The 27-year-old defended the "Watermelon Sugar" crooner after his controversial Vogue cover — where he sported a lace-trimmed dress and Gucci jacket for the December issue (and looked as stylish as ever) — was released. Although Styles made history as the first solo male to be featured on the fashion magazine cover, he received backlash for his gender-bending attire.
"I thought it was great," Payne said of Styles' cover. "I think he's enjoying himself and he's free to do as he wishes. I just think that people don't need to be so bothered about stuff. There's been a lot more stuff going on this year than whether or not he's wearing the right clothes in someone else's mind."
The "Strip That Down" singer added that Styles, 26, "never really lost himself, even in spite of everything."
Payne and Styles performed together for six years in the iconic band alongside Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik, who left the band in 2015. The group announced their hiatus one year after Malik's departure and has yet to announce a reconciliation anytime soon. Styles went solo in 2017 and released his self-titled first album followed by Fine Line, which dropped one year later.
"After the band, we didn't speak for a long time and then I remember seeing him, it was actually at a Jingle Bell Ball, backstage for the first time in a long time," Payne recalled. "He's still the same guy he always was when we left each other in that dressing room as the band kind of stopped for a little bit."
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Styles briefly touched on his time in the beloved band during his Vogue cover interview, which was published last month. "I think the typical thing is to come out of a band like that and almost feel like you have to apologize for being in it. But I loved my time in it," the "Golden" singer said. "It was all new to me, and I was trying to learn as much as I could."
He added: "I wanted to soak it in. ... I think that's probably why I like traveling now — soaking stuff up."
The English singer was previously slammed by conservative author and commentator Candace Owens for rocking a high-fashion dress for the December cover. "There is no society that can survive without strong men," she wrote via Twitter on November 14. "The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men."
After Styles' fans bashed Owens for shaming the musical artist, he threw shade at the author, who not only dissed the 1D member but also anyone who does not conform to her views.
The "Adore You" singer posted a photo — which garnered over eight million likes — of himself in a frilly blue suit looking unbothered while eating a banana. He captioned the photo: "Bring back manly men," which is what Owens requested after seeing Styles' killer photoshoot.