Style

A Conversation with Alexa Chung

Interviews

By Kim Taylor Bennett

0

alexa chung
Selfie.

I like Alexa Chung. Most people I know like her too for reasons which have been documented in every interview with the British TV presenter/model/designer. She’s witty! Self-deprecating! Stylish, but not intimidatingly so! I concur, these points are entirely true, but I also like Alexa because during the first 10 minutes of our lunch she says the word cunt twice, which is something I didn’t expect with my side of fries. It’s an accurately deployed expletive angled at a notoriously embittered UK tabloid journalist who took pleasure in tapping out a 1500 plus word snarky takedown of Alexa and her book, It, when it dropped back in September. Alexa wouldn’t have brought this up, because she’s polite, but you know, I asked. More on which later…

It is bound in dusky pink linen and contains pages of Alexa's neat doodles, self-snapped pictures of her pals (Tennessee Thomas, model Pixie Geldof, and Dev Hynes), miniature musings on heartbreak and the importance of a good leather jacket, appreciative words regarding the style savvy of Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, and Charlotte Rampling’s character in The Night Porter. Plus, a smattering of selfies, some shots of Alexa lounging, hanging out, and looking lovely.

A fair whack of the book is dedicated to musicians whose style and music she’s admires. Makes sense. Although Stateside she's primarily known for her fashion collaborations, Alexa cut her teeth on irreverent UK TV show Popworld, which allowed the then 23-year-old to interview musicians daily. She was cheeky, probing, and often just plain silly (please refer to this segment where she becomes obsessed with Moby for evidence of the latter).

So the original idea for this article was to have Alexa write about six musicians across six decades. But Alexa’s schedule is packed. She recently abdicated her position as a host at Fuse TV to concentrate on other business ventures, including her collaboration with eyeliner brand Eyeko, her role as a Contributing Editor at Vogue, various modeling commitments, and—given the success of her two Madewell collaborations—I’d hazard a guess that some kind of clothing design venture will appear on the horizon in the not too distant future.

So, given this lack of time, we decide to discuss music and style in person, but our lunch devolved into a general chat and this is what was said.

alexa chung

Noisey: The response to your book from your fans has been very positive, but when it comes to journalists, some of them seem to have been mean just to be mean. Like that Guardian piece that ended, “What does Alexa Chung do?”
Alexa Chung:
I like to think that the reason people don’t know is because I do so many things. I don’t think it’s them necessarily. That’s what I was talking about in the book signing last night, they were like, “What do you see yourself as?” And I was like, “Well I’m a journalist because I interview people on television and I interview people in print and I write features. So I’m a journalist.” But because I’ve not actually just said that, it’s harder for them to understand.

I also think I’m someone that people like to project shit onto so no matter what I’m saying or doing, they’ll just interpret me however they want to. Which is a good thing if you’re working with designers, but it’s bad if it’s the general public because they can’t fathom what it is that you do. It’s not the nicest feeling, but I try not to take it as a personal smite. Everyone’s got an opinion. I wrote the book, I did it for my own reasons, and I’m happy with the result. And it’s something I was doing alongside a lot of things. 

What were the reasons that you decided to do this?
I was having a bit of a shit time and I needed to focus on something and make sure I got up in the morning. Something positive. 

Did it help?
Yeah, 100%. By the end of the book, I was like, “I’m fine!” I realized over the course of reading the reviews for the book, the type of things people were expecting from me, whereas when I came up with the idea I had no expectation from myself. I read one interview that said, “This could have of been an opportunity for her to address the dark underbelly of the fashion industry.” Really? Is that the type of thing I would do? Can you imagine that I would do this huge exposé on this really dark fashion industry, which I’ve actually benefited from and had very nice experiences interacting with? I don’t have that in my arsenal to leak out, so I can’t do that for you.

Or equally, [some suggested] I could have expanded on notions of feminism or anything like that. It’s like, no. This was light-hearted, it wasn’t intended to be the story of my life. More than anything I wanted it to be a visual thing. Some people were calling it a coffee table book before it came out and it's more that end of the scale than War And Peace. It’s not like—"Listen to my story." It has more of an onus on imagery than text and that was intentional. So people are like, “It’s lacking this or that.” Yeah, I didn’t say I was going to do that.

[Food arrives.]
I miss fried eggs and chips. 

What else do you miss about England?
Attitude. I like it. I like that it’s harder to exist. It’s harder there. I think it’s good for the brain. 

Why do you think it’s harder?
Just literally, the sky is bleaker. I only know London, really, but getting round London is a pain. It seems harder to make things happen, it’s more frowned upon to network and do things like that. I don’t feel comfortable when someone comes up and hands you their business card, trying to sell you their thing. It’s a bit weird. I like when people go on these convoluted journeys to achieve things. And in New York you can get food at 2am or get drinks at 4am: you can get whatever you want, whenever you want. It makes you lazier in a way.

In London it’s difficult, it’s a more cerebral or something. When the weather’s nicer and it’s more optimistic, it means you don’t have to retreat within and ponder things as much. There it’s a bit more naturally introspective. 

How long are you going to stay out here?
Forever. I don’t know. I love England so much and I miss it. Then I go there and miss here, I’m yo-yoing between. I’m not quite done with New York yet. I’ve been here four years. But I went back inbetween because I did Gonzo [for MTV UK] for a year. I feel like I could live anywhere, I don’t really mind. I don’t necessarily feel at home here, but I don’t not, as well. I just feel very confused. Do you feel at home?

[For context, I was born in San Francisco, but lived in the UK for most of my life until last year.]

Not yet. Sometimes I feel very out of place. Also it’s funny to think you know about music and then you move to America and really realize American hip-hop is so vast. It blows my mind. 
I can’t get a handle on it. Everyday at work there’s someone else. I’m like, “Sorry, run me through who Birdman is again? Who’s A$AP Ferg, again? So he’s friends with who?" It’s fascinating. 

And hilarious. The whole popularity of "EDM." People have gone mad. 
I know! It’s so weird. I try to say that in meetings at work, I’m like, “You guys, this is hilarious, they’re selling you something that’s so old, how is everyone falling for it? How did everyone miss it the first time round?” Is it drugs? I think it’s drugs. Going mad for “molly.” Where have you been, guys? Wait, are we in Groundhog Day, hopping countries? We’ll go to Australia next and they’ll be like, “Wow!” 

Can you name a record that helped you through a hard time?
I don’t think it helped, but Townes Van Zandt, “Waiting Around To Die.” That was on repeat. “Sometimes I don’t know where this lonely road is taking me.” 

That’s very maudlin. 
It’s too much, isn’t it? It feels wrong. Now I’m like,“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!” I much prefer bleak music to anything else. Dev’s record, Coastal Grooves, actually. In the future, that will define this last year for me. There was no bar or restaurant you went into at that time in New York City that wasn’t playing that record. It’s amazing. I really like his lyrics. I just think he’s brilliant. 

I have loved seeing him transform over the years. 
It’s amazing, isn’t it? Unrecognizable. 

I used to work in Beyond Retro [east London secondhand store] and Test Icicles would come in and I’d be like, “Who are these smelly boys?”
I met them on a bus, the 149. I remember thinking, “Oh, you’re brilliant. You’re going to be this mad thing.” We had one mutual friend, Fifi Brown. It was during MySpace heyday and he messaged me and was like, “We’re probably going to meet so I’ll just say hi now because I hate awkward da-da-da.” I was like, “Okay, weirdo.” Then we did meet and I was like, “You’re the MySpace guy!” He’s just one of my favorite humans. He’s so interesting and interested—in anything. I can take him to the Knicks and he’ll tell me about the history of basketball or we can be in record shops… or just anything. Well, just basketball or music. 

Would you say you hang out with musicians most of the time?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m somewhat musical. I can play things and I love talking about it. I would never be brave enough to make music, but I’m definitely very intrigued by the process. I suppose they’re the people with the most open timetables, so it’s very easy to hang out with musicians because they’re always around. It just happened that way. I got to meet a few people and you just keep meeting more. I’m comfortable with them, I understand the whole thing, you know?

Would you prefer not to date a lead singer now?
I have no preference. It wasn’t… I didn’t mean it to pan out that way. Even [my first boyfriend, photographer David] Titlow was a lead singer in the 80s. In a band called Blue Mercedes. I didn’t intend to date lead singers. Actually, there have been other occupations, but [the musicians] are the ones people wrote about. 

You wrote about it in your book!
Yeah, well that was part of a monologue, I was trying to be funny. Would I date outside? I do, and I will. But I don’t stray far, it’s still photographers and that’s basically the same thing. Difficult…

What are you listening to right now?
On my record player I have [Pulp’s] His ‘n’ Hers.Tame Impala all the time. Elvis Costello, “This Year’s Girl.” It reminds me of that Tom Wolfe essay called, “The Girl of the Year” about Baby Jane Holzer. Have you read that one? She’s at this Rolling Stones gig and it opens with him observing all these bouncing teenage girls and he’s doing this profile on Baby Jane Holzer, who was an it girl for nine months in 1967 or something, and it’s like the perfect story. But anyway, that song reminds me of that, how disposable that thing is, and how people are vampires, and they’re like, “Oh! The new thing!” Like, Sky Ferreira, or Grimes, or Lorde. They suck them up, don’t they?

Ravenous. That’s society these days. 
I just find it amazing and she was amazing—Lorde. I did an interview with her and she was a super-smart girl. 

More mature than 16?
Oh yeah.

I think she was raised by a writer. 
Really clever wolves. Really bookish wolves. She’s definitely streets ahead of everyone. 

Creepy, actually. When I was 16 I was beyond awkward. 
Can you imagine, someone putting a camera on you at 16? Your opinions are being recorded and will be echoed forever. 

I’m happy that my teenage emotions are contained in private diaries. They can stay there. How do you feel about everyone being so insistent that you must have an opinion on Miley Cyrus?
I wonder how these things happen. There’s no lull in other news. I don’t know what happens when suddenly everyone congregates and gravitates to one human. I feel that there’s something really wrong and missing and lacking from society in general. How do I feel about Miley Cyrus? I think she’s really young and having fun. It’s obviously not something I would do, and can’t. 

Sorry, an image of you twerking popped up in my head. 
Can you imagine?

I’m trying not to!
I don’t know when it became acceptable to be quite as harsh about women just out of their teens who are experimenting. They’ve been given this platform and more money and more exposure to do it, within the confines of their experimental phase, and that’s unfortunate in some ways. But I don’t think we should put too much serious weight on it. What were you doing when you were 20? We’re like, “She really means that.” Well, maybe she doesn’t. Not to be patronizing, because she does know what she’s doing, but it’s just a grand scale version of what everyone did at that age—it’s just we didn’t have Terry Richardson documenting it for us.

I don’t think she’s being manipulated either. I think she is intelligent enough to make her own decisions. She’s obviously clever, she’s made millions. Newspapers are really weird because they’re like, "Oh someone should really do something." Yet they point a finger, but also eschew responsibility. Who are the people that are gonna [intervene]? And what would they say? What’s gone wrong? She discovered hip-hop and is really happy about it, that’s cool. I wonder what will happen in the future… 

In general?
Yeah, what’s gonna happen. And maybe this kind of thing has come out of the rise of social media and the way we consume news: it’s inherently more gossipy because you can’t really get deep in 140 characters. Or it doesn’t seem real. I don’t know. It’s very odd. I feel like that Russell Brand stuff is interesting. He went on Newsnight and talked to Jeremy Paxman about trying to start a revolution. He wrote that thing for the Guardian about the GQ awards and how pantomime-y the whole celebrity party is. Russell Brand was saying about Occupy Wall Street that obviously nothing really came of it, but at least it opened up people’s eyes to what the term 1% even meant. And then saying he doesn’t vote. Anyway. Let’s carry on with fashion. 

I was thinking 60s to the current day.                    
You know the 60s is hard for me, because I love pretty much anything that happened then. This isn’t someone I necessarily love the style of, but I like this moment in time, so I’m changing your vibe—you know the T.A.M.I. Show? It happened in the 60s, it was the first kind of teen concert. It was a variety show in LA and it was hosted by the Beach Boys who would skateboard in.

Leslie Gore – “You Don’t Own Me” on the T.A.M.I. show

Leslie Gore is there, she’s 15 years old, she sings, “You Don’t Own Me” and it’s the best performance ever. She’s got this insane hair that’s like a wig—a really hard wig. You wouldn’t know she’s 15 unless you research it. She looks literally 45, but she also looks amazing. It’s a really simple shot with her being really sassy. In the background of the T.A.M.I. Show they have dancers for all the other acts in Capri pants and like sweatshirts, I believe they called them sloppy joes. I know that because my grandma was claiming to have broken them in Southampton, England. I was like, “Calm down Grandma!” Who else? Ronettes? That’s in the book. I like their cat eye eyeliner… Cher looked pretty cool in the 60s. 

cher alexa chung

She did. 

Like, weird Pocahontas outfits and poker-straight ass-length hair. Not ass hair. 

That would be awkward. 
Sixties Tina Turner, she looked amazing! That body. When she’s supported the Rolling Stones, she’s got that gold mini-dress on. Sick! Brilliant, that massive wig. Her backup dancers all had amazing outfits as well. NOT 1980s Tina.

No Thunderdome?
No! Not interested. 

jimi hendrix alexa chung

What about the 70s?
Jimi Hendrix, everything hanging off him. Dev’s kind of got that three layer rule as well—lots of layers, bandana. I always wonder what those clothes would look like in real life. They look amazing on 8mm film or in photographs, but you know they were just highly flammable. It just stank probably. 

I don’t imagine he washed a lot. 
Would you have a go on Hendrix?

Yeah. Even though he smelled. Wouldn’t you?
Of course. Obviously. 
 

france gall alexa chungFrance Gall

You just would—anyone who can handle a guitar like that? It's a no brainer. Who else?  
France Gall? She looked cool, she had the blonde bob and a mole here. She’s really beautiful. You’d love her. It was baby doll dresses, Serge Gainsbourg wrote songs for her, suggestive lollipop songs. The Seventies are not my strong suit. Stevie Nicks, I suppose. Very latter-day Florence [Welch]. I don’t know if that’s my vibe. I liked the GTOs. They looked good. 

GTOSGTOs.

Although they were kind of end of the 60s. Now all I can think about is disco. 
The Beatles. What year did they break up? There’s pictures where they’re in a rose garden, in their suits. I don’t know any 70s dudes. This is the worst thing, when someone asks you and you go, “I don’t know any bands, any.” Bowie. Lazy choice. Bryan Ferry? That’s cool. Roxy Music. Boy George? Just for being completely different. Not my style, but I think it’s great. Adam Ant, actually, he looked brilliant in the 80s. Congratulations on the commitment, that’s total image commitment. Round of applause for Adam Ant. 

alexa chung adam ant

alexa chung patti smith bryan ferry

A sort of fey pirate. 
Dangly earrings. Sick. That’s hot, he knew. He looked great. Oh, 70s is punk. Could do X-Ray Spex. Patti Smith. I saw her the other night at Bowery Ballroom, she was sitting next to me on a stool. It was like a time warp, a long-faced humans time warp. She was wearing ballet shoes, ridiculously tight weird jeans and a million chokers. I think she clocked my outfit and was like “Embarrassing—get your own fucking style.” What’s going to happen when everyone’s plundered all the stocks of people to draw inspiration from? I feel like we’re at that point. 

We can’t resurrect nu-rave. 
I wish we could. I really wish we could! I was really torn, because I was friends with [Klaxons] and The Horrors. I would spend one night in a fluoro shirt and the next night in black and white. It was a very confusing time for me. 

the horrors klaxons alexa chungThe Horrors vs Klaxons.

Those were quite opposing camps. What about the 90s?
Alanis Morrisette! Ha. Britney came out in 99 and early Britney is cool. I wore that to school, like, I had a school uniform: knee socks and Mary Janes, hitched my skirt up and weird fluffy things in my hair. I tried to do that a lot, sitting at my desk. So, thanks Britney. The only time I’ve been vaguely sexy. 

But inappropriately so. 
Yeah, horrible. But then I got really upset by her “Oops, I Did It Again” red catsuit. 

Also, they were flared. 
She had on Acupuncture shoes. 

Oh yeah, me too.
It was like, Dunlop, Doc Martens, Kickers, Caterpillar boots, Acupuncture shoes. I can take you through the years based on the footwear.

Actually the first time I met the Strokes I was wearing Acupuncture shoes. [Evidence of this fail can be viewed here.]
That’s a great sentence [laughs]. Good for you—that means you got in there early. Either that or you were late to Acupuncture shoes. One of them means you’re really cool; I can’t work out which… 

A little bit of both. The beginning of 2001, I should have thrown the Acupunctures away by then, for sure!  Tragedy on my part.
[Laughs] And they were all in Converse, like, “What the fuck are you doing?”

I was definitely wearing flares too. 
Oh my God. And like a zip-up tracksuit top? What was that about? It went up too high. Oh my God—the 90s, so easy! Pulp! Oasis! Britpop!

graham coxon alexa chung blur

Oasis were sort of anti-style. 

Blur though, Damon Albarn. Graham Coxon in the 90s: perfect. Horn-rimmed spectacles, old weird t-shirt that was a bit too tight and riding too high. I feel like he had Carhartt trousers on. But it looked amazing. Or a Breton top.

He’s still amazing now. 
He is. 

Suede? Were you in the Suede camp?
Not really. Oh, Justine Frischmann in Elastica. The androgyny. She dressed really well. Natalie Imbruglia in the “Torn” video. Didn’t she have on a dragon top, Maharishi combat trousers, and a navy blue hoodie. I feel like she might of had a pair of fucking Acupunctures on!

I wanted her haircut so badly.
Same. Obviously I wanted that face and that haircut. Everyone did. 


Natalie Imbruglia - "Torn."

Seriously.
Is Destiny’s Child 90s? I quite like how terrible their outfits were in unison: Gucci, low-slung, hipster. That was what that term meant before it meant hipster in Williamsburg. Hipster jeans. But they’re actually the antithesis of what a hipster would wear now. Those knee-high Gucci print boots. I thought they looked pretty fly. Everything But The Girl in the 90s. Wasn’t she wearing like a slip and some Adidas Campers, Gazelles or something? That was a good look. 

Did you wear that?
Yeah I had the baby doll dresses. I used to wear my baby doll over a pair of wide-leg jeans, though, for some reason. 

I never did that, but it was certainly a regrettable 90s trend.
That was awful, wasn’t it? Really bad. I loved All Saints so much. I was in an All Saints tribute band at school. I swear to God. 


All Saints. Big in the UK back in the 90s. (Shaznay: second from right.)

Who were you?
Shaznay, because I was the only ethnic! I was at the whitest school of all time, so they were like, “You be Shaznay.”  Okay! That makes no sense whatsoever. 

She was the talented one, but she had an ass and boobs, so you failed as Shaz. 
I liked the Appleton sisters, but I could never get hair like that, with those chocolately highlights. I like that when you’re a kid, you don’t really think about what would suit you, you just want the thing they’ve got exactly. You’re not like, “That would look a bit weird on me.” Nope. I want blonde!

///

It was at this point that we stepped outside to get some air because the lady next to us was having a very loud, I’m important-and-in-New-York-City professional meltdown. I then started a new recording which fully failed to capture the final 15 minutes of our chat, which means the musicians whose style Alexa rates in this current decade and in the 2000s—bar The Horrors—has been lost to the ether. Thanks a bunch technology. Nevertheless, it stands that Alexa is entirely enamored with the threads from decades past, and for her, the current raft of music stars are sartorially, at least leaving something to be desired.

So what does Alexa Chung do? She's got excellent taste, certainly, but she's also a multi-tasker. It's almost moot to point out that to be a woman in the spotlight and at the top of your game, you're never merely an actress, pop star, presenter, or model. You're an ambassador, a face of, a designer, an ad infinitum slashie, and with the blurred lines between various forms of media and art, "icons" of the moment tend to have their fingers in all pies. Alexa's making the most of her demand and working hard for it too. And yeah, she's also exactly what her glasses spell out.

Alexa's book, It, is out now via Penguin.

Kim is Noisey's Style Editor and she admits to owning not one, but two pairs of Acupuncture sneakers in the late 90s/early 00s. She's on Twitter - @theKTB.

 

Comments