That at 22, Justin Bieber is the center of polemic debates about his style is something of a surprise. He’s not revealing giant swaths of skin, donning outrageous meat-covered coats, or even flaunting particularly controversial slogans across his shirts. Instead, he has a penchant for tees that nearly scrape his knees, exaggerated layering, and skater boy clothes — not exactly tabloid fodder.
Yet even so, he’s drawn considerable attention (and backlash) for more recent looks, like the Nirvana band T-shirt by L.A. brand Fear of God that he wore to the American Music Awards late last year. Critics were scathing: the reigning prince of pop dares to be associated with the storied grunge band?
Longtime stylist Karla Welch, who first signed on to work with Bieber on his Believe Tour in 2012, has an explanation for all the hoopla: It’s a testament to the singer’s growing style influence. “He’s been pushing men’s fashion for the last five years,” she says. “If you look at the beginning of the Believe Tour, he was getting heat for the drop-crotch pants and super long T-shirts. But now, if you go to any menswear store, you see those styles reflected.” Much like Bieber, Welch doesn’t “care about negative feedback,” she says. “Haters gonna hate.”
Despite the Nirvana controversy, Welch went back to Fear of God and worked with the designer Jerry Lorenzo on five looks for Bieber’s current Purpose Tour, which kicked off Wednesday night (March 9) in Seattle. “We have been buying [Jerry’s] stuff for the last two years; it’s been a very fun process working [together],” Welch says of the custom-made denim and tees. Interspersed will be Raf Simons pieces (“Justin has been very into Raf lately”), Adidas shoes, and some custom-made Bieber staples, like thigh-skimming T-shirts for layering. “I could see the looks changing from concert to concert with the way Justin chooses to style them,” Welch adds.
Though certain technical adjustments have been made to the tour wardrobe, including zippers, gussets and reinforcements for quick changes (he has less than one minute to change backstage), the look is not so different than what the singer sports regularly on Instagram. “It’s more street grunge with a very vintage skater feel,” Welch describes. “I was living in Vancouver during the grunge era — I used to go down to Seattle to watch Pearl Jam play — and I always loved how those stoner boys looked. That’s what we started doing with the Purpose videos and now with the tour. It’s very undone.” The show’s backup dancers, who channel a similarly relaxed aesthetic, are outfitted in apparel by Calvin Klein, with whom Bieber has an ongoing campaign deal with.
Raised in Powell River, British Columbia, Canadian heritage has been an asset for Welch from the start. “We just met and clicked,” the stylist says of Bieber, who grew up in Stratford, Ontario. “Canadians inherently love Canadians; that’s always been a bond. Canadians are super nationalists,” she adds, chuckling.
Though Welch is normally tending to the red-carpet wardrobes of universally adored actresses like Amy Poehler and Olivia Wilde, she says there were no hesitations about taking on a more controversial pop star as a client. “If you listen to everything the press has to say, you’re losing at life,” she says, noting that now more than ever the two have a “100 percent collaborative” relationship. “Justin enjoys the process.”
Along with Raf Simons and Fear of God, the brands he currently digs include Rick Owens, Saint Laurent, the L.A. label Amiri and skate brands like Supreme and Vans. The two stay in touch about the things that are catching his eye — he might email her about a cool London T-shirt brand he just discovered and she might convince him to clean up in a sleek designer suit, like the Saint Laurent one he wore for the recent Grammy Awards. Says Welch: “His approach to fashion has evolved the way his music has evolved: The approach is more chill, but he does take super fun risks.”