Reggaetón Meets Dior: New York Fashion Week With J Balvin

Photo by Santiago Solorzano for Remezcla

It’s the final day of New York Fashion Week: Men’s, and J Balvin is casually strolling inside the Dior Homme store at 133 Greene Street. He’s here to shop — and the attention of the staff is fully on him as they walk through the store’s offerings. Balvin, though, appears in no rush as he calmly tries on a pair of sunglasses and softly asks questions: What t-shirts are in stock? What are some of the more classic silhouettes available?

During a week of whirlwind appointments in the city, the shopping is proving to be a rare moment of relaxation for the Colombian reggaetón artist. As one of the “ambassadors” for NYFW: Men’s, Balvin has had full access to the calendar of events. And, as the first Latino musician appointed to the role, he’s proudly embraced the busy schedule head-on; in the span of 72 hours he was spotted backstage at shows, shopping at sneaker mecca Stadium Goods, walking The Coveteur through his collection of one-of-a-kind pieces, and palling around with everyone from Fabolous to Steve Aoki to GQ’s Style Guy Mark Anthony Green.

As any Balvin fan can attest to, the singer has not only helped usher in a new sound for reggaetón, he’s also updated its look – lending a genre long associated with blinged out wrap-around sunglasses and Ed Hardy a more high-end patina. “I’m absolutely ill with fashion,” Balvin says. “I love it as much as music — it’s 50-50,” he laughs, moving his hands as if weighing the two. “Or, maybe 100-100.”

As if to test the limits of this proclamation, minutes later, a Dior employee rolls out a rack filled with clothes in a dark palette of colors. It’s the latest shipment to the store that’s only just arrived, Balvin learns. His eyes open wide and he grabs a jacket sleeve. With a smile, he says, “Why you do this to me?”

For all intents and purposes, J Balvin may be on his way to becoming a fashion figure a la Kanye, but until then, he’s more than happy to be the industry’s eager student. At least, that’s the way Balvin describes himself: “Forever a student.” It’s a line he adopted from Pharrell, whom he’s also collaborated with musically. “Pharrell has always been like my grand inspiration,” he says. “Because of how he’s [taken] his fame to build the culture, build tolerance, build love in society … He’s done what he needs to do with the power that God gave him.”

“By having a personality, by being you, doors open. You don’t have to try and be someone else to fit in.”

As a sign of his admiration, Balvin once called Pharrell “Master,” he told Complex in an interview. Pharrell, however, quickly rejected the label. “He’s like, ‘I was, I am, and I’ll be forever a student.’”

Balvin has also fully embraced the “always-a-student” mentality. Though the Council of Fashion Designers of America has singled out him as a style influencer worthy of representing Fashion Week, he remains humble about his role. “The first time I was here I came as a spectator, just learning,” he says. “And today I keep learning more.” Though, he admits that being selected as the first Latino to fill the role is a beautiful thing for the culture at-large. “I think we’re making a statement and we’re making history, not just in reggaetón, but among Latinos in general,” he says. “Before it wasn’t that we had the doors closed on us, rather there was no one who tried [opening them].”

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To understand exactly how much Balvin has learned about fashion in recent years, one needn’t look further than his Instagram account. Much like the profile of a longtime menswear blogger, his account documents his early explorations with clothes and the gradual evolution of style. Early photos include three-panel outfit collages, shout-outs to stylish friends, close-ups of shoes and even the use of a custom hashtag: #fashiondelfuturo.

The J Balvin from a few years ago, the one who wore a head-to-toe red ensemble to the 2014 Latin Grammys, seems to have been reincarnated into a more on-trend version of himself, who is at ease rocking the latest designer and streetwear collab. Today, Balvin’s style is perhaps best described as part rock n’ roll, part SoCal skater and part street style maven. While it’s a style in flux, as Balvin continues experimenting, gone are the days when he wore sleeveless hoodies that showed off his tatted arms. In their place are an assortment of Gucci sweaters, BAPE and Raf Simons jackets, Fear of God jeans, Palm Angels hoodies and track pants, along with plenty of Saint Laurent. New York City, where he lived in for a time, has also impacted his shoe game, he says. In addition to his assortment of Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent boots, he also sports kicks like the Air Jordan 4 “Doernbecher,” the latest Adidas collab and, up until recently, an assortment of Yeezys. The latter aren’t on rotation as much anymore, after Kanye West met with Donald Trump, whom Balvin strongly opposes.)

For Fashion Week, he settled on a medley of pastel hair colors that can best be summed up as “My Little Pony.”

But, for all the new designer pieces and exclusive items that make up Balvin’s wardrobe today, his style remains “casual and elegant.” It’s been a mix of everything, he says. “It’s a little bit of what I’m learning as I go and what the world permits me to learn from it.” It’s true that, while the designer and brand names may have changed over the years, Balvin has maintained a consistent appreciation of jackets, denim jeans and boots. Oh, and rock music, too. Balvin grew up playing cover versions of Metallica on his guitar and while he’s often spotted wearing band tees, some of the genre’s influences are much subtler. His white-rimmed, oval Saint Laurent sunglasses, for instance, are reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, who made the style a rock star symbol.

Like Cobain and other iconic musicians, Balvin also dyes his hair as he pleases. (Katy Perry may be the only person whose hair color changes as frequently.) His hair has been shades of pink, blue, purple, yellow and green. For Fashion Week, he settled on a medley of pastel colors that can best be summed up as “My Little Pony.” It’s the kind of whimsical look that’s at odds with the hard-edged macho male posturing once associated with reggaetón. And while his fans have a blast lampooning his hair choices it doesn’t seem to bother Balvin; he often reposts the resulting memes. After all, to pull off unconventional looks, “You must have a clear personality and feel like yourself,” he says. “I think as an artist, we have that responsibility, to show people that everything is possible … by having a personality, by being you, doors open. Like, you don’t have to try and be someone else to ‘fit in.’”

Besides, not “fitting in” has gotten him this far, hasn’t it?

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By midday, after several shows, interviews and photo shoots, it’s clear that Balvin is tired and ready to rest back up at his hotel. He’s agreed to pose for a few photos outside a venue for the article. The weather now is beyond brisk — it’s freezing — and Balvin is clearly not dressed for it. His Fear of God denim jacket is his best defense against the cold and he shuffles from one leg to another, trying to stay warm. “We’re here braving the cold,” he says, making a pouty face before erupting into laughter at the silliness of the situation. The fact that people sometimes suffer for fashion doesn’t seem lost on him. Yet, just as he’s about to be whisked away to a hotel with perfectly-controlled temperatures, a handful of fans ask for last-minute photos and he happily obliges.

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By nightfall, a few hours later, Balvin has once changed outfits for his end-of-day appointments (he’s seeing another designer’s and interviewing with a local radio station). In lieu of the light layers and pink Saint Laurent boots from earlier in the day, he’s now wearing a pair of Air Jordan 1 x Fragment sneakers in black and white, and a coat from Tim Coppens’ Spring/Summer 2017 collection.

If Balvin is, as he says, “forever a student,”— he’s proving to be a fast learner.