I think what she said was she didn't want to be photographed topless:
She didn't ever do any particularly saucy shoots or lads' mag spreads. "I think I made it quite clear that that really isn't the route I want to go down," she explains, "a) because I don't feel comfortable doing that and b) don't have big tits, and also because I think that gives you a certain shelf-life, and I want to be on Radio 4 when I'm older talking about books, and I think if I get my tits out now I won't be able to do that later."
ALEXA CHUNG has been announced as spokesperson for the annual British Designers Collective. The Vogue cover girl will host the launch of the initiative on March 21 - alongside designers including Peter Pilotto, Jonathan Saunders, Nicholas Kirkwood and Marios Schwab.
Mood indigo: Alexa, in the print room at Central Saint Martins, wearing a sequin dress by member of the British Design Collective Peter Pilotto, Dover Street Market
'I can wear anything now, but it’s not any easier to get dressed': dress and blouse by Peter Jensen; and shoes by Mulberry
'I don't deal with myself as a "brand".' Top and trousers, J.W. Anderson, selfridges.com. Shoes, Aldo Rise, aldorise.com.
Alexa Chung: the forces that move fashion
In the print room at Central Saint Martins, it's as if I'm watching a high-budget dramatisation of how fashion works. To my right, 20-year-old students in top-knots, rubber gloves and Violent Cancer T-shirts hunch over their silk-screens, like Mary Katrantzou did four years earlier. And to my left, the British Fashion Council's new "young style ambassador", Alexa Chung, is posing against their paint-splattered door in a dress by Peter Jensen, a designer who, like Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane before him, studied in this institution.
It's like a 3D timeline, from inspiration to success. It's fashion physics. Style algebra. Student x Central Saint Martins + Alexa Chung = trend. I take a deep breath of the inky fumes and cough indelicately. A fire alarm shocks through the building and everybody calmly begins to file down the stairs in a cloud of pink hair and enthusiasm, Chung singing quietly along to the rhythm of the alarm. Could fashion really be this simple?
Mulberry's "Alexa", their £700 satchel, was inspired by a vintage Mulberry briefcase they'd seen Chung using as a handbag. Last year the brand quadrupled its profits, in part due to the sell-out success of this one bag – a bag that Chung was photographed carrying in all its leopard-print, calf-skin, patent, oversized incarnations. Even aside from the pieces that carry her name, Chung's boyish style (she appears frequently on Vogue's "best dressed" list) has been harvested and replicated, with Chung-ian touches (mannish brogues, Peter Pan collars) flooding the high street. She is a force of fashion. Why?
"Alexa is one of those rare girls who is beautiful, but with a look that somehow still feels achievable," explains Grazia editor Jane Bruton. "She is as reliant on clever high-street finds as she is on designer pieces, and she doesn't do unrelenting glamour, she does clothes for everyday urban life, rather than the red carpet. Therefore her style becomes more transferable than that of a lot of the A list."
Are Chung and her contemporaries (including Kate Middleton, who helped Reiss double their profits when she wore their dress in her engagement photo) aware of the impact they can have on an industry that depends on such wobbly variables as taste, and weather?
Mat Bickley is the founder of Joyn, a digital marketing consultancy that works with fashion brands to track and analyse online responses to celebrities, establishing just how they affect sales. According to him: "Celebrities are aware of their influence, if not exactly who it is that finds them influential. Many celebrities start by endorsing other people's brands, but quickly move into the arena of fronting their own collections.
Chung, for example, designed a leather-backed coat for Madewell, which Grazia said triggered a "bin man" trend. "Victoria Beckham made the successful leap from ambassador to fashion brand, and ranges like Kate Moss for Topshop have been some of the most lucrative initiatives found on the high street," Bickley adds. Watching Chung's languid stroll among the fashion students, their camera phones discreetly snapping, I wonder how much she thinks about the impact she has on the way they dress.
"It's a bit surreal," Chung says of her huge commercial influence, propping her chin on her hands. "I don't deal with myself as a 'brand'." Her scrunched eyes imply she's embarrassed even to admit she's aware of such a concept. "So I'm told about the influence I have, but it's not 'me'. It's 'Alexa Chung'. It does make it difficult to shop, though. I walk around thinking: 'Hmm, everything's a bit samey.' Then I realise that the stuff I think is samey – like the saturation of Peter Pan collars – comes from… me."
She doesn't have to do much shopping though – clothes come to her. "Yes, but that easy access to fashion has cheapened it a bit for me. It's a fast pleasure now – I miss that thrill I felt when I got my first Mulberry bag. I've lost that hunting instinct. So even though I can wear anything now, it's not any easier to get dressed." She has, she says, 'a floordrobe'. "But I've gained clarity…" Clarity? "I can see the difference between wanting to buy into a brand and being inspired by a certain piece. Do you know what I mean?" I think I do.
It's a privileged skill, but one that's certainly helpful for her new role with the British Fashion Council (BFC), for whom Chung's first job (and the reason we're meeting) is spokesperson for the British Designers Collective, a pop-up store that runs for six weeks at Bicester Village, showcasing emerging designers' work. Harold Tillman, chairman of the BFC, elected Chung because, he says: "Alexa's fashion influences are evident in the industry through her roles as creative director, brand ambassador for several labels and muse to designers. All credit to her distinctive personal style." Chung styled herself for our Central Saint Martins shoot, shuffling through the rail of designers from the Collective (including Peter Pilotto, Marios Schwab and Jonathan Saunders) with the cold hand of a professional.
Angling herself into a heavy crystal-studded sweater by Christopher Kane (one that, when she wore it to an awards show, ripped every silky gown she walked past), she squeals. Is she hurt? The hairdresser spins round, alert and meerkatish. "Why can't I wear this every day?" she gasps. "It's 'Barbie princess from 1986', isn't it? It turns you into a human crown. I look so… rich." As well as being an expert at picking clothes, she is, it turns out, pretty good at talking about them. "And because it's so heavy you feel really 'at one with the earth'. Which is good," she turns to me, faux-sincere, "because I do want to sound 'grounded'."
As a teenager, Chung applied to study at Central Saint Martins. "But I didn't get in," she says, with a sad emoticon face. "So I feel a bit jealous of these guys," she adds, waving her hand in the direction of the fashion studios, "like I want to join in. I should've done this. I'm from a family of designers, so this feels very natural to me. And I veered into TV, but always end up in fashion one way or another. I suppose, even though I didn't get in to Saint Martins, I managed to leapfrog the process.
"And I'm genuinely really excited to be an ambassador for British fashion, especially after spending so much time in the US. That's where I realised why I'm proud to be British. With our manners, and our self-deprecation. And the way we have fun! London Fashion Week is so different from any of the others. Compared to the strictness in New York, London seems freer from commercial constraints. Truer to the process, to street style, to a sense of humour."
Her sense of humour, always cheeky, always dry, breaks only when she feels like she's not being heard. The photographer is persisting with a shot that's not working. So she takes a swig of Coke and puts her foot down. The photographer's assistant averts his eyes as she quietly explains about the light, and the dress, and the pose, and when he takes a shot she asks: "How does it read?" It's unusual to hear a model talk back and I tell her it was a bit thrilling. "When I was a model," she whispers, "I started with an opinion, but was encouraged to lose it. It began as play-acting, but then I lost sight of myself a bit: so when I did the audition for Popworld and they asked my opinion, I felt like crying with happiness."
We trail through the building together, the knitting room with its quiet roar, the balconies' vast, clean floors echoing with the sound of her wobbly heels. In the print room she is taken with the drawing of a Mexican queen that a student called Milligan Beaumont is turning into a scarf. I hear her complimenting the student gently, saying: "Don't you think it would be amazing as a shift dress, in black and white?" Beaumont ignores the suggestion. "Maaake it, maaake it," Chung chants, jokily. "I'd wear it!" Beaumont doesn't take the bait.
Upstairs, in a box-like room behind the MA students' rails of glittering dresses, sits Professor Louise Wilson, director of Central Saint Martins' fashion course, and the person many credit with having shaped British fashion over the past decade. Since 1992 she has taught Alexander McQueen and current stars Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane and Giles Deacon; former students are employed at Céline, Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton, and 90% of her graduates have gone straight into work. The dresses Chung is shivering into downstairs were conceived under Wilson's eye.
How important does she think people like Alexa Chung, whose style is proved to sell clothes, are to the industry? Wilson, who, in her black poloneck and colourless ponytail has the air of a cartoon queen – regal, ferocious and aggressively intelligent – sighs pointedly. "The autonomy of education gives us the freedom not to think about the importance of people like Alexa. To be free-speaking, not networking." She pauses, to make sure I understand her point. "If we were 'following'" – if her students were too aware of those on "best dressed" lists – "that'd be a problem. Not wanting to be disdainful, but it's important for us that we're fighting against it."
I ask Wilson a question I've been pondering: how does fashion work? Bickley at Joyn talked about how digital has affected consumers' expectations of customer service. Chung is an example of the impact of influential bloggers and celebrities. How can Wilson, the person behind the clothes we wear, explain the process to me? She locks me in a look. I lean forward to hear her secret. "There aren't 10 easy ****ing rules, OK?" OK. "You wouldn't ask Freud: 'Can you show me how to make a painting?', would you? You wouldn't dream of asking an F1 driver to show you quickly how to build a car. How does it work? How do you lick a ****! Listen, it's a life experience. It's about skills, education. Sorry, mate, not everyone can be in the club." Again, a sigh. "The problem with British fashion," she says, "is that it's got too fashionable."