it is blunt.
Case in point: In an era where inclusivity and diversity are screamed about loudly from the rooftops of our digital lives, France has been slower and more thoughtful about the way he wanted to use his platform. Frankly, he wanted to speak up in a way that felt true to himself.
“Things are moving so fast, and because I’m so new to this, I am happy to just take my time. I used to feel a pressure because people kept talking about, ‘Using your platform, using your platform, using your voice in a position of power.’ But you do start to get panicky thinking, ‘Oh s***, people are expecting something from me and I really should speak up.’ But I’m so glad I took my time,” he explains.
Blazer, shirt, trousers, prices on request, Dior
France recently launched @shaded – a platform to champion and normalise people of all skin tones.
“I allow my visibility on the [Netflix] show to do the talking for me – but I’m more vocal about injustices shown when it comes to South Asian people, or people of colour in show business,” he says. “I’ve made a decision to try to pursue shows that are pushing the South Asian narrative and champion South Asian people or Muslims, or people who were raised Muslim. I just want to change the perception of my people and so I’ve been a lot more vocal about it, and will continue to be – even though I know some people want me to shut up.”
And what does an award like this – and a cover like this – mean to France, along that journey? Plenty.
“If you had told me even a year and a half ago when this show had just gone on that I would be in a position where any publication would have considered me one of any men of any year, I would’ve told you that you’re out of your mind. Because, what I represented up until this point was something to be fearful of, and something to turn away from. It feels very peculiar but wonderful to live in a world where things are shifting enough, and we’re on the right side of history. The side where the things that I represent are actually working for me, as opposed to against me.”
Words: Adam Baidawi
Photographer: David Urbanke
Stylist: Anatolli Smith
Hair: Milciades Manny Rolon using Oribe
Make-up: Markphong using Fresh Beauty
Production: Emily Strange