Alexa Chung is built like a collapsible chair. Long and spindly, her limbs fold in such a compact way that when I spot her sitting on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History, the British model turned TV host, DJ and international fashion fixture looks almost portable. But as she stands, disentangling herself from herself, and smiles—“Hi, I’m Alexa”—something else comes to mind.
Remember that colourful plastic sphere from childhood that crisscrossed at its joints, retracting and expanding? Chung, too, retracts and expands, her telescopic reach adding a touch of pantomime to each of her gestures. Reenacting for me a scene from the previous night in which the 30-year-old created a diversion in order to split up a bar fight, Chung erupts into her own rendition of “Gangnam Style.” “They didn’t really know what to make of it,” she says, contorting her face as though she, too, doesn’t really know what to make of it.
A front-row regular at the New York, Paris and London runways, and a perennial figure on Vogue’s and Harper’s Bazaar’s best-dressed lists, the shaggy-haired, wisecracking Chung is a certified it-girl whose every sashay is documented by the fashion world and emulated by her fans. She can now add author to her list of hyphenates—her debut book, It (Penguin, $31.50), is out Oct. 29. The title is telling: “I’m definitely someone who is inextricably linked to how fast fashion moves and that desire to be wearing the latest thing,” she says. Even so, Chung is reluctant to position herself as a trendsetter, maintaining that when she throws on a dress in the morning, she’s “really just wearing a dress.”
Yet, when I meet her again at FLARE’s photo shoot in Brooklyn, she has on a Topshop daisy cut-out tea dress that sellers are now retailing on eBay with her name accompanying the listing. If Twitter and Instagram are a measure of influence, then Chung, with a million-some followers and likes that tally in the thousands within minutes, has irrefutable sway. Anna Wintour labelled her a phenomenon. Karl Lagerfeld has called her “a modern girl” and named her a house ambassador for Chanel: she typifies the label’s concise balance of comfort, elegant function and haute tailoring.
“I’m a handbag. I’m a dress. I’m a shoe,” she laughs, referencing the Alexa Chung empire. In 2009, the same year Chung became a contributing editor at British Vogue, Mulberry announced its Alexa satchel; it was wait-listed almost instantaneously. In 2011, demand for Chung’s Madewell line crashed the retailer’s e-commerce site.
“I’m someone who is naturally predisposed to boredom,” she says. “That’s why I have so many jobs.” The youngest of four siblings, Chung’s ambitious flair brings to mind a kid who might voluntarily break out into song and entertain a room of adults but who is also, and often, impatiently watching as her older siblings do things. Chung, whose mother is English and whose father is three-quarters Chinese, once told The Guardian that her earliest memory is of her mother holding her as she waved her brothers and sister off to school.
She describes Privett, Hampshire, the sleepy village where she was raised, as being peopled mostly with horses, encouraging a childhood penchant for riding (and drawing) ponies, and a lasting appreciation for the sport’s silhouette: skinny pants whittled down at the boot, paired with a droopy, near-pendulous jumper. Nowadays, Chung confesses, social silence terrifies her. Introverts? “Boring. Speak up or forever hold your peace.” She feels at home singing karaoke with friends and is unaccustomed to talking without some kind of device prompting her: “It’s more disturbing when I’m not being recorded.”
Scouted at 16 at the Reading music festival, Chung began modelling for teen magazines like Cosmogirl and fresh-faced Tampax ads. She then turned to television and became a regular presenter on pop culture and music-minded variety shows on Britain’s Channel 4. In 2009, she moved to New York to host MTV’s It’s On With Alexa Chung. Her brand of British sarcasm never fully gelled with her American guests and viewers, and the talk show was cancelled after just two seasons. “I do miss England a lot. I mention it every day because I want to retain my sense of Britishness, which is something I wasn’t aware of until I moved here,” she says.
Unfazed by the setback, Chung returned to American television in 2011 as a host and judge on Lifetime’s Project Runway offshoot, 24 Hour Catwalk. In the show’s promo, she reintroduced herself to U.S. audiences as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” When I inquire about future projects or collaborations, Chung looks down at her lap: “People ask me that all the time and it adds to the pressure of me feeling like I constantly have to be doing something.”
So she became a writer, too. It is cloth-bound in blush pink, its tongue-in-cheek title a nod to her society status, and it includes satirical one-liner tips and maxims on, for instance, how to properly exit a car and the art of the selfie. Etiquette in the age of Instagram, so to speak, or pages that read like tweets-cum-cross-stitched-aphorisms: Boys say they don’t mind how you get your hair done. But then they leave you for someone with really great standard girl hair and the next thing you know, you’re alone with a masculine crop crying into your granola. “I just wanted to reclaim my voice and make sure people knew I was still funny,” Chung says. As we walk past a listless fountain near the museum, Chung interrupts herself to point it out and announces that she’s “taken more impressive wees.”
It is a patchwork of pictures and illustrations, and Chung nuggets on fashion, heartbreak and festival dos and don’ts— “Music is my sport and I’m the number-one athlete,” she says to me, adding, with a smile, that Glastonbury is her version of the Olympics.
Chung’s current job is co-anchor of Fuse News, a music show on the Fuse network dedicated to bulletins rather than buzzy Bieber gossip. “One thing Alexa is good at is little quick remarks that are able to reflect her sensibility with minimal amount of dialogue,” says her co-anchor, former MuchMusic VJ Matte Babel.
The perfectly calibrated proportions of each Chung ensemble show a similar degree of control over her other craft— Chung has fine-tuned the ratio of snug to slack, soft to tough, low-key to classic grace. An oversized grey T-shirt, which she casually rolls at the sleeves, offsets black leather shorts. A nude lip gives prominence to a smoky, sooty eye. The more tailored the suit, the strappier the sandal.
She loves to mix and match. In the same breath, Chung darts from random anecdotes to startling, thoughtful observations. “Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio has a dino skull in his house,” she says as we amble through the museum’s fourth floor. Seconds later, Chung pauses and considers how close the moon appeared the other night: “You know how sometimes it just spins you out?”
Chung, who likens her childish enthusiasm for the museum’s creatures to that of a nine-year-old boy, is synonymous with tomboy chic, invoking your brother’s school uniform in a state of slight deshabille or Lucy from Peanuts and her frilly dress paired with well-worn spectator shoes. It suits a woman with a lifestyle like Chung’s—this past summer she tweeted a screen grab of her phone alarms, none of which were set before 7 p.m. The hashtag read #partyalarm.
At the 2011 British Fashion Awards, while wearing a decidedly feminine Christopher Kane bejewelled frock and Charlotte Olympia Kitty flats, Chung dedicated her award to “the girls who dress like awkward boys.” Her throaty laugh, she insists, is “not a feminine situation,” and she counts Mick Jagger, Jeremy Irons and her grandpa Kwan as some of her style icons. It’s less that Chung rebuffs heels in favour of brogues and more so that prettiness without edge or minor awkwardness leaves her ill at ease. At the FLARE photo shoot, she recoiled if sexy was even suggested and involuntarily scrunched up her hair between poses.
Chung recently teamed up with British indie makeup brand Eyeko, but it was a long time coming. As her best friend, Australian-born, Toronto-based model turned makeup artist Misty Fox, says, “She is very good at identifying a person’s agenda in any situation.” The two met 11 years ago when Chung saved Fox a seat on the bus during a music-video casting in London. “I think Alexa likes to be surrounded by equals.”
This anecdote might explain her current dating status. Chung, whose four-year relationship with Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner ended a little over two years ago, considers herself “mainly single” and has instead discovered fulfillment in a wide circle of friends: “There’s a richness of incredibly intelligent, talented and fucking interesting women in New York and far fewer men.” When I ask her if she has a type, Chung responds swiftly as if slamming her hand on a buzzer. “Rock stars!” she yelps. “It’s becoming a fucking joke at this point.”
Two years of singledom have given Chung time to think. “I’m always helping out girlfriends and then I’m wondering, who’s going to look after me? But it’s because I seem like I have my shit together. That’s not necessarily the case.” Yet when I ask Chung if she would ever bring a date to the museum, she shakes her head. The museum is Chung’s “me time,” she says. A grin nevertheless eclipses her entire face, signalling, as I’ve now learned, that Chung has an anecdote up her sleeve. “I went on a date to the one in London when I was a teenager,” she says. “And the boy said to me—we were like 16 or something—we were by the whale so he said, ‘By the whale, I love you.’”
Later, I ask Chung about her then-approaching 30th birthday, in answer to which she rewinds a decade: “I went out with a 40-year-old when I was 19 and since then I don’t really think much about numbers meaning anything.” She quickly amends her answer, adding, “But I do feel like maybe I’ve neglected to work on developing emotionally and taking care of myself.”
Take, for example, the time she shipped, from London to New York, a custom-made bright pink sofa for her unfurnished apartment. Like so many 20-somethings, Chung was sleeping on a mattress on the floor because she had yet to buy a bed. Unlike so many 20-somethings living in New York, however, she could certainly afford one. (Her accountant is always telling her she doesn’t spend enough money.) So, instead of a bed or plates or “like, shit people do need,” she says, citing plates in a suspecting manner, as if she still doubts their necessity, Chung just had a pink sofa, and not much else.
Maybe it’s a British thing. “No one says the word ‘quirky’ much in England,” she says. “I guess because people are more naturally eccentric. I think it’s a derogatory term [in America]. We just celebrate things differently in England.” Chung impersonates an American accent, raising her voice an octave and forking the word in two—
quir-kee. A security guard with snowy hair and a warm grandpa smile watches this performance and turns our attention to the allosaurus towering behind us. “Meet Big Al,” he says. She nods hello to her new hundred-million-year-old dino friend as the guard snaps a picture with Chung’s phone. Big Al and Alexa. Chung is already off to the next exhibit, asking a random family standing by the elevator, “Sorry, does anyone know where the whale is?” She nods her thanks, and then heads off to find the giant sea beast, sailing around the corner almost before I can catch up.
Credits: Photography: Jason Kim.
Styling: Kemal Harris.
Hair: Kevin Ryan, R Session tools.
Makeup: Tamah Krinsky, The Wall Group.
Nails: Angela Marinescu.
Set design: Shaun Kato Samuel.
Editor: Briony Smith.