Fashion: How Alexa Chung found the future of M&S in its past

The M&S Company Archive at the University of Leeds, going through the "body bags".
The M&S Company Archive at the University of Leeds, going through the "body bags".
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Alexa Chung found the inspiration for her new retro-inspired collection for Marks & Spencer at the company’s archives in Leeds. Stephanie Smith find out what caught her eye.

She is a modern style icon, sometimes quaintly called “a muse”, although that might be because some people are not entirely sure what she does.

A fashion image from 1973 that Alexa found in the M&S Company Archive in Leeds, inspiring the collection's wide-leg trousers and knitwear.

A fashion image from 1973 that Alexa found in the M&S Company Archive in Leeds, inspiring the collection's wide-leg trousers and knitwear.

But Alexa Chung is indeed a muse, and not just for fashion houses such as Mulberry who name luxury bags after her. She is an inspiration and trend-leader for ordinary people who love fashion – not transient, bubblegum, pop princess fashion, but understated, slightly quirky, very contemporary British style. Whatever she wears is admired and emulated. The secret is perhaps that she makes it all look so effortless and achievable, even though, in real life, her tall, gazelle-like frame and huge doe eyes do rather set her apart from the average British woman on the street.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that Alexa Chung, model, TV presenter and fashion creative, is someone who likes to get stuck in, happily manning the tills at the launch in Marble Arch earlier this month of her new Archive by Alexa collection for Marks & Spencer, and touchingly thrilled with her very own staff name badge.

She also took a hands-on approach when it came to creating the collection, putting in research time by visiting the M&S Company Archive at the University of Leeds, along with the M&S design team, to dig out the pieces deemed wonderful enough to be brought back to life.

As M&S tries to tread the line appealing to both its traditional customers who claim it is trying too hard to set trends, and the younger customer that it most certainly needs for future success, it now appears to be pinning hopes on a nostalgic approach – understandable, given the regularity with which some of its customers insist that its fashion was better in days gone by. But this is nostalgia curated for a modern customer by a contemporary style icon.

Alexa Chung wears the Elsie dress, �39.50. It will be a bit longer on most of us.

Alexa Chung wears the Elsie dress, �39.50. It will be a bit longer on most of us.

“Basically, Leeds is like this amazing big fridge and you can go through all of the different body bags, essentially,” Alexa says. “The amazing thing about that place is, not only do they have all the brilliant clothes, but also many of the in-house publications so all of the catalogues and the clothes were available for us to look through.”

The M&S Company Archive is one of the richest retail history collections in the country, featuring more than 70,000 items and materials charting more than 130 years of fashion and company history, dating from the original Penny Bazaar opened in Leeds Market in 1884, and including written records, staff publications, photographs and films, garments and household products, design and advertising materials.

One of the key pieces in the collection is a high-neck, ruffled blouse, instantly recognisable as inspired directly by the 1980s, New Romantics and Princess Diana. In a short film made to explain the thinking behind some of the collection, she says: “This was actually based on a photograph as opposed to the actual garment. It was originally in white so we did a white one and then this soft pink, which I thought was quite modern.”

The olive green trench coat that she has been photographed in is her favourite piece, she says. It was taken from an original gabardine trench coat of the 1950s. “This was an amazing find. This was in the archives. It’s so nice.”

The Ada blazer, �49.50.

The Ada blazer, �49.50.

Then there’s a pink ribbed, close-fitting sweater. “I just thought this would be nice in the summer in Britain at a festival.”

There are vests, too, ideal for the summer. “I love these – this is like the classic ’90s two-pack,” she says. “Put that under dungarees, under a spaghetti strap dress perhaps, do the full Rachel from Friends.”

The Archive by Alexa supporting campaign, shot by photographer Tom Craig, sees Alexa herself taking creative ownership of the mood and direction.

The initial range comprises 31 pieces of ready-to-wear, all reimagined, updated and given the magic Alexa touch. Remember the M&S tan ’70s-inspired suede skirt that was hailed an “It” piece after she was snapped wearing it last year. Marks & Spencer bosses liked it so much, they gave her a whole collection, banking on the 32-year-old’s style credentials to revive its own often criticised fashion offer.​

The Ada blazer, �39.50, and the Ada trousers, �39.50.

The Ada blazer, �39.50, and the Ada trousers, �39.50.

The selected archive pieces are from the 1940s to the Noughties, recreated using modern fabrics and processes, plus an updated colour palette. Both the clothes (and the amazing chunky boots, £65) reflect the super-cool, elegant, slightly preppy chic of Alexa herself.

“I have always had an affection for Marks & Spencer,” she says. “There was something very touching about looking back through the British fashion and social history for which M&S is synonymous.” Key pieces include the Ada blazer, £49.50, a navy double-breasted jacket with gold buttons, very like the 1989 M&S version that inspired it, but with shoulder pads removed for a more contemporary shape. Quirky printed pieces, including the vivid paisley print Eliza dress, remastered from a Fifties apron, are expected to sell out quickly.

The Archive by Alexa collection is the first of an “M&S &” series of collaborations with designers and fashion icons. “I’ve had such fun going through the archives at M&S and creating this collection, and hopefully doing the next one as well,” she said at last week’s press show.

Or, as she puts it in her sleek behind-the-scenes film. “I just found the future of Marks and Spencers in the past.” As to whether or not it will have the desired effect, only time will tell, but, in searching the Leeds archives for perfect examples of M&S clothes that real former customers have worn and loved, Alexa Chung might well be on to a good thing. As long as she remembers that quality with style is what the core British fashion shopper has always wanted, and always will.

*The 31-piece Archive By Alexa collection is available in selected stores and online at www.marksandspencer.com. Prices range from £19.50 for the Ruth vest two pack, to £89 for the Frances trench coat.

Twitter: @yorkshirefashQ

The Frances trench, �89.50 - tipped as the first piece to sell out.

The Frances trench, �89.50 - tipped as the first piece to sell out.

The Myrtle jumper, �29.50 - ideal for the British summer, says Alexa. Worn with Lydia trousers, �35.

The Myrtle jumper, �29.50 - ideal for the British summer, says Alexa. Worn with Lydia trousers, �35.

The Edna shirt, �35, was based on a man's shirt found in the archive, although Alexa says she was also thinking of a painting shirt that was handed down to her by her father.

The Edna shirt, �35, was based on a man's shirt found in the archive, although Alexa says she was also thinking of a painting shirt that was handed down to her by her father.

Alexa Chung models the Harry blouse, �35 in pink. It was inspired by a catalogue image she found in the Leeds archive, and also by New Romantic looks and Princess Diana.

Alexa Chung models the Harry blouse, �35 in pink. It was inspired by a catalogue image she found in the Leeds archive, and also by New Romantic looks and Princess Diana.

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