Charli XCX’s fifth and final album under Atlantic Records is all about submitting to the pop star ideal that majors often pressure their artists — especially women — to strive for. Over the course of Charli’s 13-year contract, she’s lived comfortably in a world of duality, flipping between experimental collaborations with newcomers and more radio-friendly singles with all-stars. She’s gone from witchhouse to hyperpop and, in doing so, led the charge for a generation of pop weirdos. Being first, however, hasn’t always meant first on the charts.
For Crash, out today, Charli put the artist aside to make way for the sellout, stacking the odds for commercial success in her favor as its own creative exercise. This meant onboarding hitmakers like Rami Yacoub (who co-produced Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time”) and leading only with dance-forward sounds — but especially the ones we’ve already heard before, like with “Beg For You,” which shamelessly interpolates September’s 2008 hit, “Cry For You.” Or on “Used To Know Me,” with “Show Me Love” by Robin S. bubbling throughout its hook.
But all successful pop stars know music falls second to image, right? Which is why Charli made a concerted effort to turn this era into one focused fashion statement. She onboarded LA stylist Chris Horan, a regular for Hari Nef and Euphoria’s Barbie Ferreira, to help bring her dangerous, sexed up vision to life. The Crash color scheme has largely been all black, with more bikinis, latex and skin than Charli’s ever flaunted before. Rena Mero, the iconic ’90s wrestler known as “Sable,” became their chief muse, with her bodysuits, bras and dramatically voluminous hair inspiring Charli’s look this cycle — a stylized shift from the intimate, at-home feel of 2020’s how i’m feeling now.
Below, Chris Horan tells PAPER about bringing the grit and glam to Charli XCX's final Crash with Atlantic.
One of the big ideas behind Crash is Charli playing with the machine, playing inside the label, playing the role of pop star. From a styling perspective, how did you begin to approach that?
Charli had this idea from the jump. I met her during the pandemic, well over a year ago, and we didn't do a shoot or any press images for months. We had an ongoing iCloud shared folder between me, Charli and Imogene, who's her amazing creative director. A lot of the things I loved in the beginning were female wrestlers. There's this iconic female wrestler, Sable, and we recreated one of her looks. So it was a lot of that grittiness, but I didn't want it to feel cheesy at all, straddling the line of fashion.
My biggest thing from the beginning was: how do we execute this concept in a way that’s gaggy enough, but taking Charli in this new direction as a palate cleanser? She’s expensive and she's hot, and there's a way to play up both strengths. There was a decision that we all had to commit to: it’s all black, the [big] hair. We had to drive the visual home in a way that’s recognizable and feels different. If you're gonna do this narrative of "the sellout," it has to be zero to 100 because Charli’s always been hot. She's always been all these things, it’s just turning it up. Charli is the client who meets you at every level and works harder than anybody.
Photo via Getty
It's true, to reinforce something — especially in this age of information overload — you people need to see the same thing over and over and over again. Looking back on what you've created with Charli so far, is there a look that you consider the strongest realization of this original idea?
The VMAs is pretty high up there because we spotlighted Shawna Wu. That lace dress, it was naked, the hair was huge, the single [“Good Ones”] had just come out. It was the first big moment like, "This is happening, we're gonna do it.” And then the video coming out for “Used to Know Me” is also a really good reference because we've hammered home that pop star narrative. This video shows her playing with characters and a little more color, so it feels a bit more pop star in a way that's not so moody. Also, brand relationships have been great [throughout the Crash era]. It feels rewarding to have people recognize the work that everyone on this team has done and want to be a part of it.
Visiting New York, appearing on late-night shows and coming out of hotels has become a pop star trope during album promo. For Charli, it looked like an extension of this larger performance. From a styling perspective, I'm sure it was chaos with tons of pulls and different looks. What was that experience like?
I don't think any of us realized it would become such a thing and it actually was not so planned. I mean, we had a ton of clothes because the schedule this whole month has been wild: SNL promo shoots, Watch What Happens Live. We did all these things off the cuff. I would bring two options to [Charli] before she was going somewhere and, literally, we’d just throw something on and walk out the door. I love that it was that way because it was just like, “Let's try it,” and then it worked. It was iconic and [the outfits] looked so hot. That trip is a good nod to the next music video, where it's very much still pop star Charli, but it shows her playing with color in a way we haven't seen her do lately. [New York was] a teaser for things coming up that are a little more playful now that people have it in their head who this person is.
I think most people on the outside see final looks and think there's always time and energy to put careful consideration into everything, when in reality the behind the scenes is racks of clothes and seeing what works on the fly.
The "Beg For You” video, we fit the night before. We had a call time of 4 AM, so a lot of times it is that way. Same thing: we did SNL in New York, we came back on Sunday and shot this new video for “Used to Know Me” on Tuesday. We fit Monday night in between her choreo rehearsal. They would do a take, we would try one outfit on, it's very quick. Charli is the best collaborator in the sense that she's very trusting of her team and she knows what she wants to say. But she also gets how it works, so I left room for a lot of spontaneous moments and had some freedom in my court.
You filmed "Beg For You” in the middle of the desert, right?
Yeah, we literally fit until 8 PM the night before. Rina [Sawayama] and her were both so quick. And then our call time was 4:45 in Lancaster and it was so windy. I only styled them two, the cult leader and the demonic looking latex one. But those two characters we fit on-site, God forbid we didn't have something that worked, like we were fucked. I've come to realize that no matter what level [in your career] you're at, there's so much going on, especially during album promo, that I don't think you can plan, even if you’re [Lady] Gaga. But again it’s better, I don't think it's good to overthink things too much.
I always say, “If a project ends up looking exactly like you envisioned in the very beginning, that's a miracle.” Like, there’s a one in 100 chance of that happening with all the different variables that unfold.
The “Used to Know Me” video coming out is one of those things where I'm like, "I don't know how we did this,” but it truly is nine looks, all different characters. It's the video where I'm like, “Everything went right for us, everyone brought their A-Game.” It was the only time Charli was like, “I've never seen you stressed before.” But the video went off without a hitch, it was a miracle. I think it will be my favorite video of this era so far, which is saying a lot for “Good Ones” because that was a labor of love. I feel like that one was very much it, with the leather bikini on the gravestone. The whole thing is my fave.
I remember you were going to shoot “Good Ones" in Mexico the week after you styled PAPER’s Charli and Dixie D’Amelio cover. You were freaking out because you didn’t have a passport yet.
The entire team makes fun of me because I'm the biggest pop fan in general, but obviously of Charli, too. And I remember feeling like, "If this doesn't happen and I'm not going to get to go do this video, I will be crushed. Like, this is my baby.” I had to go to San Diego and wait, like I drove at 5 AM and waited and I got one the same day.
Charli sounds super collaborative, even though she's leading most of the ideas, if not all of them. How do you feel like your point-of-view has been brought out through this era?
It's so collaborative. Again, this was all Charli’s fully fledged idea, but at the same time it feels rewarding because I feel very respected [by her] as a creative. Charli has the main ideas, but she's so busy that we show up and the trust is there. A lot of times I'm just bringing it all to life, but I think I've brought more fashion and strategy [to Crash]. One of my greatest strengths is, this is a business at the end of the day, so how can we make this not just a flash in the pan? It needs to be interesting on the music side, but also considering the business of fashion. By no means was Charli a person who needed an overhaul of not being cool looking, she's the coolest, so let's just bring an evolution.
What's the biggest thing you've learned from styling Crash in comparison to your previous experiences?
I've learned that I really like doing this. It's always been my dream to have pop star-type clients. Sticking to a theme, as hard as it can be, is so challenging in a way that's rewarding for me because I love the strategy. You can't get lazy and I think it was really refreshing for me to feel that spark. Not that I don’t get that on other things, it's just wild to have to stick to it for so long. You want the continuity to be there and cohesion — how it translates from walking out of the hotel to a live TV performance.
Styling an album era with music videos lives on in such a bigger way than your typical photoshoot or appearance. Like, the “Good Ones” video is going to forever be a part of Charli’s career and pop culture, and fans will watch and rewatch. I'd imagine it's amazing to be able to create the look and identity around fashion for something like Crash.
Totally, and also the culture of being gay and being out with friends, when you’re at a bar and the video comes on. Like you said, it's gonna live on. And again, not to bring it back to the next single, but this next one truly is like, gay, gay, gay. People are gonna love it in the video bar, it's so good: the looks, the hair, the everything. This next one really is iconic, I think.
Photography: Terrence O'Connor
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