‘I have to watch my mouth now I’m the boss’
It Girl turned entrepreneur Alexa Chung tells Charlie Gowans‑eglinton why she’s finally ready to settle down and get serious
On the first Saturday in December, small businesses up and down the country will be opening their doors to host events, offer discounts, and encourage us all to shop small, whether that’s supporting your local greengrocer rather than buying your milk at a superstore, or finding your party dress from an independent label instead of the high street.
Small Business Saturday is now in its fifth year and to mark its anniversary the initiative (originally founded by American Express) has asked Alexa Chung – Britain’s coolest It Girl – to get involved.
Chung may herself be something of a household name, but her own recently-founded business is undoubtedly small. In the past, she has lent her name to collaborations with big guns such as Marks & Spencer, Madewell and AG jeans, but she reclaimed it this year by launching her eponymous brand in April. And the realities of building a business with a team of 20 in a studio in east London are about as far away from M&S’S huge team – and deep pockets – as it’s possible to be.
“I used to be able to do pie in the sky ideas,” she says, “I realise now, in hindsight, that that was a very privileged experience. At the time I was thinking, “I’m slogging away at AG but actually I wasn’t. Now I’m so appreciative of the hard work that goes into stuff – they must have done about 20 production fits without me even being in the room, before they would show me something.” She laughs: “I’m coming to terms with the idea that I’ve been fairly spoilt for a long time.”
For Small Business Saturday, Chung has designed a bag for the first time. Which is ironic, since it was a bag that cemented her It Girl status some eight years ago. The £750 Mulberry Alexa was so popular, in fact, that it was credited with helping the British brand buck the recession sales slump in 2009, and for years after that.
Alexa’s own It bag couldn’t be more different from the first named after her. Blue gingham and branded with the letter A, it’s priced at £25 (available from Nov 15 at alexachung. com/amex), has been produced in limited quantities, and will raise money for Sarabande, a foundation founded by the late fashion designer Lee Alexander Mcqueen to provide scholarships for design students.
Supporting young talent is very much a priority for Chung, which makes sense when you consider her own career started when she was 16, after she was scouted for by a model agency at Reading festival. At 22, a job as co-host on Channel 4’s
Popworld launched her TV career, and spawned columns in Company magazine and The Independent – by 25, she was made a contributing editor at British Vogue, a magazine she grew up reading “in the hairdressers; I’ve still got the gold Millennium issue.”
This week, fashion headlines have largely been dominated by the debut of the “new” Vogue, under editor Edward Enninful. When previous editor Alexandra Shulman left after 25 years, she triggered a chain reaction of restructuring and redundancies. But Chung’s name can still be found among the contributing editors. She only met Enninful recently, but her role in the future of “new” Vogue was confirmed at the magazine’s launch party on Tuesday night when she was pictured chatting happily with her new boss.
However, more than anyone she is aware how fast the fashion sands can shift, which is why at 34, it made sense for Chung to start her own business “to create something more concrete”.
So, I wonder, does this mark a more settled period for her romantically too? In July, it was reported that she had split from Alexander Skarsgard, the Big Little Lies actor, after two years, and this week it was reported that she had rekindled her relationship with the first significant Alex in her life, Arctic Monkeys’ frontman Alex Turner (from whom she split in 2011 after four years together). Could this offer another reason that Chung wants to stay put for a while?
“I’m very ser-i-ous now,” she enunciates in a way to show a tongue is firmly in a cheek, while assiduously avoiding any direct questions about her love life, preferring to keep the conversation focused on her career. “I’m getting better at behaving more appropriately, given my role. For a while it was difficult to climb down from being, quote unquote an
‘I’m coming to terms with the idea that I’ve been fairly spoilt for a long time’
entertainer, when there was actual work to be done.” She is, she says, suddenly aware of how many traps are set up for women in charge. How it is so easy to be called highly strung, emotional, ball-busting, cold. “You can’t complain about something without being a bitch” she says, adding: “Talking to my CEO, sometimes he’ll encourage me to express an opinion on something, and I’ll say, ‘I can’t, can’t say it like that’ – because that’s not how you can communicate when you’re a woman in this context, because it comes off as this or that. These are the things you have to consider before opening your mouth.”
Modelling from such a young age, Chung is also acutely aware of the pressures on young girls in the fashion industry. The current revelations of sexually predatory photographers and mistreatment from casting agents are nothing new, though Chung herself never had any direct experience:
“I was lucky, because when I was a teenager and modelling, my sister, who’s eight years older, would come with me.” Did she ever feel vulnerable, I ask? “Not if she was there.”
However, the Weinstein scandal has confirmed for Chung the power struggles that go on behind the scenes. “I said to my mum – ‘This makes me feel sane’. I’ve been angry this whole time, because she didn’t bring me up letting me know about how unfair things were. It wasn’t until I was in the world, thinking that I was the same as my brothers, that I would come up against stuff and then think, ‘what? No! That’s not how this is supposed to go!’”
“Alec Baldwin got in trouble recently [for suggesting that the sexual assaults being reported in Hollywood were just as much a problem in the military, on Wall Street, and in Washington] but I think his point was that it’s pervasive of every industry, not just fashion, not just entertainment. A cultural shift has to happen. We need to encourage a culture of transparency. I think everyone has to take a look at how we’ve treated victims of abuse.”
In the fashion industry, sexual assaults are not the only issue that needs addressing. In the past, Chung has fallen under media scrutiny for her thin frame. In 2012, Twitter trolling and a candid Instagram picture deemed “too thin” forced her to deny rumours of an eating disorder; at the time she said, “It angers me because I don’t want to be a pin-up for young girls just for being thin. I don’t want to be admired for being thin, as opposed for being dressed well, and I don’t want the two to get confused.”
Now that Alexa is on the other side of the camera – art directing campaigns and presentations rather than starring in them – it is something she is constantly aware of.
Casting models for her second show, in Paris, Chung witnessed firsthand the French charter that aims to protect models from mistreatment by regulating working hours and requiring models to present a medical certificate of good health. It’s a good start, she agrees, but “we need more that works to protect models. Even when I was doing it, there was talk of a union.”
As a style leader, it would be fair to suppose that others will follow where this fashion pied piper leads them. However, it would be impossible to predict with 100 per cent accuracy what her next move will be.
Before she launched her own clothing line someone wrote an article with a picture guide of what they expected her to make. “And when that hit the desk?” she laughs. “We literally threw it all out. My instinct was to do the opposite.”
Boss lady: ahead of Small Business Saturday, Alexa Chung prepares to release her own It bag, above, from her own fashion brand
Style leader: with Edward Enninful, new editor of British Vogue, left; with Alex Turner, frontman of Arctic Monkeys, below