How Jeanne Yang Went From Styling Blink-182 Videos to Working With Keanu Reeves for 20 Years

Fawnia Soo Hoo

She dresses your other boyfriends, too, including, Robert Downey, Jr., Jason Momoa, John Cho and Kumail Nanjiani.

Jeanne Yang. Photo: Ruven Afanador/Courtesy of Jeanne Yang

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Yes, Keanu Reeves is evergreen — or as Alex Pappademas wrote in his Twitter-breaking GQ cover story: "Every generation's Keanu Reeves is this Keanu Reeves." But the press-shy "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum" star and surprise "Always Be My Maybe" cameo is really having a month. (Or two, actually: He's also giving Canada's greatest animated stuntman, Duke Caboom, his dulcet tones in "Toy Story 4," out on June 21.)

Thankfully, Reeves can lean on his stylist of two decades, Jeanne Yang, to prepare him for all the premieres, promo tours and guest spots, because we need more moments like that time he recently melted Stephen Colbert's cold, cynical heart with his deep, introspective thoughts on death and love. "He was the guy that I've known [for years]," says Yang, over the phone, about her longtime client's "Late Show" spot.

The Los Angeles-based stylist's client roster reads like a Hollywood leading man VIP guest list (and her Instagram feed regularly features all of your boyfriends): John Cho, Kumail Nanjiani, Colin Farrell, director Alfonso Cuarón, Matt Bomer, Jamie Dornan and "Aquaman" star Jason Momoa, whose custom pink velvet Fendi tuxedo and matching dusty rose scrunchie broke Twitter during the Oscars

A couple of longtime clients are clocking in close to Reeves: Christian Bale for 14 years and Robert Downey, Jr., whose colorful, print-happy outfits during the "Avengers: Endgame" promo tour would have given Tony Stark wardrobe envy, on-and-off for a decade. Yang has a healthy private styling business, too, working with behind-the-scenes power players and decision-makers in the entertainment industry.

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Keanu Reeves at his long overdue handprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on May 14, 2019. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Raised in L.A. by her Korean immigrant parents, Yang initially pursued a career in politics. Realizing how much she "really, really disliked" law after a stint at a firm, she pivoted to fashion as a department store buyer. Then she was laid off thanks to a recession.

"My older brother said, 'I know being a Korean girl, you feel like you have to follow the path that your parents have set, but have you ever thought about doing something you [you have a passion for]?" Yang explains. She paid her dues working an unpaid internship at a small fashion publication, which led her to the now-shuttered Detour magazine, where she become associate publisher and managing editor. A member of a small team, she tried her hand at all different functions and found a knack (and a passion) for styling.

After styling shoots for a fashion website in the early days of the internet, she segued into music videos for early-aughts bands, like Blink-182. Around that time, she started working with Reeves during his "The Matrix" promotion blitz, and her celebrity styling career took off from there. Maximizing her time in L.A. traffic on the way to a client fitting, Yang spoke with Fashionista about why she ended up styling mostly men, how she channels Momoa's zest for life into his wardrobe and what Reeves taught her about men's tailoring.

Jason Momoa (and his scrunchie) and Lisa Bonet in custom Fendi at the 2019 Oscars. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

How did you take your editorial experience and turn it into celebrity styling?

I basically looked up all my old friends that I worked with at the magazine and just took anything and everything, from workout photoshoots to styling a nail ad. I fell into music videos at the time because they were the big thing. It was Blink-182, Weezer and 311; mainly a variety of different guy bands. I probably did three videos a week. I got my 10,000-Hours [rule from Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers'] under my belt because on a music video, you fill up a van with clothing and you don't know what you're going to get for the day. I would do a 14-hour day [on a video], then a 14-hour commercial, then still shoot for a nail line and then I would go and do a catalog. Sometimes getting two to three hours of sleep. Just working anything and everything I possibly could to diversify. Then, the whole movie star-slash-'celebrity' era began, and Keanu was one of my first big clients when 'The Matrix' started.

How did that job come about?

This was really before the proliferation of these various websites and whatnot. Essentially Warner Bros. realized, instead of doing 45 interviews and 45 photo shoots across the world [for international publications to promote a movie, they decided to] do one photo shoot and just farm out the pictures. So Keanu was one of the first people I [styled for that format].

Keanu honestly was one of the first people to teach me about Neapolitan styling. 'Here, look at these beautiful Berluti shoes,' or 'look at this beautiful Kiton suit and the way that it has the roped shoulder,' or 'look at the way this shirt has special buttons.' It was a little bit of an education because he had been traveling to Italy for years, so he passed it onto me.

The second big shoot I did was 'Ocean's Twelve.' I had 20 minutes to dress George [Clooney], Matt [Damon], Brad [Pitt], Andy [Garcia], Casey [Affleck]… Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was crazy. 'Hey, we need suits, a casual look and a medium-casual look, and we want you to put together all four of these looks in 20 minutes.' I came in with my assistant, and we got everybody into suits. They would do all these pictures, then round table interviews and then promote the film. Because I was doing music videos, having 20 minutes was kind of extravagant. I was like, 'this is easy for me' and I just became very adept at being able to fit and put together a suit and look really quickly.

Reeves, styled in full Gucci by Yang, and Sandra Bullock at the 2006 Oscars. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

How did you end up styling primarily men?

It kind of chose me. With the music videos, I developed a shorthand. For a lot of guys I work with, the red carpet is their only opportunity to be themselves, so they want to have a very certain look.

The biggest compliment that I've ever received was when a partner at a publicity firm said: 'The big difference between you as a stylist and anybody else is you dress movie stars.' You couldn't say that Jason, Robert, Christian or Keanu would ever wear the same stuff. I don't keep up with [trends] and say, 'ok, well, dress everybody right now in this look.' Because that to me is not being a stylist. That is being an editor. 

But as a movie star, they want to just look like an 11. Maybe that's the reason I've worked so long with certain people. Because anytime I ever lost a client, [it was] 'let me do the on-trend thing for you.' If you're dressing all your clients in the same look, just know that three years from now, that look is not going to be in favor and that person will look and think, 'what were you doing? You were dressing me in what you thought was cool, but I look like I'm blowing any which way with the wind.'

What is the secret to successfully working with a client, like Keanu, for so many years?

These men are very busy and they want to know that I'm going to try and find the right thing for them — being aware to a certain extent of what's going on [in fashion], but knowing what's best for them. It's listening, honestly, it's really listening.

Kumail Nanjiani at the Apple product launch event in March. Photo: Michael Short/Getty Images

I'm going to use Jason Momoa as an example: He seems like a person who loves experiencing the most out of life and that comes through in how you style him, like the pink velvet at the Oscars. How do you take that individual energy and channel it through looks?

Well, I do have to say I have amazing people and an amazing assistant who work with me. I keep up to a really almost clinically crazy sense about what's going on out there [in menswear]. So that way I know, 'ok, well, this will be really great for Robert or Keanu. But for Jason, it could be something as crazy as going to The RealReal because I know I want something unique and different and it may not exist out there. For example, for his 'Aquaman' premiere, I found a vintage beautiful black velvet robe that Tom Ford designed for Gucci

I wanted something distinctive [for the Oscars] and I knew he loved pink. So I came up with a design idea, like 'I want a cool shawl collar; I don't want it to be standard.' I didn't think pink in a crepe or anything else would look as cool. I thought 'velvet. Oh, pink velvet. Who would do the right thing? Oh my gosh, Fendi. That would be sick. Let's go ahead!' [His makeup artist also had the idea of a matching scrunchie.] So it was a perfect harmonic convergence. 

I have to tell you, up until a week before [the Oscars], he was like, 'I'm not so sure Jeanne. I really don't know if that's going to work for me.' Or even the [Tom Ford] white motorcycle jacket and pink taffeta pants [he wore to host 'Saturday Night Live']. A lot of times, he'll go, 'hm… maybe?' or 'yeahhhh.' It's about knowing and feeling and thinking, 'this is what I think would work.'

Like Kumail [Nanjiani]. The Pakistan flag is this beautiful dark green, so for the Apple launch event [above], he told me, 'I really like this green; I like this collar because it looks like the traditional shirt in Pakistan.' So [Zegna Artistic Director] Alessandro Sartori did this beautiful green suit and a collarless shirt. It's like I don't sleep at night because I sit there and I think about these things. 

John Cho wears a Zegna suit to the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Your clients, like, John Cho and Kumail Nanjiani aren't just talented actor/producers, they're also groundbreakers who represent a lot to the Asian-American community. How does that play into your approach to styling them?

For John, the viral campaign #StarringJohnCho, those posters meant a lot to me because there is an understanding that, yes, he could be starring in any of those lead roles. If you look at the roles that he's taken, they haven't necessarily been the conventional 'Asian nerdy guy.' I grew up with Long Duck Dong in 'Pretty in Pink,' so to see him in a fashionable, cool way — and the same thing with Kumail — to see them as very elegantly dressed men is important. 

As I was saying about listening, when I am at that fitting, I hear what they're saying and I do take that into consideration. John wore a cute pair of joggers [by Zegna at the Independent Spirit Awards, above]. We actually joked about it. It's a little bit old Korean grandpa with a little bit of badass Japanese. Or like with Nick Kroll. Nick is into really fun whimsical colors and that show that he does, 'Big Mouth,' talk about groundbreaking. I've watched it and to see that it has really has opened a lot of doors to teenagers feeling they can talk more openly about the awkwardness of puberty. It was like, 'let's do that fun, youthful spirit in your clothing.'

Your client roster is so full of talented leading men and I also have a massive crush on pretty much all of them. How did you build such an impressive roster?

Honestly, in as much as you worship new and youth, I have to say it is definitely from years and years of experience. I hate to use the word 'wisdom,' but it's age and experience. The red carpet is the only instance when that person gets to be themselves, so to have somebody develop and create that really strong voice for them in a way that consistently says, 'I'm a leading actor,' that's important. That is exactly why I've been very, very fortunate that I've developed the roster of people that I have.

Do you go with them when they're on their promo tours?

No. I set them up with their stuff. I used to a long time ago, here and there, go with certain people, but it's way too daunting. We do a book of all the looks. You email it, give them a hard copy and give one to everyone else around them. We triple label everything and make sure — if it goes to the tailor, laundry or to get steamed — that an outfit can be put back together really quickly. Because typically these guys are on 22-hour schedules a day. They barely can remember their names, let alone not knowing what time zone they're in, so you make it as easy as possible.

You had a womenswear line from 2009 to 2014, with your former client Katie Holmes called Holmes & YangWould you ever consider doing a menswear line in the future?

I would probably do a fun collaboration. I would do something, but I wouldn't want to actually be the one producing it. First of all, there are so many lines out there right now, and there's something to be said for sustainability and how important it is that we have so many goods out there. Do I I really want to add to the amount of stuff that people have? I don't know if I want to do that right now.

What advice do you have for young people aspiring to be celebrity stylists?

Know that it is really hard and treat it like a real serious business and it will, in turn, reward you. It is a lot of hard work. It is a lot of schlepping. One of the biggest things you have to take into consideration is listening. It's so important to listen to the client and it's not about you on the red carpet, it's that person's face. A lot of people go into this business to try and establish themselves to become famous for whom they work with. But your career will be short-lived. If you want to create a longterm relationship and have a longterm understanding of working with these people, listen and try and create a a strong and consistent image for them.

How are you prepping Keanu for his upcoming busy months?

To see him in 'Toy Story 4', such a beloved franchise, I'm really excited for that. Because I've always known him to be the kindest, most thoughtful person. People think, 'oh he's this dude.' He's so multifaceted, like a diamond. I don't think people have begun to realize who he is, so I'm very excited for him to continue to have people see him in different roles. It makes me super excited to know that he feels like he's equipped [with his wardrobe]. I feel like I'm Q in the James Bond movies. I feel really happy knowing that he's well equipped and ready to go.

Follow Jeanne Yang on Instagram @jeanneyangstyle.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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