She is the model turned chat show host who has her own ready-to-wear label. Now Alexa Chung also presents a hit TV series. So how do you survive 20 years in the fickle fashion world? Andrew Billen finds out.
In one of this interview's attempted dives into seriousness – comedy belly flops most of them, before we hit some real depths – Alexa Chung briefly ponders the ethical dimensions of fashion. There are, says the model turned label owner, so many things to think about these days. "Where is the wool coming from? Are the sheep happy?" It is good, though, she concedes, that the next generation is waking up to such matters.
"I don't think when I was 10 I was thinking about things on a global scale. Although, that said, I found a book I made and illustrated as a child called The World Cleans Up, and it is about pollution and looking after the planet."
So right here is an example of the fashion futurologist's powers of divination. In the 26 years since she was 10, the world has not cleaned up, but Alexa Chung has. Before she was out of her teens she was a model with a following; in her twenties an adorably quirky chat show host renowned on both sides of the Atlantic, and now, in her thirties, she owns a fashion house that bears her name.
These talents knit together in her latest enterprise, Next in Fashion, a Netflix talent show for frock designers. It is The Great British Sewing Bee gone global and driven by so much adrenaline and ambition that you think someone is going to get hurt (actually in episode three someone does get hurt: a pole supporting a roll of fabric crashes and splits open a contestant's cheek).
Chung plays co-host and judge with Tan France, the helmet-haired natterer from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. They work well together, although she silences him one time by correcting his "We are all in agreeance" to "We are all in agreement". France, she confides, signalling early her entertainment value to me, is obsessively fearful of going bald.
Throughout this already substantial career of hers, Chung has become one of the world's most potent style influencers. In many a home, Alexa was a household name long before the advent of voice assistance technology. People notice and copy what she wears, and what she wears is not what everyone else is wearing, although they soon will be. If, as you probably do, you want to know what's coming next, according to Chung it's leather flip-flops, corsets and suits with shorts. ("Well, that's what I'll be wearing.")
We should, not, however, mistake her for a fashion icon of the Audrey Hepburn/Kendall Jenner ilk. On Next in Fashion she does sometimes wear haute couture, but she wears it in inverted commas, as if knowing she does not need added style. She looks more sincere the days she is in a black dress with a rubber glove motif or a T-shirt telling us to "Give a damn". This afternoon, at the end of a two-hour photoshoot at Times Towers and three days of plugging the Netflix series, she is sitting in our green room in a vintage Vanderbilt sweater, flared jeans and a scarf her brother gave her for Christmas. A herringbone coat from her own collection is slung on a table. She looks tired, but even tired looks good on her.
This may actually be a criticism. A fashionista friend warns me that while Chung undeniably has great style, she does not seem to realise that, "If you aren't super-skinny and gamine, and try to wear the same, you end up looking like a Larkin librarian." Chung says my friend is absolutely right: "I don't realise that."
The greatest thing about Chung is her humour, of which there is an ever replenishing supply. It is what, I assume, prevented her developing the brittle self-obsession that often accompanies fame won too early and, some would say, for too little. It is a pleasure this afternoon to listen to a genuine wit rev itself out of exhaustion, but it does make interviewing Chung a cat and mouse game in which the prey is the miserable part of being Alexa Chung, the years of enduring being seen not heard, of chat shows cancelled and short-term romances terminated. Put all of that in a sentence such as that one, and you might start feeling sorry for her, which would annoy her.
"That sounds like a struggle?" she says when I suggest that her twenties were just that. "God, I was so fortunate, I think. I was so lucky. Oh my God! I was an It girl! It was ridiculous. I got free clothes and went to loads of parties. I could not have had more fun, honestly."
I've never had coke. People think I have because I'm thin and energetic.
And she stayed sane? "You know, I never really went off the rails because I always had to get up early for something."
So no cocaine for her? "No. Do you know, I have never had coke in my life? Which makes me sound really un-fun. And I get asked for it a lot. I think people think because I'm thin and energetic, I've got it."
Cigarettes are another matter. Even "Mrs Prada", the billionaire head of the fashion house, told her the other night to give them up, promising life can be long (she is 70). Chung says she began smoking in her late twenties as an excuse for getting away from all the people on her MTV show shouting, "Alexa! Alexa!"
"And I felt cool: whisky and a cig. It was rock'n'roll. I'm quite a goodie-two-shoes, so it just makes me look like I have the potential to be a bit more dangerous or less dorky – but I don't want to die of not looking dorky. That would be bad."
That's a classic, deadpan Chung pay-off, exactly the type that baffled American MTV viewers. Yet even Next in Fashion provides evidence that her emotions are not as far from the surface as they may seem. In episode three she cries as a pair of contestants are sent packing by the judges (of whom she is one). "I know. We were very tired," she jokes when I bring it up.
I hoped she would say she had been really touched by their fortitude and friendship.
"No, I was. I cried loads. They haven't kept all of it in. All the elimination rounds were just horrible in terms of emotions running high."
She breaks off and I wait for what American sitcom writers, having ladled on too much sentiment, call the "treacle slicer".
"It was encouraged, obviously."
I instance the young Scottish designer Hayley Scanlan on the show, a single mother of twins desperately keen to win the US$250,000 prize because, she says, opportunities in fashion are limited in Dundee. Does Chung ever consider that Hayley could have been her, that her path to the top could have been as hard as Hayley's?
"I don't think I could compare myself to Hayley's scenario. I'd got established, so it was less of a gamble when I started my brand."
That, of course, is my point. Chung's journey has been a jog along a road marked Serendipity. She is the daughter of a graphic designer father of Chinese descent but brought up in the East End of London; her mother is an optician. Although she grew up in what she calls a really posh Hampshire village, and, after much nagging, was given a pony, she was not particularly posh herself. She went to the local comprehensive and a sixth-form college in Winchester. She was academic and heading for either art school or London University, when, aged 16, she was scouted by a modelling agent in the comedy tent at the Reading Festival.
I ask how her life might have developed had she got her first in English from King's. She thanks me for the degree, which I award solely on the quality of the prose in her 2013 book, It, and its key insight into felt human experience, that the night before your haircut your hair will always decide to look amazing.
"I think it might have panned out in the same way but just by a different journey. I was interested in photography and styling from when I was much younger. I wanted to be a fashion journalist even though I wasn't sure what that meant," she says.
I was single for ages. That sucked. You have to do your sad girl stint.
She began by modelling for teen magazines, mocking up a pillow fight or eating lollies on Brighton beach. She was still shooting for Teen Vogue when she was 29, 30, which adds to her theory that, like Benjamin Button in the movie, she is not ageing properly. In the pages of Just 17 she became a personality, shooting maybe six covers a year, so the readers knew this girl, but not the real her. "It was very confusing, but there were other jobs where I was just the model. I mean, model means shut up, doesn't it? What's the definition of model? Is it made of clay, a thing, an object?"
I can't see her being a very good fit for that.
"I was a terrible fit. I was terrible, but I was a professional, so I would shut up."
She began doing commercials, for Fanta, Sunsilk, Tampax, Veet. Her point of difference, she thinks, was that she was a shut-up who could talk when needed.
"In the casting when they asked a question I was very comfortable answering. I was like, 'So pleased you asked me … ' and they were like, 'OK, we'll go to South Africa with this Chatty Cathy who seems to not mind if we cover her in syrup and make her do weird stuff.' I was just up for it."
When a casting call came to host Popworld, her agency put her forward. Popworld was a cultish Saturday morning Channel 4 show that was as concerned with being funny as keeping its audiences abreast of new music. She took over from its original presenters, Miquita Oliver and Simon Amstell, in 2006 and the clips of the importunate 22-year-old joshing her betters still make me smile: one highlight has her asking Robbie Williams if he thinks it is clever to swear so much on Rudebox (answer: yes).
"I loved it so much, I sobbed when it was cancelled. Yes, after two seasons! I've never had a TV show that's not been cancelled. Let's be real."
Next in Fashion could make history, then.
"Maybe. Fingers crossed. I told them not to get too excited because my track record was pretty bad."
In 2009 she moved to New York to present It's On with Alexa Chung for MTV. It's On wasn't on for long.
"I was a two-season girl, but that was unsustainable anyway. I would never have been able to do any more than that. It was live every day. I don't know how talkshow hosts do it. It's insane. You have to learn every segment. You're the only person on air. It's mad. It's intense."
Was it a crisis when it was cancelled? There she was, out in New York?
"Not really. I was really tired after that show, really exhausted. It was a great experience, but it was very alien, the whole thing. I'd moved from London, having so much fun, loving it. And then I was in America and I didn't really know as many people. My call time was 6am every day and at night they delivered the end script at 11pm, and you had to learn it before the next day."
She took off to the Turks and Caicos Islands for ten rainy days, moved back to London and presented Gonzo with Alexa Chung for MTV from there, "a really nice, cosy job". She had not finished with America, however, and moved back to New York to present on the cable music network Fuse. Her show took a year to get on air and about the same time for her to leave.
"That was the first TV show that didn't fire me."
Why did she quit? "Because I hated it. I was just bored of interviewing musicians."
But, I protest, she is famous for going out with musicians, and mostly lead singers: Albert Hammond Jr, guitarist of the Strokes; Theo Hutchcraft of Hurts; James Righton of the Klaxons; currently the whipper-snapper Orson Fry, 24, but most famously, for 4 years from 2007, the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner.
"Oh, I love musicians, but I just wasn't interested. I wasn't curious. When you're no longer curious about something it's really bad to carry on doing it. It was their attitude. I was like, 'To be honest, mate, I've not even listened to your record so lose the attitude.'"
Her refuge in these days of hectic work and abrupt endings was New York karaoke clubs, to which she was addicted. I suggest singing other people's lyrics was a release from the Alexa persona that she had created. "A massive relief," she agrees. Meanwhile her dating continued apace, countering her early fear, as admitted in her book, that no boy would fancy her "zero boob/skinny leg" combo. It was not exactly a love life, however.
"I mean, I was single for ages. That sucked."
How long was ages? "I don't really know. I would have these three-to-four-month boyfriends, kind of back to back. Actually, it was complicated. I wasn't like solidly single, but at the same time I wasn't in love. I've romanticised it now when I look back. It was with my best friend, Tennessee, and all the other girls. You have to do your stint in New York and be a bit of a sad girl eating brunch, reading too much into texts."
Did she feel she had to have a boyfriend not to be miserable? "No. In fact, boyfriends made me miserable sometimes. I don't think you need a boyfriend to be happy. The wrong boyfriend is just as bad as being single, really."
Well, it's even lonelier, isn't it? "Yes. Being lonely together is not the one."
And that's happened, has it? "No, that would be mean. I think when you're not sure what's going on then it's complicated."
I assume she does the dumping.
"I tend to. You know, sometimes I was caught out off-guard. I had a really great boyfriend for a minute, whom I'm still friends with, and when he dumped me I was like, 'Wait!' And he was like, 'I know, right?'"
I make it sound as if she is always in short relationships, but she was with David Titlow, a fashion photographer (and former lead singer of the fondly forgotten Blue Mercedes), for three and a half years in her early twenties and then Turner for four. Does she enjoy getting into those longer-term romances?
"I think you don't have a choice, do you? If you fall in love it isn't really a decision. It's a compulsion. You don't think it's going to end. But falling in love is an optimistic swoon, isn't it? You don't really think about the end."
Does she fall in love less as she gets older?
"I don't know, because I'm not, like …"
Very old? "I'm not that old – thanks – but also I'm not in the habit of falling in love frequently. Even when I was a teenager that was not me. I didn't like anyone."
She went out with them but didn't like them? "I really loved one of them."
Was that Alex Turner?
"No, it was a guy called Tom, actually."
Extensive archival research suggests this was a boy she met when she was 16.
"He was great. But yeah, I'm not in the habit of falling in love frequently. I think most people get, like, maximum three goes in a lifetime. Would you agree?"
I do. Does she prefer her men younger or older? "Oh, younger."
Is that because she is going out with Omar and he is 24? "Omar? Who's Omar?"
I mean Orson.
"I love it," she says forgivingly. Everyone calls him Tarquin anyway, possibly because he is the posh-boy heir to the Fry sweetie fortune.
"Yup, I'm pandering to him. No, it doesn't matter. I mean, I don't know. A person is a person. They're not an age. So I can't say I prefer older or younger boyfriends. When I was 19 my boyfriend was 40."
This was Titlow. That didn't feel weird to her? "No. It should have done."
It is all very flippant, perhaps deservedly so, but she admits to having written It in response to having her heart broken by the split from Turner. Yet It is persistently flip. Even its four pages on heartbreak – "It feels heavy, like someone sitting on your chest" – contain the consolation that the upside to despair is "you can wear a blanket instead of a coat and your friends won't judge you".
"I moved to New York because I was sad and I wrote the book. I don't think I wrote the book because I was sad. I wrote the book because I wanted to be distracted … So that's the same thing, isn't it?"
I don't catch much sadness in it.
"But my sadness doesn't manifest itself in moping and writing sad songs or poetry. If I'm sad I'm more likely to crack jokes anyway. That's why the book's hilarious."
But she is always cracking jokes.
"Yeah. I'm really sad."
Tears of a clown. We've got our headline plus a karaoke classic. "Or Tracks of my Tears. No, I wasn't that sad. I was just sad comparatively. I'd had a very nice time. I don't want to, like, overegg the pudding there."
Did the writing get her past it?
I'm still waiting for that feeling of desperately wanting kids.
"Can I say, it wasn't even a sadness. It was more just I didn't know who I was. All this stuff came at once so by the time I was 25, 26, quite naturally I started evaluating what had happened to me throughout my life and where I was. It's not natural to be famous. It's not a normal experience. So I had to sort of lose it at some point, I think. It was an identity crisis. I was like, 'This is mental. The whole thing was just mad.' I mean, now I'm like, 'I think we can calm down: I wasn't that famous.' At the time you're like, 'Oh my God, this is a nightmare. Everyone's looking at me.' But they weren't."
Or maybe they were.
"Well, it was a lot for seemingly not doing anything. I think that was my frustration. It was the term 'It girl' that really bummed me out, because I'd just escaped being a professional dummy, literally, pun intended. It was reductive.
"We live in different times now. It's a post-Girls, post-Lena Dunham moment where women are valued and Instagram allows you to express yourself fully, but there was a bit before 2011, before Instagram was invented, when you couldn't get a full 360 on someone. You were an image on a page. You couldn't connect fully. I was just bummed out by the ceiling."
That's the paradox, I say. She's famous for her "look", but her think and her speak are what she should be known for. It must be perplexing to live that contradiction.
"It was weird, but it is hilarious to me that I was getting really dramatic and saying, 'Ugh, I'm defined by clothes.' Now I'm, 'You lucky bitch! You had such a nice time.' A free holiday in the Maldives! A first-class flight to Sunset Tower [a Hollywood hotel]. Just shut up!"
Did she seek therapy? "I did, but not about that. I've been to see a psychiatrist."
She does not elaborate. Never mind. My guess is that the cure for her identity crisis was mainly self-administered. Two years ago she started her own fashion company, Alexachung, where she is creative director. She has become increasingly sure of what its style is, and it is hers.
"I'm only going to make things I like now. I think at first I was trying to please other people. I was worried that because the designers or whoever in my company had more experience or education in fashion than I did, that their opinion mattered more. Whereas now I'm like, 'It's got my name on it so it really does have to look how I want it to look.'"
Has it made Benjamin Button grow up?
"It's a lot of responsibility. If I really think about it then it can get intense. The idea that you're employing that many people … It's like having a lot of children, I imagine."
The firm employs 22 people. But she has no actual children.
"Not that I know of?" Stage wink.
Would she want children?
"Je ne sais pas. I'm still waiting for that feeling of desperately wanting kids."
Sometimes we repeat family patterns, I suggest. Could be, she says. Her mother was 39 when she had her.
Next in Fashion is not a retreat back into her old life, but an add-on to her new one. Her only regret with it is that some of her badinage with France has been truncated in the show's very fast edits. She can take that, though, because she has her own YouTube channel where her to-cameras – such as her 15-minute tour of her design house near her home in the East End – run as long as they need.
Does she feel too much of her life was lost in the edit? "Yes. It was life in an edit, life through someone else's lens."
Not for the first time, I am not sure whether she is joking or not, so I ask her to mark out of ten how happy she is right now.
"Eleven," she says.
Disgustingly happy! "I'm very happy."
Promise? "Yes. I am. I'm so happy. Business is doing well. Got a Netflix show coming out. I get to dine with you fine people. Sorry that's from Titanic. 'Yesterday I was in steerage.'"
She has not, obviously, been in steerage for a long, long time, and let's ignore the Titanic allusion lest anyone think it prophetic. Alexa Chung is charting her own course now and I like to think that it will not only be through life's shallows. If it ever truly was.
Written by: Andrew Billen
© The Times of London