How Jared Leto became a style icon

The most fashion-forward man of 2016 tells EDGAR why he believes clothes should be fun.

Robert Chilton October 3, 2016

“It’s a fun thing to get all dolled up,” says Jared Leto with a smile. The key word here is fun. Velour blazers, beaded multi-coloured jackets, lumberjack boots, velvet slippers, and turquoise bomber jackets with embroidered dragons have all been worn by the actor in recent months on his rise to the top of the style league.

Men such as Ryan Gosling, Eddie Redmayne, Robert Downey Jr, Idris Elba and Tom Hiddleston may be well-dressed, but nobody takes risks like Leto.

In 2014 he was held up as the poster boy for a new fashion trend: the lumbersexual, a cross between metrosexual and rugged tough guy. He cut his long hair in March 2015, sparking a period of mourning among fans, but instantly reinventing his look.

In 2012, however, came a fashion low point as Leto was photographed wearing silver Crocs on, of all places, the front row of a fashion show. We’re not convinced either by Leto’s own range of fanny packs, or as he calls them ‘hip packs.’ But we digress.

Women’s fashion website wrote of Leto recently, “To us, he's nothing short of a style icon. The fact that he’s a man has absolutely nothing to do with our obsession with him and our lust for his entire wardrobe.” 

The driving force behind Leto’s sudden surge to style icon in 2016 is his relationship with Gucci, the menswear label of the moment and one man in particular: Alessandro Michele. Taking up his post in January 2015, Gucci’s creative director for menswear and womenswear has shaken the fashion industry to its foundations with a riot of patterns, stripes, flower motifs, bold colours, and dazzling embroidery. 

“Alessandro has made it fun for men to wear clothes again,” Leto tells EDGAR. “I mean he really celebrates fashion in a way that other people haven’t. I said that he makes it as fun for a man to wear clothes as it may be for women and that’s a difficult thing to do.”

Striking up a bond with Leto – as well as Ryan Gosling – was a smart move for Michele as Leto’s theatrical presence matches Gucci’s outlook. EDGAR asked Leto what he thought when he first met Michele.

“The first conversations with Alessandro were actually here, here in L.A. and they were great,” explained the star of the summer’s box office hit Suicide Squad. “I was curious to meet him. I’m always interested to meet fellow artists.  And I think that we made a pretty strong connection. I think that we have, you know, some similarities, being people that have kind of wandered along our own paths and maybe made unexpected choices.” 

A highly creative person, Leto went to art school before launching his screen career. He studied painting at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., enrolled at Philadelphia University of the Arts and later at the School of Visual Arts in New York. But he packed his paintbrushes away in 1994 when, aged 22, he landed a part in cult TV show My So-Called Life opposite Claire Danes. Speaking of his early years, Leto said, “Creativity was always a way of life. It was never a job. Being an artist was a passion and a way of life.”

With such a keen interest in art, it’s no surprise that Michele’s work at Gucci caught Leto’s eye. “I knew a bit about him. I knew a bit about what he was doing and how he was reimagining Gucci and bringing an entirely new perspective to the company. I really appreciated what he had been doing. And I thought that was really powerful. It was powerful enough that I had noticed it, and I'm not Mr Fashion, you know.”

As well as wearing Gucci at fashion and film events around the world, Leto, 44, has also been chosen to front the brand’s new men’s fragrance Guilty, starring in a video and photographic campaign that was shot in Venice. Does he enjoy photo shoots? “If they’re with the right people, yeah, that can be really interesting and fun and creative,” he says. “Just like anything else, if you’re out and working with the greatest it really inspires you – it can be magic.” 

Seen on screen

Perhaps the only guy out there right now who can rival Leto visually is not even real: The Joker. Leto’s performance as the flamboyant maniac in the dark comic book carnival has thrilled and terrified audiences in equal measure.

Leto met with patients “who had committed horrendous crimes” and psychiatrists to help him form the character. Leto told Total Film magazine, “I knew I was going to have to dive deep and go to a place I had never gone before.” 

Suicide Squad was a rare chance to see Leto on screen. His previous movie Dallas Buyer’s Club was released in 2013. Before that he’d been absent from cinemas for six years, instead touring relentlessly with 30 Seconds to Mars, a band he began in 1998 with bandmates Tomo Miličević and Shannon Leto, his older brother.

A first album was released in 2002, since when they have shifted more than ten million records and played all over the globe including Abu Dhabi in 2011 and Dubai in September 2015. The band’s over-the-top stage shows and Leto’s bizarre costumes are further proof of his wild creativity. Coupled with songs that are filled with grand ideas, and it’s an approach that has grated with some.

“We took a lot of hits for many years, and still do,” shrugs Leto. “We have a certain element of theatricality. It’s definitely more art rock than it is punk rock. We like to explore ideas and not to be constrained by what we think is cool or not cool. I’ve always been an artist interested in creativity and doing something that I was proud of and, you know, taking on challenging projects and pushing myself to the limit.” 

Breaking the rules

Non-conformity has been a consistent theme during Leto’s life. Born in Louisiana, he criss-crossed America with his brother Shannon and his mother Constance who he describes as “a bit of a free spirit”. Leto’s father committed suicide when he was eight.

Leto told The Sunday Times, “In those early days, we moved around a lot. It was nothing new to wake up in the car and find we were on the road again. Mom got odd jobs. She loved art so, from the start, many of her friends were artists, photographers, actors and musicians. We’d live in communes and watch them paint, print, make pots, and often join in.”

His teens were turbulent. “I was in trouble quite a bit with the authorities, any person who made rules or the law,” he told The Big Issue in 2013. “I dropped out of school. I think we’re all dealt a set of challenges in our lives and we all deal with them in different ways. When you’re younger you don’t have the tools, you just don’t know how to cope with those challenges.” 

Art school focussed his mind, as did his big break in TV show My So-Called Life. Strong performances followed in films Requiem For a Dream, Fight Club, American Psycho and Panic Room. Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey, marked a dramatic return to the film business for Leto in 2013 after six years. The wait was worth it as he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Leto – wearing a white Saint Laurent tuxedo jacket – took his mother Constance to the awards and thanked her in his acceptance speech “for teaching me to dream.”

He added, “I guess it’s all about gratitude. My mom, against all odds, made a better life for herself and my brother and inspired us to work really hard and reach for something incredibly special in our own lives. The whole thing is just a giant dream. It’s been so much fun and I’ve been so lucky and grateful.” 

For Leto’s mother the trickledown of her son’s success has not only meant a seat at the Oscars, but a pretty swanky wardrobe too. “Dior sent my mom something to wear for the S.A.G. awards,” Leto grins. “They sent me clothes to wear and that’s great. I know brands do this because obviously they get something for it in exchange but they’ve been wonderful. You end up with something that’s really nice.”

And what about fashion? What does 2016’s style icon think about looking good? “I don’t think about it so much,” he shrugs. “I don’t really put much thought into it.” He’s just having fun getting all dolled up.