Can Alexa Chung Make Marks and Spencer Fashionable?
Adding style to this ailing high street chain may be beyond even Alexa Chung's powers
Alexa Chung can make anything fashionable: smock dresses, dungarees, tasselled loafers, even satchels but, the big question is, has the TV presenter turned style maven got enough stardust to make even Marks & Spencer sparkle? Last week, Chung seduced the fashion press with her first collection for the high street giant. The range features a handful of classic looks, including a 1950s-style trench-coat and a Princess Di-esque ruffle blouse, rebooted from the M&S archive with her input.
A contributing editor to British Vogue and ambassador for the British Fashion Council, Chung’s fashion credentials are impeccable. If she thinks a double-breasted navy blazer with gold buttons is trendy – an unflattering look last seen on Sarah Ferguson in the mid-1980s – who are we to doubt her? Where her tomboyish style leads, a fashion tribe of 2.2m Instagrammers follows.
The 32-year-old’s star has risen sharply over the past decade after being offered her first TV job, on Channel 4‘s teen music show Popworld, in her early 20s. The paparazzi trail her when she steps out of homes in London and New York, enabling that day’s outfit to be dissected by fans eager for her latest style cues.
Chung has become a style icon for cool teenagers and twentysomethings who would like her clothes and social life. Last year, her first assignment as a photographer, for hipster magazine Paper, documented a glamorous circle that includes Pixie Geldof, Cara Delevingne, Daisy Lowe and Dakota Johnson. Ex-boyfriends include Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner but more recently she has been dating True Blood actor Alexander Skarsgård.
Her contributions to Vogue include a series of short films aimed at young people who want to work in fashion. In one, she explains how she got “bored” with modelling.
“I was always weird about being photographed in my pants,” she jokes, before adding: “I think I found modelling hard because I always found it difficult to keep my mouth shut.”
Her gobbiness, albeit delivered in plummy tones, helped her find her true calling, with her irreverent sense of humour translating on to youth TV.
“In the first meeting for Popworld, they asked me my opinion on music and I could have cried with happiness because it was the first time since school I’d been asked what I thought of something,” she says.
In one deadpan interview with rock band Panic! at the Disco, she famously corrected their grammar. That sense of humour didn’t play too well on the other side of the Atlantic and her MTV show, It’s On With Alexa Chung, lasted for just two series.
Raised in the Hampshire village of Privett, to a Chinese father and English mother, she had a middle-class upbringing, complete with ballet lessons and a pony named Pippi. One of four children, her career choices were not born out of necessity. A good student, she left school with three A-levels (two As and a B) and places to study either art foundation or English at university, but modelling beckoned and she enjoyed a successful run as a teen model. Like Jane Birkin and Grace Kelly, she is one of the few women who can boast of having a designer handbag named after her. In 2009, Mulberry named the Alexa satchel in her honour; by the following year, it was a sales sensation and remains a core member of the handbag maker’s collection.
Along the way, Chung has appeared in campaigns for Maje, DKNY, Pepe Jeans, Tommy Hilfiger and Longchamp and in 2013 released her debut book, It , which offered style tips and advice to her teenage fans.
More recently, she launched Villoid, a phone app billed as an “Instagram for fashion”, which lets users create mood boards and buy clothes.
Chung steers clear of grandstanding on the issues du jour and has ducked criticism of the slender frame that enables her to wear styles unforgiving to a large section of the female population.
Whether Chung is what M&S needs is another matter. M&S’s clothing business is struggling to find its place in a marketplace where its core middle-aged female shopper has moved on, thanks to the expansion of fashion-forward chains such as Zara and H&M.
The high street grande dame has managed to grow its clothing business in only one three-month period during the past five years and appears to have lost its sense of identity.
That loss of direction was clear in the expensively shot Leading Ladies campaign, which, despite bringing together a formidable cast of inspiring women that included Emma Thompson, Annie Lennox, Lady Doreen Lawrence and Alek Wek, fell down on clothes that even celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz could not make look good.
After a decade of false starts, seasoned M&S watchers struggled to shake off a sense of deja vu. “Alexa Chung is an interesting choice and definitely a ‘face’ that moves M&S in the right direction,” says Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at Conlumino.
“However, it is something of a partial solution that won’t have much long-term impact unless M&S makes wider and deeper changes. M&S needs to entice shoppers on the strength of its own brand, not simply off the back of celebrity associations.”
Retailers are big fans of celebrity tie-ups. Topshop’s collaboration with Kate Moss was a massive hit until it wasn’t, while H&M’s regular collaborations with designers, a list that includes Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld, have often initiated a shopper stampede.
Chung is not the first famous name to take the M&S shilling. Over the years, it has worked with an array of celebrities from David Beckham and Twiggy to Sex and the City stylist Patricia Field and fashion designers Zandra Rhodes and Betty Jackson.
The collaboration with Chung came about after she helped turn its 1970s-style suede skirt into a fashion sensation last spring, after she was photographed wearing it.
M&S said 34,000 shoppers had pre-registered their interest in Chung’s collection before it went on sale and a number of the 31 lines are already selling out intermittently online.
Enlisting Chung will help M&S appeal to millennials who have grown up online; without her endorsement of the brand, few daughters would be willing to be seen shopping there with their mothers.
Presumably for the benefit of this youth audience, the official launch of the Alexa collection was captured in shaky cam style. As she talks through the collection, she zooms in on the trenchcoat, advising viewers that it is made of gaberdine, adding: “If you don’t know what that is, you should Google it.”
On M&S’s Facebook page, the older guard was even more confused. “Read an interview with this Alexa Chung person (whoever she is) reminiscing happily about the pleated school skirts she used to wear,” writes Susan. “Gawd help us if M&S introduce those into what is a dreadful range of clothes.”
Pauline, another commenter, adds: “Am I missing something; if these clothes look awful on the stick-thin models, what hope is there for the rest of us? I am a 14 and over-60.”
Saunders says M&S is still a brand for which most Britons feel affection. “Those things don’t mean much if people don’t see it as being relevant to them, which in clothing many don’t,” he says. “That said, M&S still pulls in shoppers, helped no doubt by food. This gives M&S a fighting chance.”
Chung has already started assembling her winter collection, a process that will involve lots more rummaging around M&S’s archive in Leeds, a fashion hoard she likened to a “big fridge”. “I just found the future of M&S in the past,” she says of her collection.
Let’s hope so, for M&S’s sake.
— The Observer