Tan France On Post-Pandemic Fashion, Staying Grounded And The Power Of A Coat

Tan France is getting back into the fashion business with WAS HIM, a new collection

Sporting a fresh white and navy striped button-down, hair flawlessly set in its signature coif, I would never guess I was Tan France’s eleventh Zoom of the day. While I could only see his outfit from the waist up, something tells me his bottoms were equally as refined—I soon learn France doesn’t dress for others, he dresses for himself.

“Even if it was just a crisp tee I’d ironed, that was better than my pajamas,” France says, describing how he lasted a week of letting himself go under lockdown before he looked in the mirror and thought, “‘Who are you? You used to take such pride in your appearance.’” From that moment on, France made a point each day of putting something on that made him feel even just a little better, “We underestimate the power of what clothing can do for us, how it makes us feel,” he tells me.

If anyone understands the potential of clothing to empower us, it’s France. In the three years since joining Queer Eye’s fab five as the beloved style expert, he’s quickly become the face of feel-good fashion. But long before his rise to stardom, France was steeped in the fashion world; first working for major retailers like Zara in London, then running his own womenswear line, Kingdown & Slate, in his adopted home of Utah. Since selling that business in 2017, France has approached fashion through the lens of entertainment—not only on Queer Eye, but as a host alongside Alexa Chung on Netflix’s Next in Fashion and the author of his memoir, Naturally Tan.  

Now, France is getting back into the fashion business with WAS HIM, a genderless outwear collection launching mid-November. “I always said I will never have a brand again because it was so stressful,” the designer tells me. “The creative aspect was maybe 5% of my job. It was meant to be the complete opposite of that: 95% creative and 5% business. I had to learn to be [a business person] just so I could execute my dream, which was to make people feel good in the clothes I wanted to design. Now I get to do that again.”

With fashion incubator Thmbl managing the production and operations of the business, France is finally able to devote his energy to what he loves to do—design. “It’s a return to my roots because all I need to do is design, that’s what I’m trained to do,” says France. “I get to focus on the creative, I love that I get to do the components that really make me happy.”

His design object of choice? Coats. “I love outerwear, it’s the thing I have the most of,” says France. For years, the designer has been frustrated with a category that only seems to offer affordability at the expense of style. “People assume when your income increases to an entertainer’s income that you’re willing to spend thousands on one thing. I’m not, my mama raised me right, she made it clear we don’t waste our money,” France laughs. “Why would I spend $3000 on a coat? I wanted to create outerwear that’s a little more attainable.”

Ranging in price from $375 to $475, the initial collection includes seven different styles of winter-friendly coats and shorter zip-up jackets, all inspired by France’s diverse homes—Pakistan, London and Utah. “Nothing is more quintessentially British than a tailored piece of outerwear,” says France.

Yet, many of the design details are distinctly Americana. “I wanted to incorporate my life in Salt Lake City with my husband Rob who is from a ranch in Wyoming,” says France, describing the horse silhouettes his partner designed to represent the local rodeo they attend. “As much as I love every piece of the collection, those two are my favorites because of the embroidery,” the designer says.

France was adamant that embellishments like these be woven in, rather than simply printed onto the fabric. “I’ve always known I wanted to incorporate embroidery because that’s what my people do so well, in particular, Pakistani Indians,” France tells me. “It’s a major skill that’s been passed down from generation to generation. My dad’s side of the family is Pakistani, my mom’s side is Indian, so I wanted to marry the two.”

While designs that pay homage to one’s heritage can easily look gimmicky, France takes a more subtle approach, by opting for discreet details that are meaningful to him, like choosing light blue, green and brownie—colors that symbolize the ranch—as the primary hues for a color block coat. “There’s a navy coat we’ve got with patch pockets that are Ombre green—that’s when the grass goes from green in the winter to when it’s about to be turned into hay in the summer,” France tells me. “There are ways of doing nods to who you are without it slapping you in the face.”

It’s important for France to represent himself with integrity, not simply for representation’s sake. “I know the perspective of the person who has been tokenized and the person who is never represented,” he says. “I understand the importance of all the things that make up WAS HIM because I’m a member of those communities: I’m an immigrant, I’m Brown, I’m Muslim, I’m Queer, I couldn’t care less about gender—all of those things really helped dictate what this brand was going to be.”

Knowing what it feels like to not see himself both in Hollywood and the fashion industry, it’s crucial to France that the face of WAS HIM is diverse, “I want people at home to think, ‘I haven’t seen a person that looks like me on a fashion campaign, I’m going to support this idea, even if I don’t want the coat.’” It’s why the founder took the extra time to find models representing a variety of ethnicities for the brand’s first ad campaign. “Considering we’re in Utah, I think it’s incredibly diverse. It should be important to every brand.”

While the designer credits certain fashion brands for making an effort to be more inclusive, he believes the industry still has a long way to go. “There was a lot of, what I call, ‘performance art,’ after the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t know how true it felt,” France critiques. “I just hope we get to a place where it’s a lot more authentic. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to offer representation without it turning into tokenism.”

On the surface, the choice to make WAS HIM genderless might seem like another effort to be inclusive, instead France says that decision was purely selfish. “I was so sick of looking through menswear which is often really boring,” he says, describing how he often buys his coats from the women’s section. “I have a lot, a lot of outerwear, at least 50-60% is traditionally women’s but nobody would know,” says France. “I like that they’re slightly longer, I like that there’s more details, there’s something that makes them more interesting.”

Prefacing it might be a controversial opinion, France says gender still has a place in fashion, “There are certain things that can never be genderless if you want them to be form-fitting,” he tells me. But the designer recognizes that certain categories—like outerwear—are uniquely positioned to smash the gender divide.

“If I was making a structured coats that required boning or something to cater to a women’s chest, then that would be much harder. But I’m making boxy outerwear, why should it have a gender?” says France. “It doesn’t matter how you identify, a coat’s a coat.”

As the first piece of clothing anyone sees, the coat serves not only as a signifier of one’s gender, but of their overall style, one that France believes is just as important as the outfit underneath. “Between October to April, I’m always in a heavy piece of outerwear, it’s my coat they’re seeing—that is why I wanted to do outerwear,” says France.

And while it would’ve been easy for the designer to jump on the puffer jacket bandwagon, he believes the coat provides a prime opportunity to express yourself. “I’ve never worn a puffer jacket, I’ll layer my chic outerwear and that’s how I stay warm. I wanted to create beautiful coats that were a little more interesting,” France says. “I’m hoping people will see there are other options available, even in those colder climates, that can make you feel good about yourself. Every time I put on one of these coats, I feel so good, I feel so chic.”

France knows he’s not the only one who wants to feel chic right now as we emerge from the lockdown lifestyle of loungewear. The designer likens this unique moment in fashion to the 1940’s, when a fabric shortage gave rise to the “new look,” where top designers like Dior celebrated their newfound freedom with elaborate dresses and massive skirts. “It feels like people follow one of two schools—either the ‘new look’ school or the ‘I’m staying in my sweats and I refuse to go back to old life,’” France says. “When I’m doing TV, I’m definitely doing the ‘new look’ but when I’m not [laughs], I’m full on still in the pandemic.”

For France, a statement coat is the easiest way to look styled without the effort. “I understand that so many of us aren’t willing to go back to the wardrobe we had pre-COVID; many people won’t want to give up their athleisure and I’m saying, I don’t either,” says France. “When I take my son on a stroll or I go to the grocery store, I refuse to change out of what I’m most comfortable in. I love a really quick fix when I’m about to head out the door. I’ll throw on a coat and it makes me feel instantly elevated and sophisticated. I’m hoping that’s what they’ll feel when they put these coats on.”

Better yet, he believes our outerwear can make us feel good too. “I’m not suggesting that anyone decide they’re going to become the person who goes to the Met Gala every day, that’s a little extra,” France laughs. “But you can do one thing that makes you feel like you’ve put a look together when you leave the house. The go-to to make yourself look more sophisticated—or chic or cool or whatever your version of what you want to present to the world is—is the outerwear.”

With the wardrobe becoming a source of insecurity for those whose bodies have changed shape over the past year and a half, France hopes people can use their clothing choices as a form of self-care. “Regardless of what happened with your weight; regardless of what you do for a living—whether you’re out of the house or in the house—just find those things in the closet that make you feel good and gravitate towards them,” the designer advises. “You’re putting clothes on anyway, you might as well put something on that makes you feel good.”  

It’s no surprise France doles out self-care advice with such ease, he was shouting its praises on Queer Eye long before it became an essential part of everyday routines. “I don’t mean to take the credit for it, but it was what the show was all about,” says France. “I love that it’s such a common thing to hear now, ‘I’m practicing self-care, I need to focus on myself.’ I think it’s so important.”

Between filming the upcoming season of Queer Eye (which he says is the best yet), running WAS HIM and becoming a new father, it would be easy for France to let self-care slip, but it remains a priority, one that prevents negative commentary from trolls—like the recent backlash he received towards his surrogacy—get to him. With his assistants managing his DM’s, France makes a point of keeping his work and home life separate. While his Queer Eye castmates live the show-biz life in New York City and L.A., France grounds himself by always returning to his quiet home in Utah. 

“We are on one of the biggest shows globally but my life is very normal. I live in my own protected bubble,” the star says. “Most people who knew me before will say, ‘he’s exactly the same.’ I live in the same home I lived in before all of this. I go to the same gym, I go to the same grocery store, I see my same twelve friends, I cook with them three nights a week like I always did before the pandemic. I still live my normal life, that’s how I practice self-care.”

But make no mistake, France’s schedule is not normal. “You just saw I’m trying to fit in lunch between calls,” the designer laughs. The pandemic did force France to slow down, so much so that he thought he had the bandwidth to launch WAS HIM. “When I said yes we weren’t pregnant with our child, it was a different time. We had planned on it before I went back to shooting—I’m starting to panic now,” he says lightheartedly. “Thankfully it’s just one category so it doesn’t take over my life.”

It seems there’s no limit for the calm and collected designer, he’s always thinking about what’s next—like WAS HIM’s second drop in February. “It’s designed, sampled, photographed—it’s gorgeous. I love drop two so much,” the designer gushes. “I’ve already started working on next fall and winter.”

He’s thinking too, about the best delivery channels for sharing WAS HIM with the world, like many brands who are currently facing the decision of whether to remain DTC or return to retail as in-person shopping resumes. While we won’t be seeing a WAS HIM retail store anytime soon, France says they hope to sell the line as wholesale in department stores. “When I first started my brand years ago, I never wanted to own a retail store. In this day and age there’s no reason to,” the designer tells me. “In my opinion, it’s a dead game, not just a dying game.”

Still, France says the ultimate goal is to make WAS HIM an in-person experience, because there are few things France loves more than shopping. “That’s the one thing I miss, going shopping,” France tells me. At first, I assume he means shopping pre-pandemic, but then I realize—stores reopening doesn’t mean a return to shopping “normally” for someone with such fame.

“I’m making it sound like it’s impossible, I could go shopping, it’s just very different now. It feels so personal and weirdly intimate,” France laughs. “When I go shopping, because it’s what I do for a living, it’s like somebody is watching me shower.”

While we have no intention of getting that personal with France, with his undeniable charisma, cultural sensitivity and distinct eye for design, it doesn’t look we’ll tire of the style guru dressing us anytime soon.


Some interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/annahaines/2021/10/31/tan-france-on-post-pandemic-fashion-staying-grounded-and-the-power-of-a-coat/