Design duo CHOPOVA LOWENA combine traditional folkloric influences with touches of retro sportwear for a new urban sensibility. It gives us a sense of enormous wellbeing

Photography by Mark Peckmezian Styling by Helena Tejedor Text by Dino Bonačić

Instead of trying hard to create a singular vision of unity, Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena celebrate the kind of beauty that comes from embracing the contrasting differences that make our world. Tradition and modernity, East and West, folklore and sportswear – their south London-based label Chopova Lowena is perforated with dualities.

Long-sleeve T-shirt, £280, and skirt, £850, by Chopova Lowena. Black printed T-shirt, stylist’s own. Black tights, £5, by Calzedonia. Vintage trainers by Osiris. Necklace by Chopova Lowena

The two designers were introduced on their first day of studying womenswear at Central Saint Martins in 2011. “She was just so sweet and I thought she was too nice to be in fashion,” Chopova remembers. Lowena replies: “Emma was opinionated and very confident about her work.” For the following three years, they learned alongside each other, and grew together both as people and designers before deciding to enrol into CSM’s prestigious MA programme as a duo in 2015. The choice was unorthodox; it had happened only once before, when Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida joined arms while on the course a few years earlier.“We both knew that we didn’t want to work in a big fashion house,” says Lowena. Chopova adds: “We just knew we wanted to have a brand.” While some of their fellow students did indeed question whether having two sets of hands would be an unfair advantage, the bigger challenge was figuring out the technicalities of having a joint vision. “If having our brand didn’t work out, it would be hard for us to get jobs because we’d only have one portfolio. Who would the work belong to?” asks Lowena.

Luckily, they never had to find the answer to that question, as the time on the course allowed them to create the blueprint for their unique design vernacular,which continues to be the base of Chopova Lowena. While on the search for ways to make their love of folklore relevant today, the two came up with the idea of collaging traces of Chopova’s Bulgarian heritage with something harshly opposite to its natural elements – the garish and synthetic elements synonymous with 1980s and 1990s sportswear. This path led them to their signature piece which emerged from their joint love of skirts – a pleated kilt patchworked out of traditional Bulgarian embroidered aprons suspended by carabiners from an oversized belt in deadstock leather.

The big push for their brand came in 2018 when Matches Fashion became the first retailer to pick it up. After discovering their work over Instagram, the platform’s buying director, Natalie Kingham, took a chance on the duo by purchasing 30 of their one-of-a-kind kilts which were adapted and streamlined from their graduation collection designs. “Sometimes you see new brands and it can take seasons of conversations and looking at what they’re doing, just waiting for the right moment and watching them develop,” Kingham says. “Other times you find something and decide: ‘I need this right now, and so does our customer.’ That’s how we felt about Emma and Laura.” The girls produced the whole order in their studio, and even before Matches were able to publish a feature giving the backstory to the pieces, all of them were sold out. “We hadn’t even explained to anybody who they are and what they do. And that was it – they never got returned, they were gone,” adds Kingham.

Dress, £1,500, by Chopova Lowena. White tights, £4.50, by Calzedonia. Necklace by Chopova Lowena. Ring, stylist’s own

Dress, £1,430, and long-sleeved top, £280, Chopova Lowena. Tights, £4.50, by Calzedonia. Boots, £170, by Dr Martens. Necklace by Chopova Lowena

Following this initial success, with the list of stockists steadily growing, Lowena and Chopova were faced with the prospect of having to scale their business accordingly. But instead of trying to expand the offering, they decided to home in on the methodology behind their signature designs. “When it comes to the skirts, everything was a challenge,”explains Chopova. “Even arranging the aprons into one skirt is an art in itself – every one of them has to look amazing. That’s why, when we sell one-off objects, we don’t really hear many customers complaining that they didn’t get the product that’s being marketed to them – because we put quite a big focus on the fact that it doesn’t really matter if it’s slightly different, but it has to look just as beautiful.” The process also included establishing a network of artisans around Bulgaria and working with them on refining their techniques to suit the contemporary designs as well as growing their own teams and studios in both Sofia and London. Chopova also notes how important it was to create an inventory of deadstock and vintage fabrics they collect through online auction sites and word of mouth. “We categorise them according to certain weaves and colours so we can keep track because every season we work off of what we have.”

This local, yet remote way of working also meant their production process wasn’t severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and neither were the artisans who continued to work throughout the lockdown period. As Lowena notes: “We outsource to people’s houses anyway so being stuck in your home kinda works.”

Following the recipe from their graduate collection, where they mixed rock-climbing with Bulgarian traditional dress, Chopova Lowena’s seasonal collections are rooted in a blunt medley of two very opposing themes – a niche sport and a folkloric inspiration. Previous references include equestrian vaulting and 1980s wrestling uniforms and, despite choosing them primarily for their visual appeal, Lowena says how “at the end of every season we end up doing the sport we researched.”

Shirt, £675, and shorts, £600, by Chopova Lowena. Socks, £12.50, by Falke. Flip-flops, £23.50, by Yalida. White vest, stylist’s own. Hair: Naoki Komiya. Make-up: Manu Kopp. Models: Rosa, Maite, Salama, Özlem, Elisabeth and Irina. Lighting: Hudson Hayden and Ériver Hijano. Digital technician: Dimitri Tahmooris. Producers: Tommy Davie and Christopher Schöenfeld

For a/w ’20, their focus was on traditional Dutch clothing and 1990s snowboarding. In their most expansive collection yet, the duo further explored their upcycling methodologies in the form of voluminous dresses that merged delicate, puffy sleeves with robust skirts. Their jewellery, which initially started as a styling object for a/w ’19, continues to evolve too. Made out of found objects like keyrings and other random bric-à-brac such as shells and utilitarian hardware, it again pays homage to the idea of repurposing craft of yesteryear by giving it new context through the art of layering. They also introduced new categories such as accessories and denim, which is created through a marbling technique by artisans in Turkey who originally used it for creating tiles. Chopova explains: “There’s always a fear – eventually, there’s going to be so many skirts out in the world. They are a core piece, but we also want to do other things that are just as solid in terms of ideas.”

With the exception of their graduate show at Central Saint Martins, Chopova Lowena is not a catwalk brand. “It’s the fashion dream, since you’re a kid, to have a show,” Chopova says. “Every season, there’s a temptation inside of me that tells me maybe there’s a reason we should do one now.” Lowena adds, “But then reality kicks in – do we want to waste a massive amount of money on doing a show, or do we want to invest it in continuing the brand and developing it?” Despite not following the well-trodden path, they have successfully built a business and earned the respect of the industry –Chopova Lowena was one of the six recipients who split this year’s LVMH Prize and have been announced as part of Matches Fashion’s Innovators support programme for emerging designers. But when asked about their future steps, Chopova concludes they are adamant in following the pace of their surroundings rather than setting themselves unrealistic goals. “We’ve always been good at putting systems in place we can later use and invest in, which is the only reason why we would be interested in growing. Right now for us, it’s about proving what makes luxury clothes special. That’s probably going to be everyone’s mindset when spending after quarantine.” With a case as strong as theirs, there won’t be much persuasion necessary.

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