Alexa Chung: Bird of Britain / Vogue


Last February, 26-year-old Alexa Chung could be found at J.Crew headquarters in downtown New York, fine-tuning looks from her first capsule collection for Madewell. She wore a boy's shetland-wool crewneck in navy with a jeweled cat brooch, cutoff Levi's microshorts, thick woolly tights, and black lace-up ankle boots by Hermès. She said to the narrow gray mid-rise trousers: “Imagine those in a button fly? You'd be set for life.” To the black mini-overalls cut high on the sides of the thighs: “That's the most dangerous bit of ass there.” To a thirties-y romper: “A few nights ago I dreamed that this would be in a crepe, and it would hang better.” To a tee: “Is that a bat wing? Am I sensing a bat wing? I can't handle the eighties at all.” And to the stripy engineer jeans: “All the kids who are going to be ordering these from Shoreditch and Dalston will be going mad.”
Are you thoroughly bewildered? Relax. If you have not heard of Shoreditch and Dalston, then it only means that you don't hang your hat in London's East End. If you have not heard of Madewell, then it only means that you haven't visited one of the J.Crew niche brand's few shops for a “skinny low worker” jean or a yummy, sexy sweater.
And if you have not heard of Alexa Chung, then it only means that you didn't spend 2009 watching MTV for live music, you don't read best-dressed lists, you're not an Arctic Monkeys fan (or not so obsessed that you follow the band members' girlfriends), you don't read the British tabloids that clock her every ensemble, you haven't put your name down for the coolest satchel bag Mulberry has ever released (the Alexa), and you are not holding your breath for the Target version due in stores this October. And you are not Karl Lagerfeld, who says, “I love Alexa! If someone asks me who is a modern girl for me today, Alexa should be the one! The way she looks, the way she talks and acts. She does a lot of things at the same time; she is very talented and does it in a perfect way. She is beautiful and clever!”
Every generation—indeed, every micro-generation—the United Kingdom unleashes a style bombshell on the world who flattens the best efforts of any American counterpart with the indescribable force of her courageous chic. There was Sienna, and before her Kate Moss. There were Twiggy and Shrimpton. There were Julie Christie and Liz Taylor.
In 2010 there's Chung, a string-beany, part-Chinese girl from the village of Privett in Hampshire, who grew up riding ponies and trying to decide whether to study literature or art at university. She has a big sister who listened to the Spice Girls and two older brothers who teased her for her large ears and skinny limbs. She wore riding clothes, her school uniform, and the occasional floral overall. As an adolescent she was into vivid monochromatics: all orange (for listening to Blur), then all purple, then all brown. At sixteen, Chung was scouted in the comedy tent at the Reading Festival—she thought the woman was “eviling me out”—and thus began a career as a model. With London calling, college was put to one side. She became a television presenter for youth-centric, music- and style-oriented shows, and a star in what is known as “hangover TV. It's big in Britain because everyone's wasted from the night before.”
She also became known for her look, which invariably involves juxtaposing something quite classic—Chung favors “proper British fabrics” and, says her friend Tennessee Thomas, of the band the Like, “has single-handedly made the classic Barbour coat fashionable”—with something amusingly off, like a vintage short-short or an Isabel Marant romper (“I buy everything Isabel Marant ever looked at”). She wears below-the-knee skirts and vintage sweaters to channel Betty Draper (“I love Betty's at-home outfits”) but adds boyish boots (“I have a real problem with black ankle boots,” she says, staring at a stack of near-identical pairs in her closet in Brooklyn) to ground the look in 2010. She wants a “really well-tailored camel coat” because she just lost a navy version from Rag & Bone at LAX, in transit from Argentina to Spain and speaking on the phone to boyfriend Alex Turner. She wants a new mac because her favorite Burberry one was in a suitcase that she lost in a taxi on the way to Coachella, along with a Christopher Kane dress, a 3.1 Phillip Lim top, Chanel ballet pumps, and her most recent Marants—in Chung's reckoning, “everything I liked in life!” What she wouldn't have minded losing: navy blazers, studded clogs, and lumberjack plaids (“I can't really bother with them at the moment”).
The thing about English style icons is that they are invariably more compelling than any single item on their résumé. Do we love Kate Moss because of her modeling, or is it because she walked the red carpet with Johnny Depp all those years ago, or because she makes cool clothes for Topshop, or because she gives no interviews, has a cute daughter, and revived Vivienne Westwood's accessories business? Chung, for her part, can sketch wicked and adorable graphics for Madewell tees (e.g., Alex in I Love You sunglasses, on holiday in Turks and Caicos). She can be a fashion journalist, writing terrific stories for British Vogue. She can present a live television show daily without being at a loss for words. She can be a DJ, a rock chick, a Chanel ambassador, a face of a brand, and a face behind a brand. But what makes her so mesmerizing is that none of that sticks to her with any nasty residue of ambition or self-promotion or exclusion. Says Phillip Lim, who met Chung because she was a customer at his SoHo store, “She is gifted with this really amazing presence but chooses to enhance it by pursuing what is not obvious.” He adds, “She is just strange. She is like that weird science project—a really annoying mix of a boy in a girl's body with a penchant for girly things: flowers, bows, hearts. But when you talk to her, it's like talking to your best boy friend, someone with whom you could chug beer, tell jokes. . . . All the girls want to be her best friend. All the boys have a secret crush on her.” Says Mickey Drexler, J.Crew's CEO and the person who picked her to put a face to Madewell, “She's so cool she could be intimidating, but she's not.”
In 2009, Chung moved to New York for her own MTV show, It's On with Alexa Chung. She and Turner traded a flat on London's Columbia Road (known in the East End for its weekly flower market) for a two-bedroom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They live with flea-market furnishings, heaps of clothes (polka-dot scarves, leopard-print coats, stripy sweaters, and cutoff jeans), and suitcases half-unpacked from recent travels. There are pictures everywhere, of other rock icons and looks snipped from magazines, and friends and family mugging in photo booths and on holiday. Nothing is fancy or self-conscious, and everything has a patina of the lovely and lived-in. It's an apartment of a couple in their 20s, fame and iconicity be damned. Dev Hynes, who performs as Lightspeed Champion and first met Chung in a Dalston chicken shop when she had long hair and wore leather jackets, lives five minutes away. “We play Ping-Pong and pool. We do stuff like that—and eating and drinking. When she moved here, she didn't know many people. She'd be invited to events, and I'd go along with her: two weird English people at these odd types of affairs.” Says her pal Nick Grimshaw, a popular UK radio personality, “It was rubbish when she went to America. It's death. I came out to visit in October. We went to see the Horrors play and to a Knicks game and got foam fingers.”
Now it looks as though Chung and Turner will be returning to London this fall. The Monkeys may record their next album there, and Chung is cohosting a style show called Frock Me. Her Madewell collection enters stores this month, and she is already working on the next (think mid-calf lengths and oversize tops) and the next, and shooting the Lacoste fragrance campaign. She may be across the pond, but don't count on her to be out of the swim of New York. The thing about these English bombshells is they can drop in anytime, losing a suitcase on the way, and leave the rest of us in the dust. Call it frock and awe.
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