While some "It girls" rely on beauty, style and celebrity to maintain their cachet, there's one British style scene regular who's adamant about cultivating substance beyond her status. Smart, witty, wildly prolific and refreshingly down to earth, 33-year-old Alexa Chung – who boasts 2.8 million followers on Instagram – has been building her personal brand since she was scouted at a music festival at the age of 16. After four years of plum modelling assignments and starring roles in music videos, she went on to become a TV personality, hosting myriad pop programs, and serving as the face of brands including DKNY Jeans, Lacoste, Superga and Longchamp.
She has also written numerous magazine and newspaper columns and authored two books (It and It: Uber Style), and became a contributing editor at British Vogue in 2009, the same year Mulberry named a bag after her. The recipient of several British Fashion Awards for her arresting personal style, and the coveted Style Award from the British Fashion Council in 2015, Chung has used her fashion savvy to collaborate on several capsule collections, including one with J. Crew's denim-focused offshoot, Madewell.
In late May, the famed muse launched a much-buzzed-about eponymous label of her own, consisting of 145 pieces of clothing, footwear and accessories. I spoke with the multi-talented Chung from London about her preferred way to track down trends, her love of yesteryear's style icons, and whether the world really needs another dress.
Why did you feel the time was right to launch a new clothing line?
I just got to an age where I felt like I wanted more stability in my life and it seems like creating my own fashion line would do that. It seemed like an interesting challenge but also something that I knew I could keep coming back to and working hard towards. And it would offer me an anchor in life, because I was floating around, doing a lot of collaborations and always being freelance and waiting. You have to wait to be invited to do stuff and I thought I'd just create my own universe so that I can be in charge of my own destiny a bit more.
But some might say these are daunting times in fashion, as the industry has changed so dramatically.
I've been in the trenches for a really long time, so I've seen the move from Polaroids to digital. I remember that first wave of people freaking out. And then I've seen social media rise up and birth a bunch of "It girls." Then I've seen that obliterate what came before. So yeah, I'm basically a dinosaur at this point!
Launching a label is very different than it was even five years ago. Things are changing so fast. What do you think it takes to have a successful brand today?
I think the product still has to be good. At the moment, there seems to be a demand for very wearable clothes. Regardless of how clever your marketing is, or how much you shift things around based on see-now-buy-now or whatever seems to be trendy at this time, at the end of the day people buy something they find aesthetically pleasing. So that hasn't really changed, the idea that there's artistry and creative vision involved. But aside from that, with the rise of social media and more of an onus on fame and notoriety and people being offered a lot of opportunity to do things outside of their wheelhouse – well, that might apply to me. Obviously I haven't gone to art school or studied fashion design, but I understand how lucky I am to be in this position where I can do something like this based on a series of collaborations and a keen interest in fashion.
No one wants to bite the hand that feeds them, but do you ever wonder about whether the world really needs another dress? There's just so much out there.
Absolutely! That's been something I've wrestled with a bit over the course of setting this up and something we're thinking about already for the future, because it'd be nice to make this a sustainable clothing line. But, that's tricky at the beginning.
You started out modelling at such a young age but then wanted to put a little more substance behind your name. What was it that first made you want to get out of modelling?
During my modelling years, I was quite shy and quiet if you can believe it. I wanted to be really good at modelling, so I'd go to all the castings and be punctual and polite to the adults. But [in modelling] you're not valued for your mind, and that was something that was very important to me. I never really thought of myself as being particularly beautiful or pretty even, and I think modelling just amplifies insecurities while also robbing you of your personal identity at a time when that's something that you're still trying to figure out. So you're there dressing up as every character other than yourself, but you're a teenager that feels weird about yourself. Now, in the digital age, I think there's more room for girls to be celebrated for who they are. Personalities count over a faceless girl from Eastern Europe. But when I was modelling, you didn't speak unless you were spoken to. And then it all just sort of bursts out. I started doing adverts and people were treating me with respect in that field and I really responded to that – being asked my opinion or being asked to entertain. Then I got invited to do a television show. And then I got invited to go back and interview designers at fashion shows. Then people got confused and thought I was there as an "It girl" as opposed to a journalist. But I just let that line blur and rode it on out.
How do you feel about the role of the muse today? And how has that changed since you first got into the business?
The role of the muse is endlessly interesting to me because you don't really know you are one until…
Until they name a handbag after you!
Right. I've always been intrigued by that romantic relationship when you're also the muse for someone. I don't know how it applies to the pictures on my wall. But what I'm trying to do is design clothes for girls I don't really know. I'm such a throwback Thursday. I'm still always looking at pictures of Lauren Hutton. I'm not really that focused on what's happening right now.
What would you say is your favourite way of digesting fashion?
I'm not necessarily a fan of fashion per se, but I'm a fan of how people express themselves through clothes. That's the thing that compels me. I'm still most inspired by girls on the street that I walk past. I'll be like, "Oh that's an interesting way of wearing that!" It's all about context and juxtaposition and how they're [mixing] everything together.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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