Ansel Elgort was in the sixth grade when he had his first style awakening. He fashioned a sort of self-imposed uniform — red Adidas sweatpants, white tee, blue sneakers — and wore it daily for a year. “I was like a cartoon character,” he says. “It was pretty gross because I don’t know how often I actually washed the sweatpants. But I thought it was a cool look.”
Looking back on that head-to-toe cotton-clad middle schooler, it’s hard to believe the actor and musician would one day be the face of a Prada fragrance and a stalwart of best-dressed lists. But as he’s risen to fame for his roles in young adult adaptations like The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series, he’s distinguished himself not just for his talents in front of the camera but for his dapper — and sometimes daring — looks on the red carpet and beyond.
Elgort, 23, whose latest role is the titular getaway driver in Edgar Wright’s adrenaline-pumping heist thriller Baby Driver (June 28), was raised by artists in New York City: his mother, Grethe Barrett Holby, is an opera director, and his father, Arthur Elgort, a prominent fashion photographer. One might assume that growing up the son of a photographer shooting Vogue covers would imbue a child, even subliminally, with a keen sense of style. Not so for the younger Elgort.
“He pretty much only cares about shooting women,” Elgort says of his father, whose friendships with designers probably benefited Holby more than anyone else in the family. Though Elgort says his mother “has an amazing wardrobe and looks incredible in all of her dresses,” his dad wasn’t much of an influence in that department: “My father’s favorite brand was — and probably still is — L.L. Bean.”
But Elgort had rich inspiration to draw from in his roles as a budding actor. As a student at LaGuardia High School in New York City — best known as that performing arts high school from Fame — he idolized Marlon Brando and James Dean. He began to dress like them, too: raw denim jeans, a white t-shirt, leather jacket and boots. Also a dancer and musical theater devotee, he landed a starring role in his school's production of Guys and Dolls and started wearing a suit and tie to class.
“I do find myself, whenever I’m playing a character, trying to vibe with them and dress like them a little bit,” he explains. “As an actor, it’s not good to be too individual. It’s good to be very multidimensional and allow yourself to be inspired by the characters you’re playing and allow them to inspire your style.”
When he’s not making movies, Elgort is making music. As a DJ and producer of electronic dance music (he plans to drop two new singles this month), he has an alter ego, Ansølo, whose style diverges from that of both Ansel Elgort the actor and Ansel Elgort the regular guy at home in Brooklyn.
“I wanted it to be very relatable when I DJ’ed,” he says, speaking in past tense because his busy film schedule has kept him away from the stage lately. In addition to jeans and a plain or graphic t-shirt, his performance look typically includes a Knicks hat, not only as a tribute to his hometown team, but as a nod to his young fan base. (Though baseball caps are often considered a youthful fashion statement, Elgort, who was not allowed to wear them in high school, has taken to them as he's gotten older.) He's also rarely seen in anything other than sneakers, at least when he can help it. “ New York City is a walking city, and I love playing basketball. I want to wear clothes that I can play in or walk in.”
On the red carpet, Elgort has had more than his fair share of tickets from the Internet fashion police. There was that Prada jacket with a collar some compared to a gym towel, or the mixed camo prints he wore to a Variety luncheon. But don’t expect him to tone anything down in response to the critics. “I’ve had people tell me stop taking risks — publicists and movie studios,” he concedes. But what they call risks, he simply calls style. “It’s not that I’m actively taking a risk. It’s just that I see something and think, that’s a part of me that I haven’t really expressed.” To Elgort, who hopes in the not-too-distant future to move into directing, the clothes on his back are just one of his many outlets for creative expression.
“I don’t regret wearing anything,” he says. Except maybe a pair of dress shoes when there's an hour to kill and a free basketball court.