Go right ahead, judge Zooey Deschanel by her outfit. “Fashion is a way of communicating,” says the actress, who is, at this moment, curled up on a worn-in sofa in the living room of the Los Feliz location where she was just photographed for Lucky’s cover. “You’re saying, ‘Hi, world! How are you? This is me today. Take me or leave me!’?”
Deschanel’s outfit is not what you’d expect. It doesn’t scream “quirky girl on the set” or “radiate rainbows, unicorns and multi-colored Tootsie Rolls” (to quote Jimmy Kimmel’s recent introduction of her on his talk show). It doesn’t conjure up visions of a person who plays the ukulele, bakes brownie-bar cookies and dreams of inventing a robot to do her gardening (though she does, charmingly, do all of those things).
Instead, here is Deschanel in AG skinny jeans, an A.P.C. striped top, Chanel ballet flats and—it’s an unusually chilly evening in L.A.—a classic Burberry trench coat. The New Girl star looks modern, chic and even a bit serious. If the outfit could talk, it might say, “Don’t underestimate me.”
At 34, with over 40 movies, four albums as part of the folksy pop duo She & Him and a hit TV show, Deschanel is less indie crush, more crossover success. Over six million people tune in weekly to watch her, as New Girl’s Jess, navigate her way in and out of screwball situations—recent episodes found her in a Batman costume, pretending to be Michael Keaton (long story), and accidentally/on purpose hitting a roommate with her car (he deserved it). A million readers monthly flock to Hello Giggles, the website she started with her friends as an antidote to the Internet’s unchecked mean streak (sample posts: “Dear Mothers, Stop Calling Your Daughters Fat” and “Cuteness Break: Cats Wearing Leaves Like Hats”). The star’s witty red-carpet manicures—mustaches! tuxedos! anchors!—are colossally “liked,” pinned and YouTube-tutorialized, while on Twitter, shots of her rescue puppies, Zelda and Dot, melt the hearts of her five-million-plus followers.
But despite Deschanel’s very vast and substantial accomplishments, there’s a certain notion of the star that just seems to stick. “The funny thing is, people think I never break out of this one box,” she says, not so much annoyed as perplexed.
“I like what I like,” she continues. “It has nothing to do with trends or being a slave to fashion. Sometimes things will be in style and they’re classic and look great, and sometimes …” She trails off, before resuming in a voice solemn enough to deliver the nightly news, “I think it’s important to recognize when fashion has gone to a place that isn’t cute.”
With her trademark bangs, wide-open blue eyes and penchant for color, cardigans and retro-inspired dresses, it would take a concentrated effort for Deschanel not to be cute. Though she loves jeans (besides her AGs, Paige and J Brand are favorites) it wasn’t always that way. “I remember playing in the dirt when I was two years old,” she tells me. “My mom took me back to the car to change me into a clean outfit, and I started crying because I had to put on jeans. I knew I liked dresses. I was always very aware of clothes.”
Deschanel’s fashion identity was forged during her tumultuous preteen years at Santa Monica’s hippie-yet-exclusive Crossroads School, where she was on the outs with the in crowd. In eighth grade she started sewing her own clothes and saving up allowances for Salvation Army shopping sprees. “I realized that you can actually spend very little money and put something together that looks great and sets you apart,” she says. “Being able to express myself through fashion made me confident.”
When she kicked off her teenage Breakfast at Tiffany’s phase, she created the perfect Holly Golightly look with a black cocktail dress she found for $15 at a vintage store. By high school, her love of retro, feminine pieces was so ingrained that she’d even do homework in full princess regalia. “There’s a picture of me I wish I could find,” she says. “I would buy these big, cheap, fluffy ’50s prom dresses from thrift stores and just put them on with a tiara and sit and type at my computer. My room was a total messy-teenager disaster area, but I’d have on a vintage dress and my hair would be perfect.”
Her style has since grown up while maintaining that quintessential Zooey-ness. In constant rotation in her closet these days are slim black pants and boots (her on-set uniform) and, for after those long shooting days, men’s-style PJ’s with piping (“I want to look cute while I’m sleeping,” she says). Still, she maintains a weakness for vintage looks: Her best score ever was a ’60s Courrèges ski suit she found in a New Orleans thrift store for 30 dollars while on tour with She & Him.
Making vintage—or any outfit, really—work, Deschanel says, is a matter of dressing for your body. “If you look at anyone with great style—Jackie Onassis, Audrey Hepburn—they have certain silhouettes that they don’t really stray from,” she says. “It’s not like Audrey Hepburn was running around in a bunch of giant shoulder-padded dresses.” Like those icons, this star has a keen understanding of what looks good—and what doesn’t—on her. “I have narrow shoulders and a small rib cage, so some things just swallow me up and make me look frumpy,” she says. You won’t catch her in blousy ’80s cuts (“not flattering, in my opinion”) or certain colors. “I hate to say it, but chartreuse is an ugly color—it just is,” she says, appearing momentarily concerned that she might alienate some militant faction of chartreuse constituents. And forget about anything too revealing. “Daisy Dukes are not for people over 30. I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that right now.”
Starting this spring, it will be easier than ever to dress like Deschanel. She’s launching a collection of classic, all-American dresses, with a bit of a mod streak, in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger. “I’ve always wanted to design my own clothes, and it was important that they’d be affordable. I didn’t want to exclude anyone,” says Deschanel. “The dresses are really fun.”
So forget fads, she advises, and follow your gut. “If you feel unhappy putting on your clothes, that’s not the way it should be,” she says. “Sometimes the fashion world can get overly serious. The whole point is that it should make you feel good about yourself. If it doesn’t, walk away.”
But because this is L.A., nobody walks away. Before the star can hop into her car and drive off—she has to get home to walk her dogs—she can’t resist showing me a photo of Zelda and Dot snuggled up together. “Aren’t they adorable?” she says. Of course they are.