J Balvin is growing his hair out.
And just like anyone else who’s gone through that awkward in-between stage, he’s fidgeting with his uncooperative coif in its natural black state — partly out of absentmindedness, partly out of annoyance with it — in his Mexico City hotel.
Still, the Colombian sensation — who’s famous for his hair’s bright colors and bold designs — has found a fresh way to cope with his mid-length crisis when neon green is not an option: “Lately, bandanas, man,” he says about his current go-to accessory.
“That’s the first thing I need. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to wear a hat, I just want to have a bandana’ — because it’s weird to see me without colored hair. I still need to put some fun on my head.”
The Reggaeton ruler’s adventurous sense of style — even under hair-challenged circumstances — is why designer Willy Chavarria presented him with the Latin Fashion Icon of the Year Award at the inaugural Latin American Fashion Awards in La Romana, Dominican Republic, on Nov. 4.
“I mean, I don’t know if I feel like an icon, but I’m grateful that they gave me that status because, at the end of the day, I feel good with what I’m wearing,” says the 38-year-old Medellín native, who was born José ?lvaro Osorio Balvín.
Since the singer-rapper made his Latin chart-topping debut 10 years ago with his “La Familia” album, that joy in his own skin has radiated across his forward-minded fashion as well as his fiesta-rocking sound.
And it has taken him all the way to the biggest stages of the world, from Coachella (with Beyoncé in 2018) to the Super Bowl (with Jennifer Lopez in 2020), turning “Mi Gente” into his people all around the globe.
The five-time Latin Grammy winner has done it all in a rule-breaking, trend-setting style that was squarely on display during his Alexa cover shoot in Manhattan’s Chelsea Studios, where Balvin brought his creative spirit to designer duds by legacy brands Balenciaga and Givenchy as well as cool couturiers Puppets and Puppets, and KidSuper.
For him, it was no different than telling a story with an album or a tour.
“The idea is always to make things that are cohesive, you know?” he says. “Also, when you do an editorial [shoot], you can try things you’ve never done before … It was really dope, really risky, but at the same time, I felt more comfortable than ever.”
Indeed, Balvin has been cozy with who he is — and what he looks like — from the very beginning of his career, even though it didn’t fit the male mold for Latin artists.
He has always been dancing — and dressing — to his own rhythm.
For Balvin, it’s all about expressing himself, onstage and off.
“Every day is like Fashion Week for me,” he says. “One of my favorite moments of the day is when I pick my looks.”
No doubt, it’s another creative calling for him.
“I love fashion in the same way that I love music,” he says. “I always think that fashion is the way you can, you know, speak about yourself without saying a word. I think it’s just like art. And if I can encourage people to be open to just try something different and forget about what people are gonna say, what people are gonna think … I want people to just be them, be what they want to be — and don’t be scared.”
It was that same fearlessness that allowed Balvin to unapologetically be himself — even outside of the traditional trappings of Latin music and culture.
“You know, reggaeton, for some years, has been mostly a super macho-man thing,” he says. “So they were saying, like, ‘He’s gay and s–t,’ which if I was gay, I’d be so happy to say, ‘Yeah, I’m gay — and I’m cool as f–k.’”
That cool AF energy is something that has paved the way for other Latin music men to become free fashion-thinkers.
“I definitely think I’m a part of that,” he says of influencing the brave new wave of Latin style studs — such as Bad Bunny, who has blown up since being featured with Balvin on Cardi B’s 2018 smash “I Like It.”
“You know, it’s not that he wasn’t going to make it without me, because he was going to make it no matter what. But I think I paved a faster way. I think we, like, already opened the eyes of the mainstream. And I’m happy for him.”
Whether it was becoming the first Latin artist to get his own Air Jordan sneakers collab or, for the hombres, his own Guess campaign, Balvin has been busting boundaries as much as beats.
“I have to definitely elevate my culture, man,” he says. “You know, I gotta give them the love and the respect we deserve. Through history, Latinos have always been kind of put in a box, and I’m like, ‘That’s not cool.’ I just want to let the world know that we can be in any room — it doesn’t matter what type of room it is.”
Balvin is particularly proud of representing Colombia in his country’s current music movement, with everyone from Maluma to Karol G making international noise.
“We just want to change the narrative of Colombia [to] being a place of good people with great talent,” he says of fighting against Pablo Escobar stereotypes. “We’re not just ‘Narcos.’ We’re not that. Our families work hard; our people have good hearts.”
In fact, Balvin joined Colombian queen Shakira as part of the Latin lovefest that was the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.
But while Bad Bunny was bumping with Shaki, he was grinding with J.Lo.
“We were close,” he says with a laugh. “It’s cool when you see it after and be like, ‘Whoa, that’s J.Lo. I grew up looking at her.’ It was just beautiful. It’s, like, the same as when I did Coachella with Beyoncé.”
Balvin also collaborates with Usher and DJ Khaled on his current single “Dientes,” which recently scored him his record-extending 36th No. 1 hit on the Billboard Latin Airplay chart.
And even with all of his Stateside success, he continues to perform in Spanish.
“They always told me, ‘Why you don’t do this s–t in English?’ and I’m like, ‘Because I don’t feel like I have to do this s–t in English for people to catch the vibe.’ I kept it real — and I feel so proud of it,” says Balvin, who will launch his “Que Bueno Volver a Verte” European tour in April. “When I’m somewhere like Singapore or Australia and people are trying to speak to me in Spanish, they’re like, ‘I’m learning Spanish because I want to know what you’re saying in your songs.’ To me, that goes beyond music.”
The day after wrapping his Alexa cover shoot in October, Balvin had a different kind of star-studded collaboration when he and Maluma ran into Britney Spears at the NYC members-only club Zero Bond, snapping a photo with the pop diva at their table.
“It was a special night, man,” he says. “We were like, ‘Yo, come over here — let’s have some drinks, let’s talk about life!’ And she was so nice; she came to the table. We told her how much we love her, how much we respect what she has done.”
Certainly, J Balvin — who shares his Medellín and Manhattan residences with his partner, Argentinian model Valentina Ferrer, and their 2-year-old son, Rio — is moving in much chicer circles than he was when he was painting houses in Miami before finding fame.
“I have this memory of being in Miami, so broke, but having the dream of being an artist [while] painting houses every day,” he recalls. “When I’m at The Setai [Miami Beach] hotel, I’m like, ‘I think I used to paint these elevators.’ And now I’m staying in the penthouse.”
Photographer: Greg Swales; Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Groomer: Melissa DeZarate at A-Frame Agency; Fashion Assistants: Alex Bullock, Jena Beck, Meghan Powers; Set Designer: Julia Payne; Photo Editor: Jessica Hober; Talent Booker: Patty Adams Martinez