For Chopova Lowena, spring-summer 2023 collection means first fashion show in the brand’s history. It has become a sort of tradition that the London Fashion Week goers are mass-swirling in the label’s signature multi-pleated carabiner-suspended kilts Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena’s business is growing organically, so going for a runway experience felt like the right step. The driving energy the designers unleashed on the runway, personified to the max by their gang of friends, family, collaborators, and street-cast models stomping through a loud cacophony of Bulgarian folk song, Lacrosse-match cheering, and metal music – it was fashion moment. “We had three months to fit everyone, so they all felt perfect. Right space, right sound, a great experience emotionally, a different way of walking,” Emma Chopova declared afterward. Standing next to her, Laura Lowena chimed in: “Yeah, we wanted to make sure the time was right, that we could really create the Chopova Lowena world for everyone to see. And I think that waiting was the right thing to do. Especially after such a quiet few years, it felt amazing to bring people – our community – together like this.” The impressive part was to see everything Chopova Lowena have been building up through their lookbooks and videos come to life, confirmed as a fully formed multiplicity of looks, prints, denim, tailoring, skirts over dresses, metal jewelry, tinsel knits, with mad-cozy boots, hand-drawn cartoony artwork, cotton armlets, and all. It’s all completely coherently styled and identifiable, yet simultaneously it looked as if each person was having a good time walking around in their own clothes. Men owned kilts and uniform skirts with conviction for the first time since Jean Paul Gaultier in the 1980s. Although, Lowena firmly pointed out, “we don’t really think in terms of men and women. We think of people.”
Collage by Edward Kanarecki. Don’t forget to follow Design & Culture by Ed on Instagram!
Chopova Lowena‘ cult carabiner skirts are a runaway success, worn the world over by Fashion Week guests, pop stars, and Real Housewives. The brand’s monogram chain necklaces and upcycled jewellery sell out instantly, and their growing blouse and bag categories have set the business up well for the future. But Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena aren’t the type to take it easy. As Chopova says, “Every season we’re trying to do new things, things that don’t feel like us. It’s interesting to see how we can make new categories our own.” For autumn-winter 2022 they have tackled suiting. “Skirt suits felt the most Chopova Lowena, obviously,” says Lowena. Theirs are made with a rounded double breasted jacket and pleated miniskirt, in deadstock orange plaid or deadstock silky synthetic. Necklaces and bracelets are laced into the collars and cuffs so that the pieces jingle and sparkle. The integration of metal chains into their clothing comes from their research into medieval dress. Each season, the designers clash a folk reference with a sport one – this time they’ve landed on ice hockey versus Renaissance Faire, extrapolating tying and knitting details and armor-like finishes and titling the collection “kiss the hare’s foot,” a medieval expression used, per Chopova, “for when you miss dinner but savor the leftover scraps.” A witty reference to their deadstock practice. The romantic-meets-brutal spirit of their collection works well, the CL boys and girls existing in an in-between. They are not pretty in their laced-together flocked dress with a white slip. They are not strange in a taffeta skirt made of 8 plaid panels, each knotted at the hem, worn with a fuzzy floral cardigan, the brand’s first earnest foray into knitwear. They are not silly either, even if rabbit-ear hoods and cartoon-print tops telegraph childlike humor. Standing boldly in their velvet tops and hardcore metal-trimmed trousers, they are something else, a new aesthetic, a new spirit of furious eclecticism that could only be Chopova Lowena. That’s the genius of their work: it simply cannot be mistaken for anything else.
In London, the new-gen designers thrive. Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena, the design duo behind Chopova Lowena, have always fused traditional folklore with sportswear, and this season they keep on building their style vocabulary. For autumn/winter 2021, they put emphasis on the ‘uniform’. “We were looking at the tension and strictness of school uniforms, but then the freedom of the vigour, colour and nature of horse jockeys and their riding attire,” they say of the brand’s most “challenging” collection yet. The designers traditionally use deadstock material sourced from Bulgaria, and this season they’ve added in some new fabrics and techniques. “We’ve used an appliqué, which is more like the horse jockey shirts… graphic shapes.” Buttons, meanwhile, were sourced from the biggest English button factory remaining in Nottingham. Having sewn about “70 per cent of the collection”, while adapting to “making linings and patterns”, the pair is making resilience and adaptability a cornerstone of their rising, sustainability-forward brand. Also, love the voluminous, patchworked dresses with ruffled sleeves!
Seeing all the favourite, relatively small, unique brands in the London Fashion Week digital schedule this season is truly heart-warming. And with less pressure of being noticed in the presentations and showrooms marathons the editors and buyers usually have, look-books seem to let that tension off. I’m following Chopova Lowena since its start about two years ago, and I must say I’m impressed how this label evolves with such confidence and thought, simultaneously staying true to its style. Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena took a gathering of their collaborators and interns outside their studio in the postindustrial docks area of Deptford to shoot their spring-summer 2021 look book. “We did it ourselves on our iPhones,” they said, on a Zoom call with Vogue as they shared the pictures. “Everyone we collaborated with is in the look book, except for a Bulgarian woman, who we found on Facebook, who made loom-beaded pieces for us.” So here are their friends, standing on concrete and cobblestones under an overpass, with a washed-up wooden riverboat in one direction, a red commuter train shooting overhead, and the vivid green shoots of untended nature springing up beneath their feet. As a glimpse of a little-seen corner of the Thames shore, the backdrop is a perfect metaphor for the designers’ youthful energy – their uplifting knack of finding beauty and romance in overlooked places, and their ingeniously pragmatic ways of re-crafting fragments of the past into ideas that young women find irresistibly wearable. Some of the Chopova Lowena girl gang pictured are Faye, a painter who contributed designs for their burgeoning line of printed jeans; Jewel, a makeup artist; Ami, who made prints based on cut-up Bulgarian postcards of dogs, roses, and Easter eggs for T-shirts; and jewelry designer Georgia, who made charms. The label is focused on building up signatures, like their accordion-pleated kilts suspended on steel climbing hooks clipped to leather belts, and developing their penchant for dresses in checks and tartans made from deadstock fabrics. All of this continues with even more exuberance and multiple-check action here. Explaining the narratives of how they source and make in Bulgaria, which is Chopova’s family home, is also important to the designers. There are lots more vintage materials from her home country in this collection. “My mum helped me clean and recondition antique wall hangings. People traditionally used to hang them in their kitchens over stoves or above their sofas or beds,” Chopova relates. Bulgarian people are willing to part with them, she says, because they don’t use them anymore. “The fabrics have a lot of baggage. They remind them of communism and folklore, which don’t have favorable connotations.” Look 1, a lovely white drop-waisted linen dress with two deep flounces, is remade from kitchen hangings embroidered with line drawings of folk tales. There’s a top made from lace doilies too. The designers now feel they want to deepen the connection with tradition and with showing the authenticity of how their things are made and by whom. “I think in the pandemic, everyone in fashion has been thinking, What is our brand’s purpose in all of this?” They learned how much their audience likes seeing stuff being made when they ran a video of artisans in Turkey marbling white denim for their new line of jeans. In tough times, their priority is to keep supporting the Bulgarian women who work on the clothes – those with the skills to produce, for instance, the deep accordion pleats that are “made with the one remaining mold in the factory, which was always used to pleat traditional costumes.” Amazing.
I bet you’ve seen the unmistakable, Chopova Lowena skirt – multiple-pleated patchworks, suspended by mountaineering carabiners from chunky leather belts – on the street style arena. They are so distinct in their look you that just can’t miss them in the crowd. Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena‘s signature, made out of traditional fabrics from Bulgaria – and produced there – was the start of their label’s story. In a short space of time they’ve developed a cult following for their upcycled collection: colorfully cool, full-skirted dresses with big puffed sleeves, layerings of tartans and ’70s prints. Also, their way of doing things is so appealing. “It’s important for us not to make clothes for the sake of it, but to make things which are part of our heritage, and are helping people,” they say. Chopova’s light bulb moment was realizing that her home country is full of under-recognized cultural resources – both in terms of rich fabrics and skilled female sewers. “After communism in Bulgaria, it was all about adopting a Western lifestyle,” she says. “So all the beautiful traditional clothes which had been made as dowries for brides, which people kept in trunks for generations – they didn’t find them precious anymore, and were throwing them out.” The designers began retrieving them, along with 1970s mass-produced flower-print and check taffeta deadstock, then made a network of Bulgarian women seamstresses to make their collections. “It’s built up by one friend knowing another – someone knew a granny who loves embroidery, the old technique they used for aprons. So now it’s great that everything’s being made by these women who really know their skill.” Thanks to another friendship-group link, Chopova Lowena has hit on original way of making jeans this season, printed with beautifully faded marbled patterns, inset with florals. “It’s made by women in their houses in Bursa in Turkey,“ Chopova told Vogue. “We discovered it through one of the Bulgarian women we work with, who goes there.It’s a-300-year-old technique which is used for making Turkish tiles; but now we’ve transferred it to fabric,” she continues. Every piece is unique. In times when sustainability must be the keyword for every brand out there, this ethical way of working comes naturally for these two designers. “We think it’s a luxury to be able to have something handcrafted, and to know where it comes from,” Chopova says. “When we were starting, with all these old materials and telling buyers that, no, everything we make can’t be the same – we never even guessed that it would be welcomed.”