Ne-Yo, a gentleman inside and out

NE-YO STYLE: “Clothes have to represent who I am. Because before you speak to me, I need you to know who I am.”
(Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

GLIDING across the stage, crooning “come closer” over a driving beat, he manhandles the microphone stand like a modern-day James Brown. Only without the polyester jumpsuit.

Ne-Yo, the R&B triple-threat singer, performer and songwriter, is rocking a steel gray Tom Ford sharkskin suit, a silver tie cinched with a tie bar -- and his trademark fedora.

His retro style -- or “swag” as he calls it -- informs every element of the performance. Flanked by four female dancers, he sings in front of an old-school band with a full horn section. His moves -- rocking in time interspersed with slices of intricate footwork -- rival Usher’s for sheer smoothness.

In today’s music world, it doesn’t get much sharper than this.

The 29-year-old has been an up-and-coming name for years. Love songs are his stock in trade -- he’s written a string of hit ballads, including “Take a Bow” for Rihanna, and is slated to work on Michael Jackson’s next album. But with the recent release of the aptly titled “Year of the Gentleman,” Ne-Yo is stepping into the spotlight in a whole new way -- as a bona fide fashion plate, elevating the rules of style for the modern R&B set.

Though female R&B artists are often some of the best dressers around ( Mary J. Blige comes to mind), male crooners are overdue for a sartorial boost. Long gone are the days when Sam Cooke sang “Wonderful World” in a satin-lapeled suit and skinny tie and Marvin Gaye nimbly mixed Rastafarian hats with tuxedo jackets while asking “What’s Going On”? Since the 1980s, male R&B fashion has ranged from the nondescript, in the vein of Luther Vandross and Brian McKnight, to gangster-light, à la R. Kelly and Boyz II Men, to downright goofy (paging Bobby Brown).

Maybe that’s why Ne-Yo’s style is so steeped in the long-ago -- the ‘40s and ‘50s, to be exact -- “when music to me was its most real,” he says during a recent backstage interview. “Back then, it meant something to be an entertainer. You would see the Rat Pack in a suit and tie, but if it wasn’t a suit and tie, it was a shirt with a collar -- something mature. You were fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The singer is hardly ever without a hat. “My dad didn’t give me much, but he did give me his screwy hairline,” he notes, exposing his slightly balding pate. By day, he wears one of his many Kangol newsboy caps; by night, he switches to short-brimmed fedoras -- cocked to the side, just like Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Born in Arkansas as Shaffer C. Smith, he was raised by a single mother in Las Vegas. The Smith clan was “by no means poor, but we weren’t rich,” says Ne-Yo, who now lives in Atlanta. “However many jobs my mom had to have to make sure my sister and I didn’t need anything, she had.”

Self-conscious about his hairline, he started wearing hats in high school. And now, Ne-Yo is so well-known for wearing fedoras, he’s in talks with a company to start his own hat line. “But I don’t want to just put my name on something,” he adds. “I have to find the time to be really involved.” He’s not loyal to any brands when it comes to chapeaus, and insists that you have to try on a hat to see if it fits in size and attitude.

Dressing up means donning a dark, well-cut suit from Paul Smith, Tom Ford or Gucci. “It has to give you a man’s hourglass,” he says, “coming down to the waist and then coming out again ever so slightly at the hips and legs -- accommodating all the natural curves” (he flexes his biceps and cracks himself up).

When dressing casually, he still keeps things neat. And he’s walking the talk at present -- wearing nicely pressed dark jeans and a cream-colored cashmere argyle sweater, topped by a matching Kangol newsboy cap. “I put this little ensemble together myself,” he says, flashing the disarming Cheshire cat grin that changes his face entirely.

Fickle fashion trends don’t hold sway in this singer’s closet. “I’ve always been interested in style, not so much fashion,” he says. “I was always the guy going left when everyone was going right. And my mom raised us to focus on needs, not wants. We didn’t really care about what the hottest sneaker was. You need food, you need shelter, you need somebody on the face of this planet that genuinely and truly loves you.” (Still, now that he can afford slick sneakers, he buys them -- from Supra and Gucci.)

THE SINGER’S taste in music and fashion led to a collaboration with Cognac label Hennessy this year, in which he acted as curator for the Hennessy Artistry Tour, a series of concerts, handpicking everything from the artists (LL Cool J and Eve) to the waiters’ uniforms.

He likes collaborating with stylists -- L.A. stylist Misha Rudolph is his go-to for public appearances and photo shoots -- but he won’t be domineered by them.

“I like working with a stylist who understands that I’m an individual, so I’m going to have an opinion,” he says. “There are some stylists I’ve worked with that say [affects a know-it-all voice] ‘I got this, let me do this.’ And I’m like, no you don’t, you’re fired. I don’t give a damn if it’s a European cut. If it’s too tight, I can’t move and the energy I exude on stage is not going to come out right.”

Rudolph says she’s always on the hunt for interesting hats and ties (the singer collects both), adding that Ne-Yo leans toward the elegant. “He’s not the guy who’s going to wear anything punk rock -- he’s not a fashion victim,” she says. “He likes things to be neat and tailored. If something’s too messy, he can’t get his head around it.”

“Calm” and “focused” are words Rudolph uses to describe Ne-Yo, and she might have added “controlled.” Whether he’s in the studio, onstage or in his closet, he’s always behind the wheel. When it comes to style, “my clothes have to represent who I am,” he says. “Because before you speak to me, I need you to know who I am. So that when you approach me, you approach me in the way I want you to.”

But looking dapper is only a small part of being a gentleman, he says.

“People think if they dress a certain way, that will make them a gentleman,” says the singer, who cites Jay-Z and Kanye West as artists whose style he admires. “Nothing could be further from the truth. You could be a gentleman in jeans and a T-shirt. What it is to be a gentleman is inside you -- it’s your swag, your charisma, your integrity, the way you treat people.”

Still, “wearing your pants belted around your thighs, with your butt fully exposed? No. You could be the smartest guy in the world, but if you dress like that, no one’s going to know it. Style matters. It shouldn’t matter, but it matters. We are all walking, talking, living, breathing billboards.”