Courtesy Charlotte Knowles

It's coming up roses for Charlotte Knowles SS21

We speak with the pair behind the brand about the new uplifting direction its taken with Petals, their collection and film shot by Harley Weir.

by Mahoro Seward
22 September 2020, 10:45am

Courtesy Charlotte Knowles

The last time we spoke with the pair behind Charlotte Knowles was on the eve of the presentation of their AW20 collection, and it was almost as if they could feel what was coming in the months ahead in their bones. “We don't know if what’s coming is going to be good or bad,” said Alex Arsenault, one half of the brand, “but we wanted to create a collection that would ensure that our woman is ready for any outcome.”

Well, thank God they did, because my hasn’t it been quite the ride. Despite the tumult, thought, the Charlotte Knowles woman has crossed the frontier she stood on last season, emerging with a rosier outlook on things. Today, the brand releases Petals, it’s SS21 collection, as a lookbook and film styled by Georgia Pendlebury and shot by Harley Weir.

This notable shift in tone — the collection before last, as you might remember, was titled Venom — is the result of the time that Charlotte and Alex have taken over lockdown to step back and take stock of the impressive ground three-and-a-half-year-old brand has covered in its time. Now stocked at some of the world’s best loved luxury retailers, and with a cult following that includes Shygirl, Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid among their repeat customers, it’s clear that the future for them is bright.

This season, that translates to a floral, faintly bohemian spin on the brand’s unapolagetically feminine grunge and grit. Leather corsetry returns, this time embellished with rustic whipstiching, and an A-line suede skirt is studded down the seams. For the first time, we see denim pieces, in psychedelic hand-marbled patterns and bright thermal hues, as well a full range of figure-swathing pieces in graphic braided jerseys.

As Petals is revealed, we got on a Zoom with Charlotte and Alex to hear more about their surprisingly positive experience of pulling the collection together, and the bright, floral horizons for their label.

Charlotte Knowles SS21

Despite all that’s happened, you’ve still had to complete your collection within the same timeframe as usual. How have you found that?
Charlotte Knowles: At the beginning, it was just very strange. We weren't really sure what was going to happen to the industry and what to expect.

Alex Arsenault: And it all happened when we were waiting for the deposits for AW20 orders to come in. So we were like, ‘How are we going to produce anything?’ Obviously every season you expect that there's going to be money coming in for your cash flow, but now there was going to be nothing, which was really scary.

CK: Luckily, we managed to get a Government Bounce Back loan, which helped to front the production costs.

AA: And we were quite lucky that a lot of our stockists, like SSENSE, have a strong digital presence, so they were still able to support us. So it was really scary at first, but things kind of settled afterwards.

CK: That aside, we were just constantly researching, which was a silver lining. It's funny, because I saw that the new Art School collection is called Therapy, and was reading stuff that Eden [Loweth] had written about how designing his collection was a act of therapy through all of this uncertainty. And I feel like this was definitely the same for us as well.

It sounds like you’ve been able to draw some positives from the unexpected change in rhythm.
AA: Exactly. And that's kind of what we wanted the collection to be about — we wanted to be more positive. A lot of the collections we've done in the past are quite rejective, quite angry, so we wanted to do this collection where it's still the same tough woman, but she's presented in a more positive, uplifting light. We looked at flower power references and the idea of bringing people together even if that’s only through the internet at the moment

Charlotte Knowles SS21

Well, my first thoughts on seeing the title, 'Petals', were that it might be a red herring in light of your last few collections…
AA: It's about the idea of a cycle — a flower blooming and dying and blooming again. We've been kind of trapped in this fashion cycle, where everything was kind of spinning out of control, and now it's resetting at more of a slower pace. And people are kind of starting to understand how severely young businesses have been affected. The industry has big expectations, expecting young businesses to be doing everything and fighting for every cause there is. But I don’t think it’s ever really understood how much work and financial capacity it takes to be able to do that. Now, because of COVID, I think the expectations placed on young businesses are a little lighter, which actually made the design process a nicer experience and much less stressful. We could just focus on what we wanted to do for this collection and make it as big as our capacities allowed.

CK: Yeah, there's been this expectation to grow super quickly every season, in an exponential way that isn't necessarily that sustainable.

Charlotte Knowles SS21

Still, you've always said that you never want to be seen as designers who are always labouring the same point. What’s new to the Charlotte Knowles world this season? 
CK: We've really had time to develop techniques, which we've not really done before — we've always focused on kind of cuts and layering and things like that. But this season, a lot of the pieces are quite crafty. We've done this whipstitch finishing on the leather pieces, and we've used a jersey braiding technique that was used in the 90s and 00s when people would customise band t-shirts. After it's braided, we then sublimate it, so all of the wrinkles are printed with a tonal colour. When you wear it, it stretches out and you get these streaky effects between the braids, and every piece turns out unique because all of the creases fall in different ways.

AA: A lot of things you see this season would usually require too much handwork, and we wouldn't usually be able to figure out how to industrialise it after with production. But now we’ve had the time to figure it out. All of the prints, for example, are done by hand.

CK: There’s marbling, wax prints, bleaching…

AA: And it's our first time doing denim, with the wash all done by hand.

CK: We also did sunglasses with TD KENT. He developed this really cool lens dyeing technique where he uses a resist on either side of the actual lens to create an almost-3D effect with the print.

AA: And then we did all these really nice belts and redeveloped the Fang bags with the company that does all the bags for Dior and Chloé.

Last season, you spoke about branching out into shirting and more universally wearable pieces. Is that something you consciously developed here, too? 
AA: Yeah, I think through the denim mainly.

CK: It's really stretchy and super wearable, but then it has this very unique wash. But I think this whole season is very wearable, everything's very stretchy and comfortable, but still feels quite ‘fashion’.

AA: We spend a lot of time on sourcing and ensuring that the people making the fabrics are are as passionate about it as we are about making the clothes. At the end of the day, it's luxury and people are going to pay a premium price, so we don't want to just a cheap deadstock polyester and set it at a premium price. We want to use quality fabrics that will last and still be relevant in 10 years time.

Charlotte Knowles SS21

It sounds like you’re keen to establish that you’re a fully-fledged luxury brand, moving away from the young designer label?
CK: Yeah, definitely.

AA: I think that even when we started, we didn’t want to be thought of as just another young design label. We always tried work at the standard of what we would expect from a brand for the price point. I grew up in a small town in Canada, and would have to go to Montreal, which was quite far away, to see luxury clothes. So I would be online on forums looking at Rick Owens t-shirts, that I’d eventually buy second, third or fourth hand and pore over the amazing fabrics. So that really transpires in the fabric research.

CK: And also the finishings. We spend quite a lot of time on product development, we're kind of nerdy. I think we've always had a focus on luxury products, because at the end of the day that's what will make customers return. We want to build a cult following, where when people buy and receive the products, they're so impressed that they want to buy again.

Charlotte Knowles SS21

Another big thing this season is that you’re showing a film, instead of presenting IRL. Film’s not a new medium for you — and you’ve worked with Harley and Georgia before. What was different this time around?
AA: We created the film to reflect the mood of the collection, so that people really get an understanding of what it represents emotionally. Doing a catwalk, we don't have the budget to make a set and build this interactive thing that allows people to get a full understanding of what the spirit of the collection is. We always tried to achieve that with lighting and music, but with film, we’re able to give a much deeper understanding of what the collection's feeling was.

And what is that this season?
CK: It's elating, uplifting.

Charlotte Knowles SS21
Charlotte Knowles SS21
Charlotte Knowles SS21


Creative Direction Ben Kelway
Film Harley Weir
Lookbook Photography Charlotte Knowles
Styling Georgia Pendlebury

Harley Weir
charlotte knowles