Stylist meets style icon Alexa Chung to find out exactly how she always looks so enviably good
Photography: Ben Rayner
Fashion: Alexandra Fullerton
Words: Helen Bownass
Photography director: Tom Gormer
Alexa Chung is obsessed with clothes. Not just the look of them. But the fit of them. The cut of them. The feel and challenge of them. At our photo shoot in New York, she’s in turmoil over whether to buy a vintage shirt she saw last week. “I’ve been imagining our life together,” she laughs. “I’ve pictured us frolicking on a plane. Worn with dungarees walking down Second [Avenue]. But the thought of adding any more clothes to my wardrobe makes me feel a bit sick.”
Laughing is something 32-year-old Chung does a lot. She is pure fun. Two weeks earlier when we first meet in London, despite the fact she’s been awake since 4am with jetlag after flying in from LA, she whirlwinds into the suite at the Rosewood hotel. As well as intelligent conversations about the nature of fashion, our interview also covers tattoos (“I’ve thought about getting one a lot,” she admits. “I recently got gifted a prison tattoo kit. So I tattooed my friend, and it went very well. I gave her a polar bear”); Bernie Sanders and the fact she is “thinking of taking psychic classes” because she has “weird instincts for things, it’s often synchronicity overload”. At one point I even find myself singing Do The Bartman to her after she tells me it’s the first cassette her brother Dominic ever bought (hers was Madonna’s Immaculate Collection). She’s totally unflustered by the outburst.
Fast forward to when Stylist sets up camp in a studio in the endlessly cool Meatpacking district of New York – Chung, who grew up in Hampshire with three siblings, and parents, Phil and Gill, now lives part-time in Manhattan and the rest of the time in East London – she is equally affable. She sings throughout our shoot – the same couple of lines from the same couple of songs (Nick Jonas’ Jealous and You Give Me Something by James Morrison). She also does a lot of impressions, from her friends to random people in the street to characters in Vinyl, the TV show she discusses with the crew over lunch. After a decade in front of the camera as a model, TV presenter and fashion muse, she is totally at ease in front of the photographer’s lens; it is sickeningly impossible to take a bad photograph of her.
After both encounters I’m left with a gnawing sensation, a deeply uncool journalistic admission, that I really want Chung to like me. I want to be in her WhatsApp group. I want to drink flat whites with her at her favourite coffee shop in the East Village. To do a bit of cod psychology – the best kind – it’s not hard to connect the dots over why her approval is so desirable. She is the ultimate tastemaker. The woman that every fashion student and every brand, from high end to high street, feature on their moodboard season after season. Year after year. She still tops every best-dressed list. Validation from Chung is worth it.
She’s already lent that might to her collection for AG Jeans, been an ambassador for Chanel, had that bag named after her by Mulberry, while her first independent fashion label is in the offing. But, for now, her current passion project, and the reason we’ve flown across the Atlantic, is her new collection with high street stalwarts Marks & Spencer. Archive by Alexa, released on 13 April, is full of useful essentials with a traditional twist and saw her diving into the M&S archive – spanning the Forties to the Noughties – to pick her favourite items, which were then reborn into a 31-piece womenswear line. The pie-crust collar shirts and classic white sneakers with yes/no detail will sell out, we’ll put money on it.
What do you think your clothes say about you?
Oh my god, I don’t know. Do you know? What would you hope they project? It’s more instinctive. I think about clothes a lot, but I think they’re a good way of expressing yourself. All you’re expressing is your you-ness. I like to feel like myself.
Do you apply any kind of logic to getting dressed?
The advantage I have is I really do adore clothes so I’m often thinking about them and already editing in my mind what would or wouldn’t suit me. I like stuff that makes you feel something. It’s the only thing where you can actually go on first impressions. And then sometimes I like the challenge of having to slot in something that’s uglier and figure out how to make that look nice. Sometimes if it’s a vintage thing I’ll buy it and I’ll be like, ‘That’s not for right now but in the future I can imagine that working’.
You often take items like a Barbour or high-waisted jeans that are bit ‘Home Counties riding mum’ and subvert them…
[Laughs] I think that’s because of growing up in the British countryside; I can’t escape that background. But also your eyes just get used to a certain type of dressing and then it’s just in your DNA, isn’t it?
Is fashion a visceral thing for you?
Yes because I think ultimately, as sort of ridiculous as getting dressed is – and it is literally the most shallow pursuit – it can be emotionally impactful. When I went to Leeds [to visit the Marks & Spencer archive] they had this dress from a woman who had worn it on her first date with her late husband. I started crying. When something has sentimental value or emotional resonance then that’s when fashion gets elevated to something meaningful.
Do you plan your outfits?
Day to day, no. I get in the shower and then think about it. I’m quite lucky because I don’t have an office job or any kind of uniform to adhere to. I have a shower, do some intensive body moisturising and then get dressed. Make-up and hair is at the end: I wash it, comb it, put it behind my ears and hope for the best. I wash it every day. I’ve got about three strands that get greasier than Danny Zuko in one second.
When has your hair looked its all-time best?
At one Chanel show a few years ago, I smashed it. This stylist came round to help me and it was lovely. It’s never looked that good again!
I remember thinking that day: this is it, this is the day [laughs].
Once you’ve decided on an outfit are you steadfast in your decision?
No and it alters throughout the day. I’ll come home, I’ll be bored, put a different pair of shoes on. Maybe I get the external pressure of knowing I’m meeting a friend who’s really chic and then you kind of adapt it, which is a really weird thing to do anyway: to try and match what someone else looks like.
So if you’re meeting someone super groomed you’ll echo that vibe?
Often if I am under too much pressure to look a certain way, I panic and then go back to just looking insanely scruffy. I had a meeting yesterday where I had to look feminine. I was in the shower and thought, ‘I should probably wear a nice top or a dress’. And then I was like, ‘No f*** that’, so I wore wide-legged trousers and a man’s shirt.
How do you work with proportions?
Balance is key, but there’s no one rule because it’s dependent on each item. I don’t suit puffy trousers or harem trousers. I’ve got very small shoulders so I have to keep it big up here, but not on the leg. Also I don’t really have a full-length mirror. I have to feel whether something might look proportionally correct.
Hang on, you don’t have a proper mirror?
I found one on the street in New York and I put that in my room but now it’s covered by clothes. I have one in my bathroom that goes down to there [indicates her waist] and then on the way out of the building I check the lobby mirror.
What doesn’t suit you?
I feel like the older I get, the harder it is to buy a cheap dress and make it look expensive. It just looks ageing or something.
Does getting older worry you?
No it doesn’t, but you’re aware of what suits. You evolve as you get older; you just don’t want to wear the same thing. I don’t want to wear a smock dress and loafers anymore. I’m bored of it.
What item do you rely most upon in your wardrobe?
Some Victorian-style boots I bought in a really sh*t shop in New York. I don’t even like them that much but they’re a mid-heel, easy to walk in and go with everything. When I travel all I really wear is 20% of what I pack – a pair of jeans, a couple of jumpers and those f***ing boots.
Where is your favourite place to shop in New York?
I do enjoy a trip to Opening Ceremony. But mainly the vintage guys. There’s a shop called Stella Dallas [218 Thompson Street] that’s very good.
What about on the UK high street?
Zara does great pieces inspired by the catwalk. Sometimes if you see a piece and don’t want to spend the money you can fill in your wardrobe. Uniqlo for socks and cashmere jumpers – I often buy men’s because it’s a thicker gauge, Muji is good for T-shirts and then a classic pack of pants from M&S – I bought the black high briefs the other day. For work I have to wear flesh-colour thongs a lot, which is such a shame. It’s all great from the outside until you get home, then it’s not the sexiest moment!
What were you trying to achieve with the Archive by Alexa collection?
I think I created things in my brain I thought existed – fantasy items that I imagine existed in the past that I’d sort of seen snippets of through my dad’s wardrobe, my mum’s wardrobe – and then it was like a treasure hunt to match them with what was in my mind.
What was your decision-making process like as you were going through the archive?
I think something that might be a fault in other areas of my life is actually a strength with something like this. I’m highly hyperbolic and make snap decisions on whether I do or don’t like something. So in an editing process, this the only job where having the ability to be like, ‘Yes!’ ‘No!’ ‘Absolutely not!’ was quite helpful.
Do you have any early Marks & Spencer shopping memories?
I got my first bra there obviously. There wasn’t much to measure though so we started in the crop top department then I remember at secondary school girls started wearing actual bras, and you could see them through their shirts and I thought, ‘Oh my god I’ve got to catch up’. There was a big M&S in Hedge End and me and my mum used to go there.
I used to go there with my mum!
It was something I would really cherish, because it was time alone with her. Even at nine years old I’d be trying to dress her. She’d say, “What do you think? Will that make me look short?” And I’d be like, “Roll up that cuff. Pick that”.
What about other formative teen shopping experiences?
In sixth form I really liked charity shops. No-one else wanted to go in them so I used to score heavy. Once I got this red knitted jumper that a granny had made that said Queen on the front. I wish I still had that. Do you remember when tartan happened in 1996? I had some hipster, cropped, flared tartan trousers and I went to someone’s house party and these other boys from a different school were like, “Ew flares”. I got really embarrassed because no-one else was really wearing them yet and I just felt like a loser. I never wore them again.
Do you ever worry about other people’s reactions now?
There’s pressure to put something together but… I get it wrong all the time. If you live in New York in the winter there’s no getting it right. [Laughs] The other day, I came out of a ballet class, got my picture taken by this paparazzi I didn’t see and I had a really weird combination of sh*t on. I always used to see pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker in a parka and Ugg boots and think, ‘What are you doing?’ And then I moved here and I was like, ‘Oh. My. God. Get me that duvet coat’.
What was your school uniform like?
Primary school was a brown pleated skirt, brown cardigan, pale blue shirt and a gold tie, how’d you feel about that? I mean it was tough in a netball tournament, I’ll tell you that. And then at secondary, all of the above but in navy blue.
Did you customise it?
In secondary school I rolled my skirt up. It was cool one year to have a very skinny tie, the other year it was cool to have a really fat tie. Then there was a trend where you wrote your favourite historical celebrities on your tie. When I say favourite historical celebrities, actually I think we were doing a dictators class and so it sort of skewed more that way. Shoes were so important too. I couldn’t bear it if people had the same thing as me.
Which is interesting when your look is emulated so much. How do you feel when you go to the Royal Oak [a pub in East London local to Alexa] and there are 15 women dressed like you?
I don’t go to the Royal Oak any more so… [laughs] I’ve moved up the road. Now it’s kind of hard to trace isn’t it? I don’t know who’s copying who any more. Pixie [Geldof] bought the same Liberty sofa as me and I thought that was a step too far. [Laughs] Skirt, fine! Interiors? Let’s just step off for a second. What’s weird is my sister and I have almost identical taste and often we’ll turn up in the same outfit.
You’re a keen reader. Was there a fictional character’s style you wanted to copy as a teen?
I was too busy watching Home And Away and wanting to look like Angel. With the two plaits. I weirdly thought Drazic from Heartbreak High was so cool too and wanted an eyebrow ring.
Who do you look to for style inspiration now?
I think I’m always absorbing information when it comes to that. Like, yesterday, I went to Soho House and saw a woman in a big red dress, I was like, ‘Oh that’s sick’. I’ll walk down the street thinking, ‘Oh yeah I want a big red dress like that and then I’d put it with shiny black boots…’
Do you ever get lost in a spiral of looking at pictures of people you don’t know on Instagram?
Yes! My favourite is when someone I don’t know comments [on a picture of Alexa], “Thought this was you” [to one of their friends]. My friends and I have a WhatsApp group and they’ll be like, “Look at who thought this was you today”. And you’ll think, ‘What the f***?!’ Or, ‘That’s great!’ Then I’ll look at the commenter’s profile, and their mate Harry’s profile and then I’ll look at their mate Harry’s girlfriend’s profile and then I’ll look at their mate Harry’s girlfriend’s dog’s one.
Do those girls ever actually look like you?
There’s one girl who does an impression of me and it’s spot on. I’m worried about her bank account because I don’t actually own a lot of the things that I wear in a photo shoot, for example, and then she’s wearing it.
Living between New York and London with such an huge wardrobe, how do you manage?
I have storage. I was in a shop in LA the other day trying on some shoes and this old lady was sitting there who was obviously bored. She was like [puts on a fake American accent], “Which colour are you getting? Come and model them for me.” So I did. Then she said, “How many shoes do you have?” And I thought, you’re f***ing with the wrong person here… And she was like, “How many do you think you have? Because I have my apartment and I have to have a storage space.” I said “I’ve got my apartment, a storage space and a house in London and a loft and my parents’ house…” Then I thought, ‘Why am I bullying an old lady?!’ [Laughs]
Ever considered having seasonal clear outs?
No, I should but I don’t. I live in a very small apartment, I don’t have enough room for my things. I was lucky enough to have a lady who came round to help me arrange my wardrobe in England. One day my dream would be to unite both sides of the Atlantic in one. Maybe I’ll move to Iceland and be in the middle.
Do you have duplicates?
I’ve had to stop myself. I went into Muji the other day to get a steamer and was like, “Ooh a Breton top selection”. And my friend Fifi said, “What are you doing? No!”
Would you ever do a Marie Kondo and declutter your wardrobe?
I saw that [book] in the airport and thought, ‘Ugh’. I think I thrive on complicated situations. And if it was all easy-peasy then I’d find
a way to mess it up.
Are you good at hanging your clothes up?
No. Oh my god, you just reminded me of my mum so much because that’s all I could hear when I was a kid: “Alexa, you should really hang this up!” No, no thanks.