closet genius

Known as much for her personal style (does this woman ever not look good?) as her acting talent, Rachel Bilson takes time out from her busy fashion-entrepreneurial life to go to the mall, share a cupcake and discuss the importance of neon, neutrals and jammies.

Prior to meeting Rachel Bilson, I spend an arguably creepy number of hours looking at photos of her. What starts out as homework soon morphs into obsession: How is it that everything she puts on looks completely amazing? Even in that whole shorts-long-sweater-semi-clunky-boots thing we’ve seen and done a million times, the woman is freaking transcendent. So naturally, when I finally meet Bilson in a Los Angeles suburb, at the dancing fountain outside an upscale shopping center’s Cheesecake Factory (my friend Molly, apoplectic, cries, “You’re taking Rachel Bilson to a Cheesecake Factory? In Glendale?” and I’m all, “Jeez, I’m just meeting her there!”) and she’s wearing a boxy sweater woven with an enormous puppy design, I feel a little let down. Why is this sartorial Einstein wearing the sweater I wore the first day of fifth grade? But then she gets closer and it becomes apparent that, once again, Rachel Bilson looks exactly right for this moment. Her velvety brown eyes, made up with sparkly gold liner and dark shadow, have given her a sort of Ava Gardner–goes-to-the-mall look. Everyone else is taking off and putting on layers, fussing with scarves. Not Bilson. She’s working jeans and a puppy schmatta and still, the effect is somewhere between can’t-look-away and a wonderfully natural addition to the landscape, like a petite, brunette Fallingwater. Michael Bublé suddenly blasts from the mall speakers. “Oh, no,” she says. “We’re getting Bublified.”

I feel the urge to pinch her cheeks and her size 5 patent leather Chanel boots. Instead I say, “I love your bag.”

“It’s Phillip Lim,” she says. “It was a gift.”

“Oh,” I say, like a fool, “from who?” and just as I realize my mistake and say, “From Phillip Lim,” Bilson answers, “From Phillip Lim.” We laugh. Then I say, “I love your sweater,” even though, truthfully, I merely appreciate it, and she says, “It’s from Topshop.” And again, à deux, we say, “Don’t you wish there was a Topshop in L.A.?” Then we giggle like schoolgirls.

And sure, that’s cute, in a way, but I’m not here to make friends. I want intel. So far I’ve got: (a) puppy sweaters and (b) shoes are cuter in size 5.

We will walk around the mall. She will tell me about her new shoe line, Shoemint, which had its soft launch in November and goes wide this season, and she will tell me about her new film, called Life Happens, in which Bilson plays the best friend of a young woman who has a surprise pregnancy, and her CW show, Hart of Dixie, which debuted last fall, in which she plays a big-city doctor who moves to Alabama to take over her dead father’s practice, save lives and (spoiler alert) take a hayride. But that’s just the sideshow. What I really want to pry out of the adorable head perched atop her itsy-bitsy frame are the secrets behind her flawless, effortless dressing.

As we make our way across the Americana’s resplendent courtyard, Bilson tells me about her life, making liberal use of the word “lucky.” She’s so lucky to have had great parents: a writer/director father and a sex therapist mother (seems too easy/tacky to delve into) who live here in L.A., her hometown. Lucky her mother was into vintage clothes, and that her aunt, film producer Julie Bilson Ahlberg, taught her all about Diana Vreeland and Coco Chanel. But her greatest stroke of luck may have come when she was 21. One minute, she recalls, she was “sort of pretending to go to college in San Diego” and the next she was playing snob turned tree-hugger Summer Roberts on colossal WB hit The O.C., wherein hot young rich people exchange rapid-fire pop culture references while jumping in and out of pools and luxury automobiles. Bilson looked great doing all that, and she was also, as we say in Cali, hella funny, plus—never bad for business—her on-screen chemistry with costar Adam Brody soon ignited in real life. They quickly became the tabloids’ go-to fantasy/real-life hot young lovers, the Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart of the early oughts, minus the slouching and Inexplicable Heroin Face. Bilson also shared a tabloid-friendly friendship with costar Mischa Barton. “I just had absolutely no idea that all that—being on The O.C., dating Adam—was going to end up being so invasive,” she says. The attention wasn’t all bad. Summer’s bikinis got her on hot/sexy men’s magazine lists; Bilson’s Ali MacGraw ease/Jackie Kennedy class got her on best-dressed/beautiful lists. After The O.C. ended its four-season run in 2007, Bilson’s acting career slowed down a little—she guest-starred on Chuck and appeared in an extremely odd, Mentos-esque premium ice cream commercial directed by Karl Lagerfeld (“He eats nothing,” says Bilson) that was, mercifully, not shown on American television. She did one big movie, Jumper, with Hayden Christensen, who became her (currently on-again, kind of living together, I love the way he dresses, he hates when I wear harem pants, and that’s all you’re getting, thanks) boyfriend. While some young actresses may have seen this break from daily responsibilities as an opportunity to build a substantial record of appearing drunk in public, Bilson instead built a career in fashion and design, doing a line with Donna Karan (lots of vests and black, modern tailoring), partnering with Sunglass Hut (she’s their Style Ambassador) and teaming up with Macy’s on a line of tableware and linens (romantic and flower-strewn). Bilson’s entrepreneurial streak and multi-platform engagement in the fashion industry might lead you to believe she routinely stakes out front-row seats alongside Chloë Sevigny at The Shows, but Bilson’s truly more fan than fashionista. Watching fashion shows is part of her job, but she prefers to do it on her laptop, on her couch, in pajamas, alongside Shoemint codesigner, best friend and O.C. wardrobe department alum Nicole Chavez. “I just really love being in my pajamas,” Bilson says. Any fashion rules about jammies? “Hell, no. My mother just got me a pair of Miss Piggy pajamas, and I love them.” Though she dresses like a goddess, Bilson refuses to mock the mortals, as much as I try to provoke her. As we mall-troll, I encourage her to play “What’s wrong with this picture?” with two young girls in tight jeans, boots and belted sweaters.

“I’m not a hater,” she says, but I do finally get a few Bilson don’ts: “I don’t like high-waisted skinny jeans.”

“That’s it?” I say. “What about ruffled sweaters?”

“I’m not going to lie to you, I think I might have worn a sweater with a ruffle.”

“Okay. Here’s one: when girls part their hair way over on the side. What do you think about that?”

“I’ve never done that,” she says. “Maybe they’re trying to hide a bald spot, or, in California, they’re trying to be, like, cholitas.”

“Hot girls wearing giant nerd glasses?”

Bilson shrugs. “I think it totally depends on the person, if they can pull it off.” It’s always disappointing when I have a craving for dirtand get sugar, but apparently Bilson used up all her snark playing Summer, and I respect that.

A girl walks by wearing less than one might expect on a day like today—that is, a day where there are other people around, people who have eyes. Bilson’s apparently too nice to even see her, but when I describe her, she says, “I guess I’m not too crazy about slutty dresses.” She rarely shows cleavage, though she doesn’t mind when Summer Roberts did or Dr. Zoe Hart does. “I don’t mind being the center of attention as a character,” she says. “But in real life it’s not for me. Zoe’s from New York and very fashion-savvy. She also wears shorts, a lot. It’s her ‘thing.’ ” I’ve seen Bilson in some not-unrevealing clothing, but it’s true she’s never looked slutty. So how does a lady tell when she’s crossed the border from Sexyville into Slutsburgh? She laughs. “You try something on, and if you feel like a slut, you probably look like one.” I open up my folder of Bilson outfit pics—marked RACHEL OMG I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU WHY WON'T YOU CALL ME BACK?—which I’m hoping will help me figure out how her outfits happen. We start with her doing promotion for Hart of Dixie in a tan skirt, white shirt and bright aqua platform heels. The shoes are from her line, and it’s pretty cool not only that she’s actually wearing them but also that they only cost $79 and totally make the outfit. “Nicole [who is also her stylist] and I built that outfit around the shoes. I seem to naturally go to neutrals, with a pop of color. I’m a really big accessories person. You wear a plain T-shirt and jeans and then do something really cool with the jeans or the amazing shoes, or a really cool scarf or belt or bag.” She points to her brightly colored Phillip Lim duffel—case in point. Is that really it? Is that really her secret? Neutrals with a pop of color?

Bilson has a small meltdown trying to decide what exact sort of coconut cupcake
we should get. In her defense, there are probably 10 kinds of coconut cupcake: toasted, banana, vanilla, strawberry, mocha. “You choose!” Bilson cries, and I understand what she means when she says that Chavez “keeps her in line.” Using first forks, then our hands, we devour a toasted coconut as Bilson continues to analyze her style. “I like to be comfortable, and I don’t like to be cold, and I don’t like to wear anything I’m not in the mood for.” Doesn’t she ever not know what she’s in the mood for? “Of course,” she says. She points to a photo of herself in a black dress paired with sleek hair and a stack of thick gold bangles. “I was totally PMSing that day, and I just freaked out and wore a dress backward.” So, while most of us just get bloated and cranky at that time of the month, Bilson is merely vaulted to greater heights of inspiration.

Now she’s got to get home to meet a friend who’s helping her clean her closet, which she swears is a disaster. I inform her that her partner in European premium ice cream sales, Karl Lagerfeld, is a notoriously unforgiving de-clutterer. “I want him to come over and help me throw out scarves,” she says, and then sighs happily. “I can’t wait to get home and get into my Miss Piggy pajamas.

You wonder if perhaps this is the Bilson secret: She dresses so well because by simply trying to achieve the level of comfort she feels in a pair of pajamas, she always looks at ease, which, really, is the essence of elegance. You try to explain this to her, and she says she doesn’t understand. “Forget it,” you say, thinking of PMS, a backward dress and effortless perfection, because, really, you don’t understand either.

Click through the slideshow below to see more pictures from Rachel's shoot and her favorite things:

“This outfit is very fun and flirty. The top is very decorative—the ultimate piece to spruce up any outfit—and I am a die-hard Chanel fan.”

Plus, watch video from behind the scenes of Rachel's shoot courtesy of Who What Wear!

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