Print exclusive: Alexa Chung’s next act
Everyone’s favorite Brit style star is now a fashion designer with her own label. The multi-hyphenate talks to VASSI CHAMBERLAIN about finding her true calling, dating Tarzan and whether she’d ever fall for a girl
Has Alexa Chung – fashion’s millennial poster child – finally figured out who she is? Last year, the delicate looking 34-year-old Brit found herself sitting next to the artist John Currin at a Louis Vuitton dinner in New York. He had no idea who she was and asked her what she did for a living. Chung, who normally speaks in a torrent of words, found herself unusually stuck. What should she say – TV presenter, model, cover-girl, writer, street-style star, occasional DJ, fashion collaborator, designer? The moment prompted a mini existential crisis. All were technically correct, but who did she actually want to be?
Chung has always been an enigma, as much to herself as anyone else – both present and elusive at the same time; always in the right place, wearing looks that are social-media catnip – demure but buttoned-up sexy, something always a little off-kilter – as close to French-girl style as a Brit will ever get. She has worked with many brands (Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, DKNY, Mulberry – the Alexa handbag was one of their biggest sellers – and J.Crew, among many others) and, just when it looks like she is in danger of over-commercializing her name, she evanesces, like a beautiful hologram, and does something completely different. Interviewing her is famously unpredictable because she is clever and amusingly sly at subverting information. And she always travels with ammo. I am told a publicist will be present during our interview. It seems odd that Chung needs bodyguarding. I mention this to her team not expecting any change, but then word comes through that she will be alone.
The venue for our un-chaperoned date is the office – a members-only converted factory workspace in Hackney, east London, with a ground-floor vegan café teeming with facial hair, tattoos and big ideas – of her two-year-old eponymous fashion label. The brand’s ethos is inspired by moments in time that resonate with her. For the collection shown here, it’s Charleston – home of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group – which drew together a set of creative women, both artists and writers, who influenced and inspired each other, and whose mood we have recreated with the help of two of the UK’s most interesting young literary talents, playwright Polly Stenham and poet Greta Bellamacina.
Chung is sitting at a table by the window with her ex-Haider Ackermann CEO, Edwin Bodson, presumably talking shop. She jumps up to say hello – huge smile, all elongated limbs and nervous kinetic energy. She’s in dungarees of her own design and a gray sweatshirt she bought off “a rude woman in LA” that says Beatles 1983 (“I love fake merch”). Her fine chestnut hair is shiny and a little longer than normal, and her skin is the sort only youth can buy. If she’s wearing any makeup, it’s a sweep of mascara and a stroke of eyeliner – her trademark cat-eye flicks enhance the curvature of her almond-shaped, and almost fluorescent blue, eyes. Her beauty in the flesh is so exactly perfect, you stare a beat longer than you mean to.
We move to a table overlooking the building’s inner courtyard and order coffee. “And a little custard donut for me please,” she says, placing a packet of Marlboro Gold and a lighter decisively between us. “Interesting, no one has ever asked me that before,” she says, fiddling with the metal ‘A’ dangling off the end of her zipper, when I ask her who she was before she was famous. “I grew up in a really posh village in Hampshire,” she says. Her mother, who worked as an optician and who she frequently refers to by her first name, Gillian, is English, and her graphic-designer father, Phil, “Tooty” or “Tooty Pips” to her, is three-quarters Chinese. Art was a regular topic at family dinners – she is the youngest of four by eight years – and the Chung children were taken on art expeditions to London. Gillian listened to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (a cerebral station for middle England armchair intellects) in the kitchen, and discussed politics and culture with her daughter, passing her whatever book she’d just finished reading. While her brothers and elder sister listened to house music and all went to art college, she, the straight-A student of the family, considered herself “the least fun Chung”.
Modeling is set up to be a power dynamic that’s not in your favor. You turn up to castings with adults who either treat you well or are really creepy. And loads of them were creepy as f**k”
She understood her family was “other” compared to those in the village, and a part of her longed to be more normal, to fit in. “They were very cosmopolitan,” she says of her parents, “but I really wanted to embrace this country lifestyle, in a way that they weren’t bothered about.” She aped the life of the archetypal British country girl – she rode her pony wearing the uniform of the country set: Hunter wellington boots and Barbour jackets. The video she released to celebrate her first collection showed her on horseback in a dressage ring.
Whether it’s because she was the ignored youngest child or because she had an eye for mischief (probably a little of both), she enjoyed drawing attention to herself. Whenever workmen visited the house she would set up an easel and draw somewhere visible, or walk past with a stack of books, willing them to notice her. “This is the mistake I keep making in adult life, too,” she says, of her love for setting up scenarios. “It’s my way of getting people’s attention, so they will think I’m really sophisticated.”
This nascent attraction to glamour is partly to blame for derailing her academic plans. She was due to go to university but the matter was taken out of her hands when she was scouted at 16 at Reading Festival. “I can never figure out how all of this happened,” she says, of what came next. “One minute I was in a field, and the next it all just… you know… the whirlwind.” She modeled for teen magazines and took part in campaigns for Fanta, Tampax and Urban Outfitters. She has spoken in the past of the issues she had with body-shaming as a model but not if she ever encountered any harassment of any kind. What bothered her most was the relationship between models, who were young and often still at school, and the agents who were supposed to protect them. Except she found the reality to be very different. “So, it’s already set up to be a power dynamic that’s not in your favor,” she says. “You turn up to castings with adults who either treat you well or are really creepy. And loads of them were creepy as f**k.” She also suffered from racial discrimination when her last name was removed from her modeling card, “because they didn’t want to scare off the clients with an Asian surname”.
She soon quit modeling and started appearing in music videos for Brit bands like The Streets and Westlife. Her exuberant presence and clever way with words was picked up by TV bosses. One of her first jobs was on Channel 4’s Popworld. She fell in love with music and bands the first time she saw The Strokes live and she became known as the girl who asked music legends, such as Slash and Paul McCartney, sarcastic questions. As her exposure grew, so did her profile, from home-grown quirky talent – the beautiful girl with the posh voice, dressed like a wayward debutante who interviews rock stars – to international It Girl.
What looked like her big professional break, a gig with MTV, came when she moved to New York with her then boyfriend, Alex Turner, the charismatic lead singer of the young indie rock band, Arctic Monkeys. It should have been the moment that catapulted her to the next level but the show was quickly canceled. “I felt humiliated and heartbroken, I’d been skipping through life until that moment, thinking, ‘I’m the queen of everything,’ and they were like, ‘You’re crap at your job.’ As a people-pleaser, that was very hard to take.” Her weight (she has always been naturally thin) plummeted. “It was so stressful and traumatizing. I weighed, like, 1lb – it was insane. I never had a chance to eat. I was too busy and then too un-hungry, and then too nervous.” America didn’t suit her, either; she felt lonely and isolated, particularly as her boyfriend was constantly on tour and she had no friends. Less than a year after they had arrived, the pair decided to move back to London.
I remember reading her account in The Sunday Times’ Day In The Life Of column from around that time, where she talked openly about her relationship with Turner. It was touching and revealing. She cringes when I mention it; she didn’t mean to share so much. “I was backstage when that article came out, and his manager was there. We had the newspapers in front of us and I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to be in trouble for over-sharing.’ We didn’t know not to do that. It was like, ‘We’re 12 and we’re in love!’ And then afterwards it was like, ‘Oh my God…’ Terrible. Yeah, then we broke up.”
She could have retreated, given up, but it’s testament to her mettle and strength of character that she decided to give New York another go, although she has always found the dating scene hard to fathom: “The fact that you can even date several people simultaneously blows my mind. Like it literally makes me clutch my petticoat.” Two new TV shows followed, but neither worked out. This time she decided to stay put in America. When her first collections with Madewell, and then with AG Jeans, proved successful and as more and more brands came calling and her social-media feeds grew, she decided to concentrate on fashion and capitalize on her momentum as an emerging street-style star. She was busier than ever, but internally she was still reeling from her recent upheavals, both romantic and professional, and decided, amidst it all, to take a year off. She spent it following one of her best friends, Tennessee Thomas, DJ-ing in a New York club called The Cabin, hanging out beside her at the decks. “I talked endlessly to Tennessee, poor girl. She was there for the heartbreak years. I think we spent thousands of dollars on booze and eggs. Then I fell in love with Tarzan.”
Having a partner in life must be quite nice, but I don’t need a wedding day. Also, I don’t subscribe to the fact that you need one man to be happy: I think it’s a crappy, anti-feminist sentiment”
For the last few minutes, even though she’s been talking ten to the dozen, I’ve watched her fingers do a little dance with the cigarette packet, inching slowly towards it then moving away. This time she picks it up. “Can we smoke?” she asks. I don’t smoke but I go outside with her. She leans against the piping that runs down the building and exhales. “He’s an amazing man, very structured, responsible and supportive,” she says, about who it’s not yet clear. “He’s very good at, not making me more grown up, per se, but at making me take myself more seriously.” I realize she’s talking about ‘Tarzan’, the actor Alexander Skarsgård, the man who she calls “completely un-my type”, the one who convinced her to take the next professional step to become a fashion designer in her own right, one not propped up by another brand.
It’s not the only time she interjects the conversation to talk about the influence men have had in her life, how they have been mentors to her. “Men have really blueprinted the whole thing,” she says. It turns out modeling wasn’t the only reason she didn’t go to university. She had fallen in love with a man 20 years her senior, the photographer and former musician, David Titlow. “So, I did a degree in pop culture instead from years gone by,” she says. Titlow would pick her up from shoots beeping the horn of his car. “I’d look out of the window and he’d be standing on top of his Mini.” It was Titlow who eventually pulled the plug on their relationship. “He said, ‘I think it’s time for you to go, Dolly.’” She was confused and told him she loved him. He told her it was time she went out on her own. “It was so sad,” she says. But he left her with a gift that she still deploys to this day. “He was like, ‘Here’s all the cool music you need,’ and with every boy after that, I’ve been like, ‘Oh, you haven’t heard of X-Ray Spex?’” And, considering the way she describes her ensuing love life as “a revolving door of boys with long hair and leather jackets”, you can see why she is forever thankful to him for the apprenticeship he gave her.
She proceeds to tell me the story of her life in boys, all off the record, how she had her first boyfriend at 12, fell in love at 16 (“Tom, what a babe”), and how she is currently spinning many plates at once. When she brought home her first “clean-cut looking boy”, the doorman of her New York apartment high-fived him on his way in. The conversation I thought she’d been having with her CEO as I walked in had in fact been about her love life. “He’s incredibly switched on for a businessman,” she says. “He told me the problem I have is that not many people are tuned in to ‘Chung FM’.” What does that mean? “That I’m quite floopsy-boopsy,” she says. “My grasp on reality, I think, is a little bit too thin. You know, like everything’s psychedelic to me at all times. Nothing really matters, it all just seems like a weird game.”
When she announced she would finally launch her own brand, it was assumed she would give up all other collaborations and focus just on that. But that wasn’t what immediately happened. Hearing her describe it you begin to understand why she can’t give up everything, and why she is still in the process of adjusting to just one endeavor. “I still have a few things coming,” she says, which include a documentary, although about what she won’t say, mentioning something about needing to use her brain in a more grown-up way. “Psychologically, letting go of those cushions is quite tricky.”
But she appears to be now doing so. She realized two collections in that she needed to be more present, not to go back and forth. “I got scared in one meeting and I was like, ‘I am f*g here, and I’m going to do it.’” She admits it was a lot of pressure at first. She was growing increasingly annoyed with people asking her how much actual designing she does. Now she is fully present and all the hallmarks of her trademark style details: oversize collars, baby-doll shapes, a sort of modern Virgin Suicides look, are all there. She says she’s attracted to the subculture of the 1970s and describes the influence of social media, such as Instagram, on fashion as having “flattened the aesthetic landscape”, adding, “it’s hard not to be basic these days”, meaning everyone dresses the same.
When her father asked her if she’d ever been to Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury Group, it immediately set her on a course that gave birth to the collection she, and the writers Polly Stenham and Greta Bellamacina, are wearing in these pictures. “I just liked this idea of a gaggle of mates in a certain era, all sharing experiences and talents, all being at the forefront of their domain, just smashing life. Being total lushes. And painting all these lovely things.”
The result is a collection that feels authentic and strong and, more importantly, individual to her. Her next one is inspired by groupies and she’s been texting the actress Liv Tyler’s mother, Bebe Buell, known as the original groupie, for inspiration. What’s incontrovertible is her ambition; it pours out of every pore, something her family teases her about. “My brother texted me the other day and was like, ‘How are you?’, I was like, ‘Fine, thank you.’ He was like, ‘Bruised head from trying to break through that f*g glass ceiling again?’, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, every day.’”
It takes a while for us to notice the man hovering by our table. I assume he is here to give Chung a message, or remind her of her next appointment. “Could you autograph this for me?” he finally says, handing her a sheet of A4 plain white paper. “Um, yes, of course,” she says. “It’s for a Secret Santa,” he adds. “Can you address it, ‘To Emily’?” Chung catches my eye and we both try not to giggle. “I’m going to draw a picture of the same man I always do, this weird unknown man that comes out, I have no idea who he is,” she says, doodling a head with a speech bubble that says, ‘ho, ho, ho’.
I’m long overdue losing my lesbian virginity. I would never discount the idea that I could have a relationship with a woman… I haven’t been sexually attracted to one yet”
He’s not our only visitor. A few tables away is the beautiful ex-model, now also a fashion designer, Susie Cave, whose label, The Vampire’s Wife, has become a cult buy for London girls. “We wanted to come over and say hello,” she and another girl say to Chung as they approach our table. A few days later, Chung will make it into the tabloids at a launch for the brand, wearing one of Cave’s dresses. After they leave, we talk about other, similar girls she admires, such as actress Sienna Miller. “I think she’s potentially the most gorgeous human on the planet… beautiful, funny and whip-smart… style coming out of her elbows,” she says, virtually expiring.
Now that she’s 34, has her own label, is settled back in London, living in a cottage close to the office, she says she spends her days cooking for herself, taking ballet classes, watching her favorite movies, like When Harry Met Sally and Die Hard and listening to ABBA. Apparently, she never takes her makeup off at night. “No never, most mornings I look like Pat Benatar,” she says, referring to the 1980s American rockstar with the heavy eye makeup. Is she thinking of settling down, having children maybe? “I just don’t get why marriage is different from non-marriage – I just don’t get it.” I tell her she will know when she’s met the right person, but she doesn’t look convinced. “I think having a partner in life must be quite nice but I don’t need a wedding day per se. Also, I don’t subscribe to the fact that you need one man to be happy: I think it’s a really crappy, anti-feminist sentiment.” But it is not said aggressively. And children? A friend recently told her they didn’t think she was very maternal. “I took great offense to that,” she says, “then tried to build a case as to why I was.” Her friend, Jenny, told her she’d make a great mother because she’s always encouraging imagination in her friends. “Jenny said, ‘Whenever I think something’s not possible, you always say that it is.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, Jenny!’”
But before she does any of the above, there is a millennial notch she still has to carve on her bed post. “I’m long overdue losing my lesbian virginity,” she says. Really? “No, but I just think it’s super old-fashioned to expect anything from anyone, I think everyone is on a spectrum of whatever they prefer.” Has she ever been tempted? “I would never discount the idea that I could have a relationship with a woman at some point. I haven’t been sexually attracted to one yet.” We discuss the sexual mechanics of sleeping with a girl – she graphically explains how she is prepared to do certain things, but maybe not all. Then we’re back to boys because it’s clear she just loves them. Has she ever dated her friend Harry Styles? “No. Too young.” Is there a boy she loves at the moment? “Yes, several. I have a very confusing love life currently.”
Maybe Chung just isn’t the settling-down type. When she first started going out with Skarsgård they lived in an apartment opposite her old haunt, The Cabin. “For a good nine months, he had to peel my face off the window, literally. I’d be like, ‘I think I can see Matt Hitt, a model and singer down there.’ And he’d be like, ‘OK, he’s always going to be down there.’” They are no longer together, although she gives a sense that there might still be unfinished business between them. Again, those spinning plates.
“Do you think it’s driven me cray-cray?” she asks, when I ask her how fame has affected her. Despite the requisite appearances on the red carpet at events like the Met Ball, what’s obvious to anyone who follows her is the tight-knit circle she hangs with – Bob Geldof’s daughter, Pixie; model Jack Guinness; radio DJ Nick Grimshaw; best friends Tennessee Thomas and her label’s art director Fifi Brown, who she says really gets “Chung FM”. Does she make new friends easily? “Put it this way, new friends come with recommendations,” she says, with a smile. Loosely translated: no, she doesn’t. How does she protect herself from hangers-on? She tells me her group has a code name for them – they call them “mateys”. “Because sometimes you allow a matey in, but you don’t notice they are a matey and then they might show you their behavior and you’re like, that person’s a matey.” But it sounds like it’s more a case of self-protection than unfriendliness.
Before we say goodbye, she tells me a story about fame that should silence anyone who thinks she takes herself too seriously. “A friend tells me to meet her outside our favorite New York club and I think to myself, that’s odd, we’re grown-up girls, we normally walk into clubs on our own. So, I’m standing on the pavement smoking a cigarette when I see this Victoria’s Secret model walking towards me, and I think to myself, where there’s a VS model there’s usually… ‘Hey, lovely to meet you, this is Leo,’ she says, gesturing to DiCaprio. And I say, ‘Lovely to meet you too, come on in.’ So I walk in and say, ‘I guess we can sit here.’ I’m about to go back to the DJ booth and he’s like: ‘Oh sorry, can I get two vodka cranberries please.’ He thought I was a waitress – that wasn’t how I thought it would go.” She rolls her eyes, bangs the table and laughs so loudly every person in the room turns around.
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