“Maybe I’m a sustainable celebrity. They’ll just keep recycling me every decade or so,” quips Alexa Chung, flashing that wry English moxie that’s made her so damn likable all these years.
The 36-year-old style icon and I are bantering about the ever-changing fashion industry and her place in it. Unlike most stars whose job titles are fairly straightforward (actress, singer, model), Chung is one of those unique fixtures who have been famous for so long and for so many reasons that I’ve never even stopped to think about what originally made her a household name. She’s just Alexa Chung and has always been here, like the sun itself. She’s like Carrie Bradshaw meets Chloë Sevigny but also something totally her own? Prior to our interview, Chung’s publicist emailed me a long list of her appropriate titles: global style icon, trendsetter, fashion designer, esteemed television personality, author. “We don’t refer to her as a model and never DJ,” her rep added with a wink emoji. All I know is if you google the phrase “It girls,” a headshot of Chung and those shaggy, hickory-brown bangs of hers is the first image result to appear.
If I think back, I suppose it was 2009 when Alexa Chung first crossed my radar. That’s when she began hosting that cool MTV talk show It's on With Alexa Chung (though her television-presenting career kicked off in the UK long before that). She re-entered my worldview a couple years later when I started interning at fashion magazines in New York City and couldn’t flip through a best dressed roundup without seeing Chung’s distinctive, vintage-centric style. (“Every day, half of my outfit is vintage,” she tells me, a decade later. “It’s romantic; it’s nostalgic. I’m a magpie for old times.”) Chung popped up again for me in 2015, when she starred in British Vogue’s docuseries The Future of Fashion, and again in 2017 after launching her own clothing brand, ALEXACHUNG (whose whimsical, grandma-chic designs are shoppable on Net-a-Porter and Shopbop). Then last year, Chung materialized once more when a video from her clever Franglais YouTube series appeared in my recommended section. I thought, Huh, haven’t seen her in a bit, and clicked, expecting to get distracted by the three-minute mark, as I tend to do on YouTube. An hour later, I’d binged seven straight Alexa Chung videos on French versus American style, her androgynous hair routine, and some hilariously self-aware ASMR attempt, a dopey smile fastened to my face. Clearly, no matter how many years pass, Chung finds a way to meet the fashion industry wherever it is.
Photo:Zackery Michael; STYLING: Louis Vuitton vest and trousers
Last year, the charismatic Brit booked her first TV presenting gig in years: co-hosting Netflix’s new reality competition series Next in Fashion alongside Queer Eye’s Tan France. A fresh take on Project Runway, the show’s contestants aren’t industry newcomers but instead working designers from all over the world who’ve gone to top fashion schools, lent their skills to renowned brands, dressed A-listers, and are now looking to take their careers to household-name level. Together, Chung and France fill both the Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn roles.
“I just couldn’t believe they were calling me again to do TV. It’s been so long,” Chung says when I ask for the origin story. “I’m like Bruce Willis in Die Hard 3 when he’s already retired, and they’re like, ‘We just need you for one last mission.’” As the tale goes, Tan France had already been cast, and the network was tossing around names for his counterpart, when Chung bumped into him at a London Fashion Week party. “I was quite drunk because my fashion show was the night before, so I was letting loose. Tan walked in, and we just chatted,” she recounts. Chung doesn’t know who was originally in line for the Next in Fashion gig, but after a tipsy chat-and-a-half with France, he was under her spell like the rest of us and calling up the producers to hire her.
“I talked to the team and immediately became interested in the idea of the show. It just sounded so modern and fun,” Chung says. It didn’t hurt that she and France had instant friend chemistry. “I’m just jazzed to have found a new best mate,” she says of her co-star. “We didn’t know one another before the show, but he’s taken a place in my heart as one of my favorite human beings. As soon as he walks in, he’s like, ‘Hi, Chungy!’ and I’m like, aaaaggggh! So, yeah, I’m very pleased to know him.” Viewers approve of the partnership as well. “Alexa + Tan is the duo I never thought I needed” is one of the top comments on Next in Fashion’s season one trailer.
As soon as she arrived on set, Chung started exceeding expectations (which, I’m learning, is a recurring theme for her). She recalls, “When we started filming and I could read a cue card really well, everyone was like, ‘Wow, you’re good at that,’ and I was like, ‘Guys, I started out as a TV presenter. This is the only thing I’m technically able to do, so hold my beer.’”
Photo:Zackery Michael; STYING: Marc Jacobs top, pants, and shoes
Chung hasn’t exactly been hiding from the camera lens since her MTV days. For the past year and a half, she’s been writing, producing, and starring in original videos for her YouTube channel. (“I’m fashionably late to this YouTube party,” her bio page reads.) Chung assures me this wasn’t some sort of strategic move to stay social media relevant (“I don’t even know what TikTok is,” she confesses) but instead an opportunity to make content on her own terms: “It’s fun to be autonomous, you know? I’ve always worked with networks and producers. People with opinions. But with YouTube, I don’t have a boss. We can just do whatever we want.”
Chung’s videos are less casual, unfiltered vlogs and more engaging, well-crafted short films. Some are on the trendy side (the tutorials, the ASMR), but others are like mini documentaries. She goes behind the scenes to investigate how custom gowns are made for the Met Gala and Dior Haute Couture. In this way, Chung also uses her channel to learn more about the fashion industry at large. “As someone who didn’t gain a college degree, I kind of use YouTube as a utensil to explore,” she says.
Chung’s fashion line, too, has been an exercise in learning on the job. You’d never guess from her résumé of accolades or sense of laid-back confidence, but creating ALEXACHUNG beset the It girl with a relatable case of imposter syndrome. “It was such an intimidating process in the beginning, and I had to rely heavily on my team,” she reveals. “My insecurity about not having trained at Saint Martins [a prestigious fashion school] meant that I was creating clothes that could have been a little bit more unabashedly me.” Since the brand’s impetus in 2017, Chung has slowly learned to take ownership of her vision. “I’m not embarrassed by my influences now,” she says. “I’m just like, yeah, I want to make David Bowie pants! Or whatever it is. I’m a bit more proud of my perspective.”
With perspective in no short supply, Chung describes her forthcoming resort collection as a “psychedelic Easter party.” She says she was watching maybe a little too much Mad Men while dreaming up the pieces. “I was thinking about how women in the ’60s were hopped up on Valium, seemingly having it all but still feeling this malaise,” Chung explains. “I get very carried away with the inspiration, and my team has become really good at translating those ideas into something that actually makes sense.” As the creative director, Chung conceptualizes the overall vision, while her Prada-trained head designer, Silverio Boffelli, handles the execution. “I’m not at the end of my learning journey, obviously,” Chung adds. “But something I learned in the process of doing Next in Fashion is that the designers who end up winning are the ones who really listen to their own voice.”
We couldn’t help but ask who and what Chung predicts is “next in fashion” (outside of the Netflix show, that is). For one, she’s confident that the sustainability movement will continue to take over. “I mean, it’s the only way forward,” she asserts, naming Jane Fonda (who recently gave up shopping for good) as one of her current fashion inspirations. Chung has even hired a consultant to help make her own line more eco-conscious, motivating her to think about things like the life cycle of a garment (prioritizing pieces that will stay in a customer’s wardrobe forever as opposed to trendier throwaway items) as well as earth-friendlier fabrics and materials (mushroom leather, seed packaging).
“We have a long way to go,” says Chung, adding that neither designers nor consumers need to be “militant” to make an impact. After all, if everyone were flawlessly sustainable in their clothing consumption, fashion wouldn’t even exist, Chung would be out of a job, and millions of lives would feel noticeably emptier. “You just do the best you can because at the same time, if we were all perfect about it, we’d all be in one jumpsuit,” Chung says. “There are benefits to fashion as well. It brings a lot of joy. It’s a way to express your identity. It has an important role.”
Photo:Zackery Michael; STYLING: vintage Chanel top, skirt, belt, and shoes
To that end, Chung foresees that fashion’s part in blurring the boundaries of gender, age, and even fame itself will continue to broaden, largely thanks to social media. “Like Harry Styles wearing earrings and blouses to the Met Gala or Matty Healy from The 1975 wearing a dress and Dev Hynes looking so awesome,” she says. “I love how [designer] Simone Rocha incorporates older models into her shows.” Looking on the bright side, Chung considers us lucky to live in the age of social media, which grants us exposure to designers, looks, and human experiences we wouldn’t otherwise see. (Of course, keeping mental health in mind, Chung also says she’s no stranger to Instagram’s mute button.)
A lesson in career longevity, Chung is playing the long game. She seems much more relaxed conducting her professional life this way, compared to years past. (In 2013, she told the press that the pressure of “remaining It” was causing her great distress.) These days, Chung is simply interested in pursuing the projects that feel most authentic, then seeing them through with poise (and that signature twinkle in her eye). “You’ll have to try me on again in another 10 years’ time,” she smiles. “I’ll be here, hangin‘ around.”