Alexa Chung: 'I Don't Want To Mess Up'

Read the full interview with our December cover star Alexa Chung

MOST POPULAR

With her new fashion app Villoid, Alexa Chung is turning her style instinct into a big business, offering cool outfit ideas to inspire you at the touch of a button. Here, for her fourth ELLE cover, we asked Alexa's most fashionable friends to dress her, as she talks tech, confidence and finding her own versions of sexy.

Imagine you could get it right every time you got dressed, that whenever you stepped out the door, you were the most stylish version of yourself. That wearing your own clothes was always a joy, and you never had to cry, ‘But I’ve got nothing to wear!’ before slamming your wardrobe door and kicking over a washing basket full of Breton tops and not-quite-right high-waisted jeans. Imagine, for a moment, you were Alexa Chung – possibly one of the best-dressed women in the world right now. You might never, ever look as good in a pair of dungarees as her (she’s a model; give yourself a break), but now her expert eye and fashion instinct, along with those of her stylish friends such as Pixie Geldof and Tennessee Thomas, are at your fingertips, thanks to her game-changing new business venture, Villoid.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Alexa styled by 

ALEXA

MOST POPULAR

‘This feels very fresh. I love Isa Arfen. Gingham is my favourite print and the full sleevesmake me want to dance.’

‘I didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that the way I put outfits together is still more high street than high-end on a daily basis,’ she says of the concept for › the app. ‘I get invited to events and I may borrow a dress, but if I’m getting something for myself it might be from Zara, mixed with something from Liberty. I still feel uncomfortable spending vast amounts of money on clothes. So Villoid had to reflect that.’

Alexa’s fashion pulling power goes well beyond street-style snaps and Facebook likes. She won British Style Icon for three years running at the British Fashion Awards, bagged five ELLE Style Awards, and tops pretty much every Best Dressed list out there. Her eponymous Mulberry bag remains one of its all-time bestsellers, while she single-handedly helped to jump-start Marks & Spencer’s first profit rise in four years in May of this year (prompting its first-ever online waiting list) when she wore that mid-length brown suede skirt. Of course, the two collections she designed for AG Jeans sold out quicker than Glastonbury tickets. 

Alexa Styled by

HENRY HOLLAND

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

'Alexa’s vibe is totally disco-punk. Think Debbie Harry mixed with The Mudd Club, with a bit of We’re Desperate, by Jim Jocoy.’

The 31-year-old has influence and clout within the fashion industry coupled with consumer appeal, shaping countless fashion moments in a way only legends such as Kate Moss have done before her. As one of her favourite designers Erdem says, ‘An intelligent beauty always marches to the beat of her own drum.’ 

Alexa has a huge fanbase on social media (nearly two million on Instagram and 1.5 million on Twitter), so she speaks to an awful lot of us every day. And she speaks with personality to boot, making her a thoroughly modern kind of style icon.

When I sit down with Alexa in the sumptuous foyer in Claridge’s in London, she’s exhausted from a busy few days of long-haul travel, shows and parties. Of course, even the sleep deprivation does nothing to dim a luminous face that is even more beautiful in real life (believe the hype). Alexa is as chatty and animated as I expected, but I’m also impressed to find that she’s taking her new role of businesswoman-cum-tech entrepreneur seriously.

Alexa styled by

PIXIE GELDOF

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

‘My Alexa is basically a Seventies groupie, like Kate Hudson’s character in Almost Famous.

I’d pop her in a crochet top, add some big knickers and a suede sheepskin coat, and call it a day.’

Villoid is a virtual dressing-up app on your phone where you can create Pinterest-like moodboards using products ranging from Asos to Acne and Miu Miu. You can share your style, follow friends and – here’s the clever bit – every item can be clicked on and purchased. 

‘I want Villoid to be fashion insiders sharing in an all-encompassing way,’ she tells me. ‘I want to be an authority on it without being condescending. More like, “If you need help, here we are.” Fashion’s a huge part of my life, but I don’t necessarily feel comfortable always talking about clothes on my personal social media. I wanted a purer place for the fashion stuff to live.’

MOST POPULAR

Though ‘100% interested’ in learning the business side of things, Alexa admits she doesn’t ask for algorithm breakdowns, ‘I’m not Koding With Karlie yet,’ she says. ‘But I will ask, “Can we make it faster to get to this page or how can we make this function easier?”’

Alexa styled by

DAISY LOWE

‘I dream of Alexa in a pastelmohair cardigan, her bra and a pencil skirt. Meow!’

What she has brought to the project is her exacting eye and a flair for writing and design – both of which have already been showcased in her 2013 book, It.‘I’m all over the copy and design, and that’s how we set the tone. That’s my particular job, so I feel responsible. I work closely with Fifi [Brown], one of my oldest friends. She has always served me and my brain – if I was doing something embarrassing or not genuine, she would be the first to call bullsh*t. Not necessarily vocally, but I always hold her in my mind as that barometer. 

'When I used to work in television, a tip was rather than looking down the barrel of the camera and imagine people watching, which is terrifying, imagine your most discerning friend observing you and imagine you’re just talking to them. And I’ve always done that. So I thought, “If I get Fifi involved, then tonally it’s going to be correct.”’

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Alexa styled by

HARLEY VIERA-NEWTON

‘Alexa, for me, has an early Fifties power vibe. I’ve taken Lauren Bacall in a suit and crossed herwith Reese Witherspoon’s character Jennifer in Pleasantville.’

It all sounds like a lot of fun, going to work with your best mate and getting to play tech entrepreneur. However, the job isn’t without its pressures. ‘When it comes to the creative, I want to be in control. You saw me on the shoot. If I don’t like it, I can’t do it. It would be different if there were more people fronting the project, but if something fails and you’re the face of it in whatever capacity, you’re blamed. I don’t want to mess up.’

Earlier in the week, I watched Alexa posing for the camera on her cover shoot and was genuinely awestruck by the way she took control. It’s a funny kind of talent. Goofing and messing around one minute, poised and focused the next, her modelling instincts are sharp as ever. She was in constant conversation with photographer Matt Irwin and ELLE Fashion Director Anne-Marie Curtis, questioning the right look for the next shot (‘that dress feels like the old me’) or suggesting different angles to show off the clothes.

When it comes to fashion, the same rules apply. Alexa dresses herself (no stylist) and never panders to expectation. At Fashion Week, she’s pictured in a number of long, high-necked, long-sleeved peasant dresses. Any lesser mortal would struggle to pull it off, but she kills it every time. 

‘I feel uncomfortable in anything tight or body-con,’ she says. ‘Anything sexy, I don’t feel myself in. I don’t know what the psychology behind that is. Maybe I’m constantly fighting for people to listen to what I have to say, so it seems undermining to look too girlie or frivolous. I think that’s it. I still have my version of sexy. I’ve always dated dudes who think how I look is sexy anyway. A roll-neck and some flat shoes is about as good as it gets.’

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

As celebrated as her style is (especially on social media: Instagram posts can get up to 40,000 likes), where there’s positivity, there’s always a troll lurking. ‘It depends what I’m up to. Who you’re dating seems to be the quickest way to p*ss people off. Sometimes they’ll troll me for being too thin. Less so now.’ When I ask her why, the lesser-seen vulnerable Alexa answers. ‘I probably look a bit healthier. I’m definitely happier. I’m just not heartbroken any more, which went on for about 25 decades.’ 

She’s referring to the painful split from her boyfriend of four years, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, in 2011. Four years later and Alexa is reportedly in a relationship with actor Alexander Skarsgård. I ask her if she’s in love, to which she laughs, embarrassed, head in hands, before playfully dismissing the question. 

MOST POPULAR

We move on to the far more serious subject of selfies. ‘I nearly posted a selfie yesterday from bed and I was thinking, “What’s wrong with me? I’m an adult and I’m sitting here in bed waving at a camera, trying to get the right angle. Why don’t I just call them and say hi?”’

The ‘time to grow up’ theme recurs throughout our conversation. For much of her late twenties, Alexa felt like she was occupying tricky territory. She was no longer a mouthy TV presenter, but didn’t feel old enough to have any sense of authority in what she was doing. Now, on the cusp of 32, she’s starting to feel more certain about her place in the industry and how she conducts herself. ‘I think it’s just a part of growing up, and being more comfortable and more confident in the idea that your opinion might be valid.’ In her words, when she started out in the industry, it was a case of ‘fake it till you make it’. That and a whole lot of determination. 

Alexa grew up in Hampshire, which she’s previously referred to as ‘the most middle-class [background] you could imagine'. She left school with three A-levels and an offer to study English at King’s College London, but was too busy modelling by then to take it up. ‘I wouldn’t be told what to do,’ Alexa says. ‘I asked my mum recently, “When I just decided to skip university and be a model, what did you say?” and she was like, “Have you tried arguing with you before? You put forward a very good case.”’

As much as Alexa likes to dismiss any concept of a master plan, her staying power in a notoriously fickle industry and ability to glide from project to project with apparent ease have to be more than fluke. There are many beautiful, stylish British models out there, but she exists in her own category by virtue of, well, something. ‘I think I have good instincts. With each venture it’s been like swinging from rope to rope, and obviously there are always other ones to grab, but it’s about knowing yourself and what you’re interested in.’

Back on the shoot, we asked Alexa to live-stream to ELLE’s followers on Periscope, encouraging them to choose which shoes to wear with her Mod look, styled by her friend Tennessee Thomas. She grabs the phone and sweeps around the studio, talking to the camera like an old friend. It looks so effortless, but seeing it In Real Life, it’s quite extraordinary. ‘I’ve grown more confident from knowing that really, nothing bad can happen. All social interactions with strangers are slightly awkward, but there’s no real downside other than feeling self-conscious. Luckily, most people are really nice. If you’re open and friendly, they’re going to be like that back. Everyone worries people won’t remember them or aren’t interested in what they say. Humans are pretty similar.’

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Humans are pretty similar, but there are humans and then there’s a red carpet with actual Beyoncé. How on earth do you walk into that room? ‘After my first Met Ball in 2010, I’ve never been scared again. You have to go alone, you’re dressed up in some concoction, you walk up this massive staircase at the top of which there’s a load of the most intimidating people you’ve ever seen – it’s always some insanely famous actor and you’re like [dons goofy face and voice], “Hoy! I’m Alexa!” It’s fun once you’re there, but the prospect of it is terrifying. You couldn’t feel worse, but it’s also great, and after that nothing daunts you. Sometimes it’s scarier just going home for Christmas and having to answer what you do for a living to your distant cousin.’

Alexa styled by

TENNESSEE THOMAS

‘For me, Alexa is a Sixties Mod girl! She’s got a little beehive, heavy cat eyes and pale pink lips,and is dressed in a miniskirt, little collar and penny loafers. Perfect.’

The whole self-effacing shtick does seem like a clever way of navigating the often spiky worlds of fashion and celebrity, so I’m starting to understand why you’d rely on a certain mix of sarcasm and bravado to find your way.

When we touch on the subject of future plans, though, there seems to be some conflict tugging away at the easy-breeziness of it all. ‘I wouldn’t mind figuring out where to be based properly because I’m flip-flopping around between London and New York,’ she admits. ‘The diary dates go in and then I’m just chasing those obligations. That could continue forever, which is a worry. I just turned down something I really wanted to do because I was being practical about time. But I do like the balance at the moment. I have more free time and travel less. I want to have a boyfriend and I want to have a home – to do all those things.’ How about a family? ‘I’m still waiting for that to kick in. I’m not thinking babies. I mean, they look great! I’m open to it and I would like a family one day, but I’m not desperate to get moving on that front. Or I could – I don’t know! I’ve heard mixed reviews. It’s also about finding someone you want to have a baby with. That’s what I’ve heard.’

At one point in our conversation, Alexa tells me that at school she worked really hard – always doing her coursework and revision early, and then pretending she hadn’t the next day to her mates at school. 

I think some of that bravado is still in operation now. Serendipity aside, any successful career requires hard work, clever decision-making and a little bit of risk-taking. To use the Met Ball analogy, there’ll always be some massive staircase with a top. If you want to conquer it, you need to think like Alexa and just have a go. 

It usually works out in the end.

 

Interview by Hannah Swerling.

All photo credit: Matt Irwin

Tune in to ELLE wherever you are. In a first for the brand, we are launching a new podcast series so you can hear inspiring stories from the incredible women we meet and listen in to the provocative, sometimes raucous, often hilarious discussions the team are having about what’s trending in the world right now. Download from 3 December 2015

Read Next: