charli xcx talks us through her tour wardrobe
And reflects on those nu-rave roots.
Backstage at the opening night of her UK tour, Charli XCX winces a little. The popstar is reluctantly recalling the stage outfits she wore as a teenager. “I started performing at the time when nu-rave was a thing,” she sighs, as if letting out a little confession. “There was a lot of DIY: children’s toys, ribbons… wearing two tutus at once. I had a Marge Simpson-slash-Marie Antoinette wig that was blue, and I thought it was the coolest thing, like I was ahead of my time.” She blames her parents’ encouragement for the fact that those outfits are now immortalised on the internet (sorry Charli); the opening chapter of her illustrious career. “That was all thanks to them telling me ‘Be you! Do you!’” she grins.
How times have changed. Back in 2008, Charli -- like the rest of us -- was riding the post-Myspace, pre-Tumblr fashion wave that considered clashing colours uber cool. Now, over a decade later, she has evolved into the finest, most stylish popstar Britain’s birthed in decades. A shape-shifting star who has just as much influence on the Billboard charts as she does in the dingy gay club nights of South London. Her fashion choices since the days of those doubled-up tutus have slayed us too.
It’s never been more prevalent than on stage. Charli spent last summer touring the world with Taylor Swift, singing to stadium-sized crowds in what she affectionately calls a “see-through tracksuit plastic bag”. While all of the pop girls have been quite happy conforming to cute looks, Charli is drawn to the daring and nebulous.
On stage at her latest show in support of her 2019 record Charli -- her first headline tour in nearly five years -- she is framed by two cubes inspired by the Coachella Valley installation, Desert X. “I wanted to have shapes on stage that felt impactful and full on,” she says. “If you’re a bit fucked up you can still see two cubes, lights and Charli. That’s it.” What she wears on stage, flanked by those cubes and relentless strobes, changes every night.
Each tour look has been collaborated on with stylist Mindy Le Brock. The duo first met on the set of a music video for her Sucker banger “Famous” back in 2015. “She styled that video, and I kind of saw her at a few parties here and there,” Charli says of their initial encounters. “Before the tour she styled the '2099' video with Troye Sivan too -- where he did all those backflips, for real! Now, she’s on the tour, it’s been so cool.” So how did they decide on these pieces? “Well, we had the longest fitting in the tiniest hotel room ever in New York before it started.”
“Charli and I met briefly before I began working on the tour,” Mindy says, “and she mentioned some of the brands she likes, as well as general silhouettes that make her feel good on stage and flatter her body.” Charli’s favourite looks vary; her crystal white Balenciaga Triple S sneakers are a mainstay, but her wardrobe is peppered with new designers too. Right now, she’s obsessed with Y-Project’s denim thong shorts, which Mindy has paired with a denim Ottolinger long sleeved top. On other nights, she wears pastel yellow Molly Goddard tulle dresses, while stretching clear plastic harnesses over the top half (part princess, part BDSM icon) or fully Marine Serre crescent moon bodysuits with neon ruffled shirts.
I wonder if these are characters she plays on stage. They’re not, she insists, calling them “a more amped up version” of herself instead. The one exception might be the accessories: a series of custom harnesses, chains, belts made from spare keys and jewelled face masks by Sheridan Tjhung that make her look like a savage samurai and “feel like a bitch”. For Mindy, that was the element that drew everything together. “They keep the looks snatched on stage when she is moving around a lot,” she says.
There are a few constants in these ever-changing line-ups, the most prevalent being the shedding of layers on-stage. Instead of the traditional ‘costume changes’ most pop shows tend to have, Mindy has layered different looks upon Charli so that her silhouette shifts throughout the show. She’ll start, for example, wearing a sheer shirt or outerwear over a bodysuit, before peeling back layers as the set progresses, finishing on a whole new outfit. It’s a stark switch-up from the mainstay look of the Taylor Swift stadium tour. “Charli wanted to do many changes in an effort to keep each show fresh and to keep the wardrobe evolving, similar to how the energy on stage does,” Mindy says. “We didn’t want to do a typical ‘tear away’ costume type thing. I feel like the layering is a more modern way of achieving the same idea.”
High energy is imperative in the Charli XCX live experience. She’s not one to sit still on stage, but by her own admission doesn’t really do choreography. Instead, she needs the freedom to contort her body and throw her arms around at her own accord without being restricted by what she’s wearing. “When I’m moving around I’m a bit gangly, and I’m throwing my arms everywhere. I want my arms to feel really puffy and big so when I do my moves they look a bit more intentional than…” Charli flails her arms around to show what she means. “I really like the idea of the romanticism of the clothes. Whether that be the corsets with their puffy silky chiffon-like materials, or putting bows in my hair that look like bark. The show is kind of renaissance in parts, but on stage I’m all about the aggression! Then also, there’s this sports element to it, just because I get really hot. There’s practicality and fashion.”
Charli reckons there are four criteria she has to tick off when choosing what she wears: “I need to be able to run, jump, sweat and move. I can’t wear much of a heel. My boobs need to not come out, and my arms need to feel less gangly,” she says, before slipping in one more for her beauty routine. “I also can’t have a fringe,” she insists. “It does whatever it wants.”
It’s just hours before showtime when we speak, but she’s not yet decided what she’s wearing tonight. For her, it’s instinctual. “It just happens depending on what I’m feeling, but I got a really bad manicure so I have to do red tonight.” She holds out her hands to show a conservative manicure with a rouge finish. “Ugh they make me so sad!” she half laughs. “The only way to salvage it is all red.”
True to her word, she bounds out on stage like a burst of billowing tulle and bright crimson undergarments, and spends 90 minutes peeling back layers and casting off chains: a perfect metaphor for the most freed, vibrant and unstoppable popstar we’ve got.
Photography Henry Redcliffe
- Charli XCX