Today isn’t your ordinary Tuesday, it’s Alexa Chung’s birthday. While you celebrate with cat eyes and penny loafers, be sure to reread the cover story from our October 2013 issue about the eternal It Girl. She even talks about her birthday party in London, so if you’re looking for something to do tonight, go hunt out her massive party!
On a sunny Tuesday in New York, Alexa Chung sits slightly hunched in the backseat of an SUV at it weaves through crosstown traffic, trying to make sense of the word it, which has defined her for the better part of a decade. “It’s a funny title,” she says. “The older I get, the more I’m like, ‘Oh it’s not that bad.’ But when ‘it’ was first stuck on me, I was like”--Chung Draws herself up in mock seriousness--”‘No I’m not!’ I felt like that label was reserved for girls who were famous for being famous.”
Chung wears a white cap-sleeve blouse and black shorts, both by Isabel Marant, with red Marni sandals; a navy blue sweater is thrown over her shoulders. Her toes and fingernails are painted silver, and her eyes are accented by wings of black liner. Better known as a model-turned-TV presenter in the U.K., it was Chung’s well-documented look--a smart mix of tailored British classics with denim hot pants, ethereal dresses, vintage sweaters, tomboy brogues, and lady tweeds--that first got her noticed in America. While still in her twenties, Chung became a veteran of best-dressed lists, designed two collections for Madewell, inspired a best-selling Mulberry bag called the “Alexa,” and dated an Arctic Monkey.
She also captivated the attentions of notoriously tough-to-please designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, who declared her “beautiful and clever.” Erdem Moralioglu feels similarly. “Alexa wears things in her own way,” he explains. “When you dress someone like her, you see the piece as you imagined it when you designed it.” And Christopher Kane is quick to expound on Chung’s It girl status. “Alexa is so much more,” Kane says. “She’s a hard worker who has talent that prevails over many others. She oozes coolness.”
This year, Chung turns 30. Her American television debut, MTV’s It’s On With Alexa Chung, was canceled in 2009 after two seasons, but for the past year she’s been working full-time as an anchor for Fuse News, which airs weeknights on the eponymous cable channel. And this month, Penguin is releasing her first book, a collection of musings, drawings, and photographs called--what else?--It. The title was a joke, until it wasn’t. “It just felt like it couldn’t be anything else,” she says.
But it is also Chung’s way of taking ownership of a word that had been, as she says, “stuck” onto her. In the last year, Chung has posed for campaigns for L’Oréal haircare in England, French fine jewelry brand Agatha, and British beauty line Eyeko, and she currently serves as a brand ambassador for Mulberry and Louis Vuitton. A few months ago, Chung gave in and hired an assistant, Jason, who is now trailing us on a silver Vespa. Chung’s phone rings. “This is my agent,” she apologizes, and her typically husky voice ascends into a singsongy British tenor. “Hallo?”
Earlier in the day, Chung is at the Fuse News studios, which are on the ground floor of an office building situated across the street from Penn Station. The semi-circular stage is so overrun with snaking news tickers, pulsating volume bars, and light panels that it resembles the cockpit of a spaceship. The show airs at 8 p.m., and every day Chung and her co-host, Matte Babel, a camera-friendly Entertainment Tonight Canada correspondent with dimples and a megawatt smile, pre-tape segments for that evening’s program. On set, as in person, Chung is self-deprecating and witty. “I’m a little oily, huh?” she says to the makeup artist, who has approached to administer a touch-up. “I’m like a well-oiled machine.” For the show, Chung doesn’t work with a stylist and selects her clothes herself--in this case, the Marant outfit that will take her through the day.
“Matte, Alexa--home base!” a producer shouts, and Chung walks over to her mark while belting out Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It.” Just before the cameras roll, Babel asks Chung what she thinks of his new haircut. “It’s a little Kanye,” she teases.
Four, three, two, one, the producer counts off, and a very different Chung emerges. Her shoulders are back, her voice projects, and she inflects her speech in the exaggerated manner of a seasoned entertainer. “R. Kelly has a new album, and it is called... Black Panties,” she announces, punctuating the news with a sarcastic “Yep!” A few more takes and they move on to other news: MGMT’s new video for “Your Life Is a Lie,” Lil Wayne’s detainment by customs in Canada, and Perry Farrell’s performance at Lollapalooza.
At Fuse, few of Chung’s co-workers know much about her other life as a fashion world A-lister, and the disconnect extends both ways. “When I say I do this show with Alexa Chung, a lot of people are like, ‘She does TV?’” Babel says. “Her fashion platform is so much bigger that it overshadows her TV platform. But eventually, TV will catch up because she’s so crazy talented.”
After the taping, Chung and I climb into her SUV and head to the East Village, where her best friend Tennessee Thomas is hosting a party at her concept store, The Deep End Club. Chung greets a series of disheveled young men in T-shirts with a “Hey, dude,” and heads inside to browse an arrangement of kitschy knickknacks and artwork by The Moldy Peaches’ Adam Green. She finds Thomas and the two embrace. “This is a good addition!” says Chung, plucking a vintage straw hat off the shelf. She tries it on, and asks Jason to snap a photo.
It girls tend to congregate, so it’s no surprise that Thomas and Chung also hang out with Leigh Lezark, Sarah Sophie Flicker, and Harley Viera-Newton. “It’s not totally fair to call her an It girl because that title so often denotes a party girl who does nothing,” Viera-Newton later tells me. “And that couldn’t be more off-base for Alexa.”
Back outside, Chung runs into photographer and filmmaker Yelena Yemchuk. “I’ve been enjoying your Instagram,” Chung says. Yemchuk asks to shoot Chung “for this crazy wig thing” she’s doing. “Definitely,” Chung says.
As we leave the party and head to dinner, Chung acknowledges the divide between her two worlds, suggesting that her fashion- and music-world friends are not exactly tuned-in to her 9-to-5. “Everyone at that party was like, ‘How is your show going?’” she says. “But they have no idea.”
At the Bowery Hotel, Chung orders a plate of burrata cheese, polenta fries, and Maker’s Mark with ginger ale. “Sadly, I know the menu by heart,” she admits. The hotel was her base while she worked on her first Madewell collection back in 2010, and it is also where she first met with publishers last year. ”‘How would you feel if I wrote a book?’” Chung recalls asking. “And everyone was like, ‘Pretty good, actually!’”
But Chung wasn’t interested in writing a prescriptive style tome, which was precisely what drew her editor at Penguin, Helen Conford, to the project. “It was a much more creative, exploratory process,” says Conford. They spoke on the phone every week, and Chung, who doesn’t have Microsoft Word on her computer, wrote most of it over a seriesof emails to Conford. “They were like love letters to Helen,” Chung explains.
The book is a loosely chronological arrangement of Chung’s personal writing, intimate photographs, and illustrations. Less an autobiography than a diaristic scrapbook, it indirectly tells the story of the making of Alexa Chung--a part-Chinese girl from provincial Privett, England, with a pet pony named Pip (“She was ploddy, difficult to jump…”) and an unabashed love of the Spice Girls (“My mother let me dye my hair like Ginger Spice”). The youngest of four siblings, Chung attributes her fashion sense to her father, Phil, a retired graphic designer with a sharp eye for composition, and her mother, Gil, a homemaker who favored classic loafers and Burberry trenches. Her other influences are revealed via pop cultural muses, such as Liv Tyler’s character in Empire Records (“an ironic take on schoolgirl stripper outfits”), Winona Ryder’s Veronica in Heathers (“the preppy Waspy penny loafer and kilt combo is killer”), and--this being Chung--George Harrison (“Denim on denim has often been cited as a big no-no. But on George, it works perfectly.”).
Perhaps in part due to what she calls a “zero boob, skinny legs combo,” Chung was scouted at the Reading Festival at the age of 16, and signed to Storm Model Management. She worked for brands like Urban Outfitters, Tampax, and Fanta, and then, at 22, Chung did what few models do six years into a budding career--she quit, citing common side-effects of the profession: boredom and low self-esteem. She intended to study art or journalism, but instead got a job as the co-host of Popworld, a British music show that aired on Channel 4. A series of other music- and style-themed TV gigs followed, but by then Chung had become as recognized for her style as anything else. Chung has been asked how she chooses her outfits so often that she addressed it in the book in the form of a five-step How-To list, which is both literal (Step 2: “Is it clean?”) and tongue-in-cheek (Step 4: “Put it on and this is crucial…look in a mirror”). “That was me being huffy,” Chung admits. “I could never be that earnest about it because I don’t want people to think that I think I’m that great.”
In her late teens, Chung lived with boyfriend David Titlow, a fashion photographer 20 years her senior, but her most high-profile relationship to date was with Alex Turner, the lead singer of Arctic Monkeys. Turner and Chung broke up in 2011, and since then Chung says that she has continued to gravitate toward musicians. She’s still trying to understand the attraction.
“I don’t know if it’s me picking them or them picking me,” she says. “I love music and it’s something I’m not accomplished in, so I guess I’m always impressed. Plus, I’m a strong, real woman and I think you need a man who’s willing to take that on”--here, her tone goes a little sarcastic--“and who better to do that than an egotistical, self-absorbed…?” She laughs, and lets the thought trail off. “And you know, power is attractive.”
In the book, Chung offers some advice for the brokenhearted, from song recommendations (“Strange” by Patsy Cline) to the hazards of Instagram (“Every time you post a picture of yourself looking fake-happy, a fairy dies”). She says that it wasn’t one doomed relationship, but several that had given the book a recurring breakup theme. “I didn’t realize how sad it was until I reread it,” she says, “but I’m proud that I was able to be honest about that. It’s OK to be sad. You know, people go through shit.”
Suddenly Chung wants to show a video on her iPhone. In it, she is handed a galley of the book; her face melts into a smile and her eyes well up a little. “I’m sort of closing a chapter,” she says. “Someone said to me the other day, your twenties sort of happen to you and you can’t really control what you’re doing, and then in your thirties, you get to choose how you want to shape what happened to you.”
Chung insists that she has no “master plan” for what’s next, but immediately shuts down the possibility of pursuing music or acting. (“I know what I am not good at,” she says.) But does “closing a chapter” with a book called It mean that she wants to gracefully age out of being an It girl? Chung answers the question with a question. “Is Kate Moss still an It girl? Charlotte Rampling? Jane Birkin?” she asks. “I wouldn’t rank myself alongside those women, but if the It girls of yesteryear are still ‘It’…I don’t think any of them lost what made them unique.”
They never lost it, no, but they also didn’t reveal it as willingly as Chung has in her new book with recipe-like instructions on how to achieve “I-don’t-give-a-fuck bedhead” and eye makeup that “looks like you’ve lived in it for a day.” In this part-memoir, part-manual, Chung has left a trail of bread crumbs for her imitators. And as soon as such a thing is out in the world, it’s inevitable that its author would continue to reinvent to maintain the mystique. As many of the looks that Chung once helped popularize have gone mainstream, she finds herself moving toward a more grown-up, elegant style. She recalls being on a shoot recently and wincing after being handed a dress with a Peter Pan collar. “Whereas for years Tennessee and I would just dream of finding the perfect one!” she says. The other day, she even wore a tight black dress that “some might consider sexy.”
Chung plans to throw a “massive party” in England for her birthday, and she would also like to take a vacation, of which she’s notified her “team”: British and American publicists, British and American TV agents, a DJ agent, a modeling agent, and a lawyer. She’s also told her assistant, whom she’s still getting used to having around. “I would have never gotten one before,” she says. “Like, that’s what wanky famous people get. The other day, I was like, ‘Jason, I’m sorry to be incredibly stereotypical, but please can you collect my dry-cleaning?’ Ugh. Disgusting!” -- IRINA ALEKSANDER