Charli XCX, the MSN Messenger-born stage moniker of British musician Charlotte Aitchison, began her career in the technicolor scene of east London underground warehouse raves back in 2008. Since then, she has become one of pop music’s strongest new songwriting talents — she wrote the catchy hook for Iggy Azealia’s “Fancy,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014, she’s churned out hits for artists like Selena Gomez and MØ, and she continues to push her own music to commercial and critical acclaim.
In the manner of a true pop star, Aitchison has realized herself as Charli XCX from the unapologetic attitude of her lyrics (the chorus to her sophomore album title track is F— you, sucker) to her signature style (pieces like her statement-making ensemble worn to Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 2016 show for London Fashion Week). “She thinks both audibly and visually, which most great pop artists do,” her stylist and good friend Lisa Katnic tells Billboard. “She just constantly will be reinventing [herself].” And in fashion, Charli XCX is making her mark.
The 24-year-old’s flair for style has been recognized by British e-commerce site BooHoo.com and high-fashion label House of Holland, the former contracting three fast-fashion clothing collaborations with a sold-out debut in 2015 and the latter appointing her the face of their 2016 eyewear campaign. She also works frequently with bold brands such as Kenzo, Opening Ceremony, Moschino and Vivienne Westwood. “The great thing with Charli is she has taste,” Colby Smith, her makeup artist of three years, explains. “She knows what she wants and what is her. She doesn’t need to have someone create a look or a vibe for her.”
Her unique approach to fashion was precocious. At only 14 years old, she began playing gigs at illegal rave parties, where she captivated audiences with her unruly hair, neon-colored tutus and high-octane stage presence. Charli rode the momentum of her club-kid roots into a grungier, entirely ’90s influenced aesthetic complete with tattoo chokers and platforms — a look that informed the mood of her 2013 debut album True Romance.
Nothing captures this style moment quite like her video for “What I Like”: a VHS camera films Charli dancing around a pizza-peppered hotel room with friends in heavy black eyeliner, a spiked choker necklace, a raglan crop top and a pleated plaid skirt straight out of the ’90s Seattle grunge scene. Though she’s since disclosed her insecurities and the inauthenticity surrounding the project, True Romance exposed her songwriting, bravado and immersive fashion sense to an audience beyond the warehouse rave.
After recording cathartic punk tracks in Sweden — a time between albums where she worked out frustrations with the music industry and her perceived insincerity surrounding her newfound success as a standalone artist with “Boom Clap” hitting No. 1 on Billboard‘s Pop Songs chart — she released her sophomore album Sucker in 2014, which hit No. 30 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart. With her angrier punk sound, Charli moved from grunge plaid to animal prints and slip dresses, embracing a more contemporary look that still nodded to punk of the ’70s Ramones and even the ’60s French ye-ye scene. Her love affair with ’90s fashion and movies, however, still influenced her video for “Break the Rules” (she’s cited The Craft and Jawbreaker as inspirations), but with a style and confidence reflecting a more polished pop-star glamour.
And though the latest creative direction of her new record label Vroom Vroom Recordings (which debuted with her electronic Vroom Vroom EP this past February) is no longer punk, Charli XCX’s attitude still is. She’s not afraid to put herself out there, challenging stuffy fashion faux-pas and sexist notions of sexuality in the public eye with outfits like her Golden Globes 2016 chainmail minidress. “She doesn’t need to try to look sexy, she just is,” says Colby of her self-assured sensuality. Her rebellious style echoes her strong feminist beliefs, like her refusal to pit women in music against one another and her radical love for her breasts — she’ll rock a sheer Betsey Johnson dress with no regard for the media’s body policing.
Her futuristic music video for the track “Vroom Vroom,” released in May, debuted the newest iteration of XCX: a sleek, bikini-wearing minimalist focusing only on the cleanest, sexiest and most scintillating ensembles. True to her previous iterations, the elastic, glossy textures of Charli’s newest looks complement the dark bubblegum pop crafted with U.K. producer SOPHIE of experimental pop collective PC MUSIC and Norwegian production duo Stargate — they’ve worked with everyone from Mariah Carey to Tinashe — for the February EP and upcoming album.
“With [the Vroom Vroom EP], it was electronic, it was kind of dark but kind of poppy, so we went into this future goth kind of mode,” Katnic says of hers and Charli’s aesthetic choice for the video’s black latex suit. “For this [album], it’s full-on candy pop music. The clothing reflects that — right now we’re being thoroughly modern.” With her upcoming album and visuals, Charli and her team will continue to approach her unique style in a way that welcomes you into Charli’s universe, or as she and her friends like to call it, XCX World.