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Sterling K. Brown’s Red Carpet Playbook: Traditional Tailoring, Bright Colors and No Fragrance

Sterling K. Brown doesn’t like drawing attention to himself, especially when it comes to fashion. But since earning his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role in Cord Jefferson’s comedy-drama American Fiction, even more eyes have been on the three-time Emmy-winning TV and film star.

“I’ll be honest with you, it is at times a bit overwhelming, especially when it comes to clothes and all the gear,” says Brown, 47, whose awards season obligations pile on by the day. “You can’t just go back and get your same suit every time. You’ve got to come with a fit that’s got a little bit of drip to it.”

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Brown’s had good practice, portraying Clifford Ellison in the film based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. The flamboyant plastic surgeon is the brother of main character Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a writer and professor who, disenchanted with the literary landscape, writes a stereotypical depiction of African American life that receives mass critical acclaim. Somewhat like Brown, Cliff has a knack for fitted shirts — when he bothers to wear one at all — and his mini ’fro is perfectly manicured and moisturized in every scene.

Brown­ — who next stars in the upcoming Dan Fogelman Hulu drama Paradise City — takes a break from his busy social calendar to chat with THR about his style ethos and making sure his wife, Ryan Michelle Bathé, and their two kids feel included in this major career moment.

Have you picked out your Oscars look yet?

I think we’ve got the designer, but I’m narrowing it down between a double breast or a one-and-a-half breast and classic black and maybe a navy blue. I definitely know I want to have a bit of a pattern to the fabric. I want it to look classic and clean, but I want it to pop just a little bit.

How would you describe your style overall?

I like clean lines. Listen, I work out for health purposes and for longevity, but I also try to look good in these dadgum suits. I do it so that when you do the tailoring, you can get a nice silhouette. I want people to look back at the things I wear 40, 50 years later and say, “I could wear that now.” So it’s not going to be so of the moment that it’ll be out of fashion soon.

Brown, who prefers clothes that have a “certain level of timelessness” to them, is wearing a suede trench coat, sweater and pants by Brunello Cucinelli, Thursday Boot Company sneakers, an IWC Ingenieur watch and two necklaces by David Yurman, one of which is engraved with his initials.
Brown, who prefers clothes that have a “certain level of timelessness” to them, is wearing a suede trench coat, sweater and pants by Brunello Cucinelli, Thursday Boot Company sneakers, an IWC Ingenieur watch and two necklaces by David Yurman, one of which is engraved with his initials.

You’ve experimented with a lot of suit colors over the years. Have you always been open to color on the red carpet?

I think when you’ve got a deeper shade of soul, color looks good. Whether it’s pink or lavender, playing around with color from time to time pops with the melanin. Sometimes people have to get me to do it because if you look in my closet, by and large, there’s a lot of black, gray, blue, brown and white. It’s sort of basic, but there will be a few pops here and there.

We’ve seen you in more formfitting shirts on- and offscreen as of late. Is that becoming your signature? 

If I’m doing a talk show or whatnot, I do like a nice pair of jeans or slacks and a well-fitted sweater. If you put a jacket or a blazer on top of it, you can walk into a business meeting or, if you take it off, you can go hang out with your kids with a nice crisp tennis shoe. I like that kind of versatility that’s like the casual L.A. chic can-play-anywhere style. When I go to St. Louis [his hometown] and I go to church, I realize, “Oh, I’m very L.A., because I don’t have the Stacy Adams [dress shoes] that everybody else does up in this place.” But I know that I can go straight from church service to the football game and I’ll be straight. That’s probably what Brown loves more than anything else.

Sterling K Brown Awards Looks

Do you have any style icons past or present?

I always thought that Cary Grant was just clean. That era when George Clooney was making his foray from TV into film, I like the way that he looks. But then there are people who play and get away with it. Pharrell plays and does some really cool stuff. I can’t pull off the big hat. That’s not Brown’s place, but I don’t begrudge anybody else their taste because their taste fits their personality and mine is mine.

What’s an accessory you must have on at all times? 

I need something on my neck. I think that’s because my dad had a chain, and when you grow up listening to people talk about their Jesus pieces in hip-hop, I think a lot of bruhs of a certain generation feel kind of naked if they don’t have something around their neck. Mine’s not anything flashy. I’ve got a David Yurman piece that I really love and it’s engraved. It’s got SKB on one side and an Om on the other. And the Om is the sign of God, and it always reminds me about my connection to the divine and why I’m here. You can get sort of self-absorbed and caught up in all the machinations of “me, me, me,” and it’s a slight reminder that it’s God first. So I love this piece, and I hardly ever take it off. It’s really only for a role, and if I take it off then, I will talk to costumes and ask, “Can I have a necklace, please?”

Necklaces by David Yurman and an IWC Ingenieur watch
Necklaces by David Yurman and an IWC Ingenieur watch

What about a signature scent?

I’m more into oils and lotions. I do like a good cologne but also, again this goes back to attracting attention to oneself, sometimes you don’t need the ladies or anybody else rolling up to give you a hug and being like, “Ooh, you smell good.” I’m not trying to bait the hook like that. Now I do enjoy cocoa butter, and there may be a scented oil that gets mixed in with the cocoa butter because Brown cares about moisturizing very much and there are subtle little odors that will come from the oils and the lotions that are enough to be like, “It’s nice,” versus, “You smell good.” I want to smell nice. I don’t need to smell too good.

As you talk about not wanting to attract too much attention to yourself, what has it been like for you as your star continues to rise? Are you comfortable yet in your celebrity?

That is a very real question. I feel like my family is the most important thing to me in the world, and so maintaining a sense of normalcy for my children, first and foremost, is of tantamount importance. When I’m at soccer games and football games with them, we have a no-picture rule so that they can be the focus of Daddy’s attention. I’m married to an actor who is a very good performer. We went to undergrad together. We went to grad school for acting together, so always making sure that she feels a part of this whole thing as the star meter sort of goes up is something that I try to do. Sometimes things are beyond my control and you just have to make sure that you remain in conversation and that everybody feels seen and appreciated and loved through all of it. Some days are easier than others. Right now I’m what my mom calls “blessed and highly favored” to be invited to this grand party that’s coming up on March 10. But I’m always trying to calibrate just how it affects the totality of my home.

This story first appeared in the March 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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