THE A GAME
Alexa Chung has been many things, but now she’s finally honing in on her true self. By Alice Birrell. Styled by Lucinda Chambers. Photographed by Mario Testino.
Alexa Chung has been many things, but now she’s finally honing in on her true self.
Ihave interrupted Alexa Chung. She was just getting “really into some jazz muzak”, as she calls it, in her hotel room at Le Meurice in Paris when my phone call came in. “Kanye and Jay made a very famous song here,” she’s telling me, the Jay being Jay-Z, as she turns down the jazz while politely apologising. In a previous interview I’d also interrupted her in the middle of a closet purge when she’d lamented finding “handbags with stashes of weird shit in them; there’s a bag and inside that bag there’s another bag with three weird band T-shirts,” she had said by way of an introduction. It’s easy to imagine this is the way a lot of people meet Chung: in a state of doing, her default setting, and today is no different.
It’s Paris fashion week and instead of attending shows she’s skipping out on the apex of the fashion calendar and playing host to editors and buyers who have come to see her new self-titled label. Having spent much of the past 15-plus years attending, this is newish to her. “I did all the shows in Milan,” she offers, pronouncing it “Mill-Anne”, the way Britons do. “It’s only been four days of not going to shows – I went to Gucci and Prada – but it’s just this week. It’s sad to miss things, because it looks really nice.”
Chung is adjusting to the unfamiliar feeling. Her new label is the culmination of years of speculation, and something that took so long, she says, because it meant saying no. “I’m not someone who’s able to be not busy, so I just kept creating projects,” she explains. “Then at some point I realised I need to work towards finding investment, setting everything up, and that means turning down other things.”
She comes across as the right amount of self-aware, rather than self-involved. Anything too serious is bookended by wisecracks and a pithiness that makes her seem old, but with a slang that is a reminder she’s still young. “I could have really done it when I was, like, 27,” the now-33-year-old explains, “but I was out every night raging. I had to sort out my life. It was either, start a fashion line or become a weird Homeland blogger fan,” she says of the TV show she avidly watches.
Historically, if there’s something going on somewhere, Chung has often found herself at the epicentre. Fashion Zeitgeist? She’s started them. A television show? She’s hosted both the music and fashion types. Books? She’s written one. She’s famously recounted that a lot of this was not her active choice. “The problem is I didn’t really start in fashion. At 15 I was modelling and then I gave up and then I did TV,” she says. “The rest of my involvement in the industry was kind of like other people saying: ‘What are you wearing?’ and ‘Do this magazine!’ and ‘What are you wearing now?’, ‘Come and sit at this fashion show!’ and: ‘What are you wearing?’,” she says in mock parroting of the press circus.
After a stint on British music show Popworld, Chung moved to New York for an MTV presenting job. Next came campaigns with brands like L’Oréal, Longchamp and Superga, as did sell-out collaborations with AG Denim, Madewell and Marks & Spencer. Chung, though, was just riding with it. “I think in the middle I felt like I’d lost my way a bit and felt a bit vacuous,” she recalls. “I sort of started feeling like a helium balloon that had floated away too far … There was a bit when I was like: ‘Oh, I gave up everything for this interview, and no-one even knew that I did it’.”
She’s not playing poor little famous girl though. She now appreciates that it satisfied her creatively. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what anyone gave me; what they gave me was an outlet of expression for my brain, which I realise I value more than anything else,” she says. “I’m grateful that people have propelled me into this position.”
With the Alexachung label, it is the first time she’s been able to marry up her skill sets – writing, branding, designing, presenting – into a single ambition. Her name alone is ominously on everything. “[It] took a bit of a psychological step to commit and to stand by it, and even to call it my own name, because shit, there’s no hiding behind that.” The label is a masculine-feminine blend of Brian Jones meets George Harrison rock’n’roll suiting, tea dresses and leather outerwear. British classicism creeps in with gabardine A-line skirts and trenches. A cheongsam-style mini-dress in smoke blue with gobstopper pearl fastenings encapsulates a vintage lilt with a youthful eccentricity, as do striped mohair grandpa jumpers. Divided into four collections a year, it is party, weekend, work and holiday appropriate. Jewellery, shoes and denim fill out the gaps in between.
Priced between $150 and $2,500, some pieces sold out hours after the see-now-buy-now late-May launch on Alexachung.com, as they are also likely to on Net-A-Porter.com, Mytheresa.com and other top-end stockists. The collection is mainly manufactured in Portugal, while the leather and denim pieces are made in Italy; jackets come from the same factories as Lanvin and Dolce & Gabbana.
The team behind it Chung personally selected: managing director Edwin Bodson is the former commercial director at Haider Ackermann, and the rest just fit. “They’re certainly not like fans,” she says of the Shoreditch studio employees. “One girl came in … I loved because she in no way pandered to me. She came in a tracksuit and talked about Arsenal. I hate football and I was like: ‘Oh well, this girl obviously hasn’t Google-imaged [me] and has no idea what I’m into.’”
It will be hard for most to detach what they know of Chung from her designs with her level of visibility. When this is put to her, she’s direct. “I can’t be fully objective, because I’m inside of my own body, but I’m really intrigued by whether that’s a question that’s applicable to Isabel Marant or Stella McCartney or any other female designer. Do they design for themselves or do they design according to what they’re dreaming up?” Perhaps it would be fairest to say that her style and her output in design terms are inextricably linked. “It might be the case that Isabel Marant’s clothes are an extension of her personal style,” she continues, “not that anyone is going to hang me on the hook for that, because I’ve been known for that and it doesn’t discredit what we’ve been making, but I think it could limit the scope of the brand if I were to just think of things I would wear,” she says.
She’s grappling with something that follows a lot of women who expand their personal brand into a commercial entity. Critics had sharpened pencils at the ready for Victoria Beckham, the Olsens at The Row, and Karlie Kloss. The former two parties have proved their design muscle time and again, Kloss silenced her critics with her intelligent endeavours, and Chung for one is not purporting to be something she’s not. “I try not to compare myself,” she says. “I think I have an appreciation for all the amazing designers – like Erdem or Christopher Kane or J.W. Anderson – they are phenomenally talented, but I just don’t see myself as doing the same thing in many ways … I’m not Margiela.”
Her sharp, street-wise approach to life comes from being exposed to the drawbacks of not just one, but many jobs. She shrugs off a lot, including the idea that she may be interesting to write about. “I’m pretty dull,” she says. She’s engaged though, and uses her social media platforms to support equality, beam out anti-Trump sentiment and encourage people to vote. “I would hope that I am shouting about equality and women’s rights,” she says, before asking, concerned, if I think that it’s clear from the outside (it is). She doesn’t feel that fashion has become any less alluring as a whole. “I nearly puked yesterday, because I bought some Isabel Marant trousers and I thought they were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen! I get really excited.”
Alexa Chung the label is an unprecedented setting down of roots for Alexa Chung the person. “There’s like a baseline fulfilment or feeling like I’m home. It’s really weird to describe,” she says. “I’ve managed to tether myself to something that is a bit more weighty.” Although the helium balloon has descended toward ground level, she still has ties in both New York and London. For now, she’s London-based to be close to the Shoreditch studio. “Until anyone reads this, my friends will still think I live in New York and they’ll get really upset with me,” she says, laughing.
She’s suddenly serious and concentrates on the next question relating to what arenas she might yet explore creatively. The answer, though, is characteristic Chung drollness. “I went to this bar in New York. It’s a tiny bar and the guy running it had this karaoke machine, which meant he got to sing every fourth song, and I was like: ‘Oh my god, that is my dream job!’” What she maybe can’t shrug off with dry wit and a laugh is that if all goes well, this current one might already be it.
Alexa Chung wears an Alexachung top, $675, and dress, $2,260. Diane von Furstenberg scarf, $240. Stylist’s own vintage beret. Fashion details last pages.