“Can you button this?” Alex Honnold, one of the best rock climbers in the world, is holding his wrist out to me, so I can help him with the cuffs of his tuxedo shirt. “I can’t do buttons,” he says.
Video by Brenden Clarke and Adam Grabarnick
This is hard to comprehend given that Honnold’s fingertips have their own lexicon of dexterity: he uses them on a daily basis to wedge, grip, pinch, crimp and palm odd patterns in rock faces, sometimes thousands of feet up a cliff face without a rope. This skill is why climbing geeks — and now movie buffs — know his name.
Honnold is famous for his climbing, but he’s also the star of the 2018 film “Free Solo,” a documentary of Honnold tackling the famed 3,000-foot El Cap route in Yosemite National Park, completely un-roped. El Cap is usually conquered over the course of several days by climbers laced to the mountain with ropes and harnesses; Honnold completed it in just under four hours with little more than a chalk bag. The movie is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Today, the day of the Oscars, Honnold is standing in my hotel room at the Beverly Wilshire — he spent the morning in a climbing gym — as the Gear Patrol team gets set up to film a video with him.
Normally, you wouldn’t find Honnold in anything but shorts and a technical tee, with chalk in the creases of his fingers. “I wear approach shoes unless someone tells me not to,” Honnold says. Today, someone told him not to. Honnold is hours from walking the red carpet at the 91st Academy Awards. He’s traded them for shiny black lace-ups from Barney’s, and traditional black tie. If Honnold is stopped on the red carpet and asked the standard, “Who are you wearing?” he’ll have an interesting answer: The North Face, the legendary American outdoor company and Honnold’s apparel sponsor, made the tux. Look closely and you’ll see his pocket square is full of tiny little black-on-black The North Face logos.
The North Face, who this year is promoting its modern, minimalist lifestyle collection The Black Series, designed a custom tuxedo — slim fit, wool, one-button single-breasted — just for this occasion, and for the first time ever. The suit was tailored for Honnold’s unique build in a collaboration between Devon Scott, a New York City-based designer specializing in made-to-measure menswear, and The Black Series’s manager, Mona Al-Shaalan, who came to the brand by way of Alexander McQueen, Versace and Givenchy. Al-Shaalan and Scott rounded out the look with a custom cotton poplin white button-down shirt (with a touch of stretch for performance) and a black jacquard bow tie and pocket square.
“I’m honored they decided to rise to the occasion,” Honnold says of The North Face’s participation in his film success. “They made something nice for me. It’s classy.” It took three fittings across three states to get this suit to the finish line; the two designers would fly in on a day’s notice when an opening in Honnold’s whirlwind travel schedule appeared.
“He has really broad shoulders, like a swimmer,” Scott said to The North Face about the project. “A great canvas to drop cloth on.”
Al-Shaalan first presented six suit designs to Honnold, one of which mimicked his climbing apparel, which he shortens at the ankles and wrists for better performance. Honnold wanted something more classic: “I want to look totally normal,” he said. Of the six CAD drawings showing the same image of Honnold dressed in six different looks, he chose the most traditional silhouette, saying “I don’t want to be the one weird dude wearing the loud thing.”
The loudest option wasn’t actually the Thom Browne-esque cropped suit; one variation called for Honnold to wear a T-shirt under his suit, one that read “Walls are Meant for Climbing,” a political statement The North Face has been printing on apparel recently. The look went against Honnold’s goal of blending in — but he’s still carrying the message onto the red carpet: at the hotel, he has me insert a pin onto his lapel emblazoned with the same phrase.
The guy who lives in approach shoes knows more about wearing a tux than you’d expect. He shoots the cuffs of his shirt past the sleeve, so they show. “My girlfriend said that’s the way,” he says. “Just the tip.” It’s probably a joke, but it’s hard to tell. Honnold delivers everything in the same matter-of-fact tone.
In the end it’s climbing, not award shows, that Honnold wants to be thinking about. With the six-month film tour culminating tonight, in what would be the biggest award for the film yet (they recently won a British Academy Film Award for Best Documentary), Honnold is ready to ditch red carpets for foot holds.
“Everybody asks what’s next,” he says. “It’s just back to normal life. Continue to improve at climbing, maintain my relationship with my girlfriend, going on expeditions and climbing again.”
For more with Honnold — on the Oscars and climbing El Cap and his custom tuxedo — watch our video from the morning of the Academy Awards here.