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Alexa Chung on the unpolished appeal of Indie Sleaze

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Alexa Chung after a Klaxons show, December 2006 © Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake

It became apparent that fashion’s cyclical nature had reached vortex speed last year when a spate of articles emerged announcing the return of an “Indie Sleaze” aesthetic. No sooner had we wrapped our minds around the resurgence of an early-noughties trend for overly plucked eyebrows, it appeared Gen Z was busy excavating party pics from the mid to late 2000s and plastering them on TikTok.

I’d never heard the term Indie Sleaze until I was tagged in several slightly cringe pictures of myself by an Instagram account of the same name. Upon seeing a baby-faced me pretending to smoke in a brown velvet dress I had hemmed up with gaffer tape, I understood that Indie Sleaze was a recently invented term being retroactively applied to a cluster of messy club nights swaddled in the dawn of MySpace. In 2007, we just called it going out.

There I am with friends in Teddy’s Nightclub at The Roosevelt in Hollywood, Camden’s hallowed Hawley Arms pub, and The Old Blue Last (a Vice-owned Shoreditch watering hole with an upstairs room that hosted gigs so rowdy the floor once caved in). These images capture a scene of people united by an enthusiasm for alternative music in, arguably, our last gasp of unfettered freedom before the ability to go on the lash undocumented was swept away by wilful oversharing and sponsored posts.

Olivia Vidal, a video editor living in Toronto, started the @indiesleaze Instagram account because she felt it was a decade “not yet neatly defined or revisited”. Vidal’s account has 130,000 followers and counting. Hiding in the grid is a riot of flash photography taken from sites such as Flickr, Tumblr and Photobucket, and borrowed from The Cobrasnake, a seminal photoblog run by photographer Mark Hunter that I used to check obsessively. It features the likes of Dev Hynes, Cory Kennedy, Karen O and Sky Ferreira plastered in sweat and glitter, not posing dutifully for the camera but partying with unselfconscious abandon.

Karaoke kids: Alexa with friends including Tennesee Thomas and Kelly Osbourne, October 2006 © Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake

But was this niche scene truly enjoying a comeback or were my fellow millennials, some now the gatekeepers of media empires, simply feeling nostalgic? Surely for something to be revived, it needs to be worth revisiting. “I struggle to imagine that it will earn its place in the history books,” notes Bunny Kinney, creative director of online video channel Nowness. “In my experience, it wasn’t a particularly diverse scene: largely white, heterosexual, cisgender and, though inherently liberal in values, it felt more or less apolitical.”

While it may have stood for nothing, the fashion might be worth revisiting for its haphazard charm. What emerges from the sequins and skinny scarves of a very recently bygone era — particularly when juxtaposed with the current appetite for clean girl trends and the sort of homogenised fashion only an algorithm could impose — is how vastly different everyone looked from each other. Like a fancy-dress party where the theme was drugs.

Tennessee Thomas and Alexa at the Coachella festival, April 2007 © Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake
Alexa and friends, September 2011 © Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake

I can remember wanting to look like Julie Christie in Darling and the cover of a Shangri-Las record. My most prized possession was a navy school coat I bought for £5 on Brick Lane. I wore it so often that, to this day, regardless of what I have on, people think I’m wearing a Peter Pan collar. I bought Russell & Bromley loafers because they reminded me of Hampshire mums; knee socks from the John Lewis school uniform department to look like a girl in a Sam Haskins photograph, and vintage 1960s dresses so that I could get into The Cave Club for free.

Achieving your dream look was an inexpensive pursuit and treasure hunting in east London’s maze of vintage shops was all part of the fun. American Apparel emerged supreme as the Stanley knife of the scene. Every single person I knew had something from there and yet we never looked the same. “Luxury brands meant nothing to the people I knew,” says Kinney. “Because influencer culture had only really just begun, the pursuit of real-world individuality felt more important than a tag on your outfit.” This makes me feel mildly better about DJing (the job du jour) for Karl Lagerfeld at his Fendi party wearing a not-so-expertly doctored Zara dress.

“The look was unpolished, hedonistic,” notes Nova Dando, a stylist at the time who worked on shoots and music videos for the likes of Klaxons, Bloc Party and The Horrors. After enduring a pandemic that forced us into the confines of our homes, going “out out” seems more tantalising than ever. And what better way to confront a recession and climate crisis than with a return to charity shop finds and DIY fashion? “It’s easy to adopt this look from what you already have in your wardrobe or can borrow from your parents’ wardrobe,” says Dando, “as it’s mostly retro vintage clothing paired with ripped tights, skinny jeans, oversized T-shirts and unwashed, backcombed hair.”

Alexa in bedroom, London, March 2007 © Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake
Alexa and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT, April 2011 © Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake

“If I was wearing anything truly excellent or even clean,” remembers Alison Mosshart of The Kills, “it had probably been given to me on a photo shoot or by Hedi Slimane [now the creative director of Celine]. I wore his gold boots for years straight. I wore them until all the gold was gone and all the boot was gone, and they’d become nothing more than flappy leather mud socks.”

Having his boots trashed didn’t stop Slimane from inviting The Kills to DJ for his autumn/winter 2023 collection at The Wiltern in Los Angeles alongside Iggy Pop, Interpol and The Strokes. His most recent Celine show is perhaps the strongest argument we have for the potential re-emergence of Indie Sleaze, one ingeniously smuggled into its title: The Age of Indieness.

“One of the most glaringly obvious indications that Indie Sleaze has returned,” says Vidal, “is the fact that many of the era’s great bands and artists released new albums or music in 2022. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MIA, Arctic Monkeys, Hot Chip, Uffie and Metric all put out new albums recently.”

If it’s coming back around again, I am more than happy to dry-clean my blazer, minidresses and ballet flats, because it’s a uniform I have never strayed far from. So, dust off your trilby and lace up those brogues, the NME Tour may have ended but “It’s Not Over Yet”.

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