‘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

The Daily Telegraph - - News review features -

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

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