Bags to riches
Former model, television presenter and 'it' girl, Alexa Chung is British to the bootstraps. Aside from her accent, which is a dead giveaway, she is forthright and open, and crackles with dry humour. Even her clothes - a floaty mini-dress she designed herself and a vintage Aquascutum jacket - have a quirky British vibe. If it wasn't for her last name and almond shaped eyes, no one would guess she's part Chinese.
'I am not at all in touch with my Chinese background,' Chung says, revealing that her Chinese father has roots in Hong Kong. 'Sorry. It's a weird family history in that there were loads of shenanigans on my dad's side and that's why I really don't know our Chinese family so well. It was a fractured family.'
Chung was in Hong Kong recently not to trace her long lost family but to promote the Alexa bag from British brand Mulberry. The cool briefcase-type satchel made its debut (on Alexa naturally) during the spring/summer 2010 collections in New York and London last September, and is inspired by her cool, effortless style. Since then, the 'lady-man bag', as she describes it, has flown off the shelves, thanks in part to her endorsement.
'I didn't have a say in the design but it's perfect. It's quite a laid-back bag and it is also practical. I like that it is roomy and not a silly size. It's a good-looking guy,' she says with a nod to Mulberry creative director Emma Hill, who designed the bag.
Hill says she chose Chung as a muse because she has been a fan of hers for many years.
'I was flicking through magazines a long time ago and saw a fabulous photograph of Alexa wearing a dress at an event carrying an old-school men's briefcase from Mulberry and loved the way she looked. I was inspired by that briefcase and decided to do a women's version,' she says.
'What I love about the Alexa bag is that I look at it and I can't imagine a time when we didn't have it. This is also the first time Mulberry named a bag after a celebrity.'
Having a bag named after her puts Chung in the elite fashion company of Jane Birkin, Grace Kelly and model Jessica Stam. A self-confessed fashion junkie, Chung finds her new role flattering but slightly overwhelming.
'It's ridiculous to be in the same company as these women, but it's a nice accolade,' she says, her pale skin turning a shade of red as she laughs.
Long before she was inspiring designers and launching an internet discussion about her clothes, Chung was roughing it in London as a fledging model at the tender age of 16.
'If you're a working model, unless you're a supermodel like Agyness Deyn or Abby Lee where it's all private planes and hotel suites, it's 90 per cent casting and 10 per cent work. It's really pretty sucky,' she says.
When it was time to choose which university to attend, Chung decided to take a gap year instead and pursue television work. This marked the beginning of a career that would eventually make her famous.
'I did three television commercials that year and it was so much money and I felt that it was obviously what I was meant to do. But I am kind of glad that I didn't go [to university], as I wouldn't have been prepared. I would have been imagining what I would be doing. Maybe one day [I'll go back]... I feel like I haven't learned enough.'
By 2006, Chung had become a regular fixture on British television as presenter for several popular shows. Her big break came last year, when she moved Stateside to star in her own show on MTV called It's On With Alexa Chung. As she became more high profile, she was often photographed on the red carpet and noted for her effortless style. Her style icon status was further reinforced when she graced the cover of British Vogue last month.
'When I was modelling there was no way I could have been on the cover of Vogue. I am particularly happy that I made the cover and wrote the accompanying story inside. It's pretty much a fantasy life.'
Chung is one of the most blogged-about style icons in Britain and America, her outfits scrutinised by the media and young girls around the world. Her influence is so far-reaching that you can barely walk down the high street without seeing girls dressed just like her in a cool combo of mannish blazer and girly dress, or T-shirt tucked into a denim skirt. You could describe her look as part Coco Avant Chanel meets Annie Hall with a modern dash of Lou Doillon.
'I like Francoise Hardy and particularly French style, especially the 60s because everything then was amazing. I also like Julie Christie and Charlotte Rampling,' she says. 'I am more inspired by cool, strong women and what I imagine their personalities were as opposed to what they are wearing. Strong ladies who are sexy but covered up.
'My style is quite eclectic, and quite British in that it is slightly eccentric and I pull from different things. It is an English way of dressing in hand-me-downs from your grandmother's closet and mixing it with new pieces. In east London, where I lived for a while, art students couldn't really afford designer pieces so there was a lot of vintage, and I was inspired by that.'
Despite all the fanfare, Chung seems to have her feet firmly on the ground.
'The best thing about being Alexa Chung is that you get to go out with Alex Turner,' she says referring to her boyfriend of three years who is a member of the British rock group Arctic Monkeys.
It seems she is just a simple girl at heart.