design duo chopova lowena: where retro wrestling outfits meet traditional bulgarian design

In a new series, 1 Granary profile six of their favourite young designers for you to look out for in 2018. Following Stefan Cooke last week, we meet Chopova Lowena.

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Jan 24 2018, 8:15am

You can often times recognise the works of a certain artist – it has the traits, colours or ideas specific to that creative mind. Yet, sometimes the best work is produced as part of a collaboration. This is the case of Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena, the creative duo behind Chopova Lowena and recent graduates from the Central Saint Martins MA Fashion program.

It hasn’t always been easy to convince the MA tutors that Emma and Laura could be a strong, symbiotic duo. “We were prepared to get challenged from the beginning, like Marques’Almeida was before us. MA can be like Game of Thrones,” Laura chuckles, stroking their dog. We are sitting in the girls’ studio, a bright and spacious loft in south London. Emma joins in, remembering their admission interview. “It was very direct and very personal. We were prepared to be constantly challenged, and from day one every single thing we did was together.” Throughout the programme, the designers never used the word ‘I’ – it was always ‘we’. They came up with an idea to layer each other’s drawings and sketches, making every piece of information ‘theirs’. “We were never doubted or questioned. Of course we had to defend why we were doing it -- but being constantly questioned is one of the most valuable things.” Both of them agree that the questioning voice stays in your head forever.

Their story almost didn’t happen. Emma is Bulgarian, but had lived in the US for her entire life. Her dream was to go to Parsons in New York, until a family friend that happened to be over for supper asked her why she had never considered Central Saint Martins. “I had no idea what fashion was or what I was doing -- and then I went to the interview with the UAL Admissions, and amongst my awful portfolio I had this one sketchbook of just me being crazy. I got into CSM because of that sketchbook.”

Laura grew up in Somerset, and was eager to leave it behind. She applied for LCF and got in, but they only offered her a place the following year. “I just wanted to get out – so I interned and studied for two years, and eventually applied for CSM.” She got in, despite her advisors telling her that it would never happen. Was it meant to happen? “Yes! It’s the universe! I get chills every time I think about it,” Emma says.

The two met on the first day of the BA, Emma recalls with a smile. “Laura was the first person I spoke to that day.” The designers became extremely close, moving in together in their second year; they noticed they liked the same things, and their work had a similar aesthetic. Emma admits that they became each other’s teachers, in a way, and were joking at the time about working together. “At one point we realised that there was no reason not to do it – two people trying to have a business is definitely going to be more successful than one doing it by herself.” It is hard to miss how well they complement each other. “We work together so well because we are different, and we have had every single fight you could possibly have,” Laura confesses. “We are so used to each other and can kind of read each other’s mind.”

During their BA the duo noticed that although they did different research for projects, they always ended up being inspired by one another, pushing each other to do better. “We both have aesthetics that don’t necessarily work on their own, but together they balanced each other out, making it weirder and more interesting.” It got them through Fabio Piras’ door and onto the MA program, but it was not always a smooth ride. “At the beginning of the MA we tried to do things that we thought would impress others.” One day, in the middle of a meeting, Fabio turned around and asked if what the two were wearing was what they did as designers. “After we said yes, he told us to do that, but more of it. It was probably the best advice he gave us.” It became an unspoken motto for the designers.

After the MA, the designers focused on establishing their company. Both designers come from families with business backgrounds, which helped them understand how to develop their company. Still -- it is a massive learning curve. Emma’s biggest struggle is the endless cacophony of advice they receive daily. “You have no idea who to listen to, but it is actually so important to have the confidence to say ‘no’. It really messes with me, because I trust people very easily. But we just have to be strong and think of what is best for us and the business.” From the hundreds of pieces of advice, there is one that Emma stands by: not to rush. It’s not a sprint but a marathon.

They’re working on their new collection, but the designers are carrying pieces of their MA aesthetic forward. The old Bulgarian fabrics are still there, and the girls are adamant about maintaining the element of juxtaposition in their work. The reference images are glued all over their studio walls. “When we do research, we make collages of two themes, so it would always look like they are interacting with each other,” Laura says. The idea of collaging themes came from MA Fashion tutor Julie Verhoeven, who suggested putting their research opposite each other in presentations. It worked: the traditional clothes became a weird, surreal juxtaposition of old and new. This time it’s a mix of 80s wrestling and a Bulgarian festival where people dress up to spook evil spirits.

The most challenging thing for them now is to build their business in a sure and stable way. Emma and Laura agree that technology and social media definitely help young designers: “You can get a lot of exposure through social media without spending all that money.” For now, they are just focusing on making good products. As for advice, both designers grow quiet. “It is always cheesy, isn’t it?” Emma giggles. Laura interrupts her: “We are worriers, and I wish someone had told me not to be scared. Things are going to work out.” As they let me out of the studio, Emma looks up. “Don’t try to please other people – that would be my advice.”