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The Designers Celebrating Bulgarian Heritage Through One-of-a-Kind Clothing

By Terence Poh

The designers Emma Chopova (left) and Laura Lowena (right).
 
Matchesfashion
The designers Emma Chopova (left) and Laura Lowena (right).

The design duo of the label Chopova Lowena met on their first day at Central Saint Martins in 2011 and bonded over a love of skirts. Emma Chopova, 28, comes from Bulgaria and Laura Lowena, 29, hails from England. Despite growing up in small villages and never being surrounded by art as children, the designers were influenced by pop culture and craft. They name transgressional authors — Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Chuck Palahniuk — and books — “Faces in the Water” (1961), “Naked Lunch” (1959), “Walden” (1854) and “Steppenwolf” (1927) — as influences; Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano as fashion forefathers they respect. “We were both really interested in [expressing ourselves] and making things, which is ultimately what led us to fashion,” says Chopova.

It is a Saturday night in September, a hectic month for the designers, and Chopova finds a pocket of time to cosy up at home and write to T Singapore. She started the co-owned label with Lowena, in June 2018, by launching “Kukeri,” a book that collages the fashion of their respective heritages. They were then discovered on Instagram by Matchesfashion and went on to release a capsule collection on the e-tailer’s site. For over two years now, Chopova Lowena has produced pieces that upcycle textiles and fabrics from Bulgaria and England, utilising traditional techniques that they are passionate about.

Chopova LowenaIn constructing their Fall/Winter ’20 collection, the designers used English traditional linens, deadstock materials and remnant fabrics from past seasons.
In constructing their Fall/Winter ’20 collection, the designers used English traditional linens, deadstock materials and remnant fabrics from past seasons.

According to Chopova, they always begin a collection with two contrasting references, one based on sport and the other on folkloric dress. Each subsequent creation is unique, handcrafted using vintage, deadstock materials and fabrics. Paying special homage to Bulgarian culture, they source pieces such as old tartan aprons, patterned blankets from the ’60s and old equestrian chain necklaces. Local artisans then help to weave these abandoned, forgotten objects according to the duo’s vision — a task they used to do themselves, before sales boomed. Today, “our roles involve dealing with production and business on a much higher level than before. We start our days with emails, move on to the task for the day which is different every day — it can be anything from drawing skirts, editing e-commerce shots, to working with accounting and production teams,” Chopova says.

Among the 12 talented designers that Matchesfashion has coalesced under its Innovators programme is Chopova Lowena. In a time of a global pandemic, racial protests and environmental crises, Chopova finds an oasis within the mentorship from an e-commerce giant. “They are committing to buy and support young brands in a very close and personal way... and the Matchesfashion customers are open to investing in pieces from smaller brands which come with stories, sustainability and originality,” she notes. With so much uncertainty in the market, the push from the e-tailer has brought more exposure and helped ease challenges on the business side of the nascent brand. “We are trained as designers and had to get an on-the-job education in business,” Chopova says. “Having so many different roles is difficult but, when you are starting out, it is extremely important to have a grasp on the whole system that is your business.”

The brand’s Fall/Winter ’20 collection harbours the familiarity of meaning and heritage, but further diversifies the designers’ body of work. Fabric plays a big part: One of their signature kilts comes instead in English traditional linens, a type of fabric they have been collecting over time; a patchwork skirt is constructed using remnant fabrics from past seasons; while a midi skirt, paired with a knotted deadstock leather belt, is pieced together with a new, specific kind of pillowcase from central Bulgaria. But Chopova’s favourite piece — a pair of washed-out, painted denim jeans — saw the designers working for the first time with a marbling technique (ebru, of Turkish origin) traditionally used in making tiles and paper with swirling patterns.

Chopova LowenaChopova Lowena’s penchant for adventurous imagery, pictured here for the label’s Spring/ Summer ’20 campaign.
Chopova Lowena’s penchant for adventurous imagery, pictured here for the label’s Spring/ Summer ’20 campaign.

The designers seek to invite wearers of their designs into their world — with almost every collection, they have created breathtaking campaigns marked by an adventurous spirit. Whether horse-riding or parachuting, subjects or the designers themselves appear in Chopova Lowena garments that otherwise appear too delicate, too precious to wear when engaging in death-defying activities. Chopova’s motivation to create such imagery springs from the layers of research they do. “We have always used traditional elements to make a lot of our pieces and always wanted the world in which you see the collection to be dynamic and show the clothing in a more fantastical, sporty way,” she says. “Our creative team, Charlotte Wales, Agata Belcen and Jamie Reid have always emphasised that duality in our work and it works perfectly to portray the Chopova Lowena world.”

To Chopova, the role of fashion in society now has an even bigger element of escapism. “Being indoors and not being able to be expressive has definitely [led to] the desire to dress in a fun way and be even more individualistic. Fashion includes so many facets and niches – there has always been something for everybody – and that role it has of making people feel included, we think, would strengthen even more,” she says.

Yet while dreaming up faraway experiences, the designers remain grounded in sustainable processes, and continue staying true to their artisanal approach. “We always wanted to use vintage fabrics and have always incorporated existing materials into our ideas – to be honest, existing materials lead a lot of our ideas,” Chopova reveals. “It is going to take a long time of engaging with clothing and materials to change the mentality of our society and that is what one day could create a real change.”

Chopova LowenaFrom within their studio, the designers have grown Chopova Lowena hand in hand for more than two years, creating pieces that are both unique and environmentally sustainable.
From within their studio, the designers have grown Chopova Lowena hand in hand for more than two years, creating pieces that are both unique and environmentally sustainable.

For the future, the designers hope to work with other makers and artists to celebrate skill and craftsmanship and, in the process, “create clothing which women of all ages, shapes and places can connect to and feel is adding something beautiful to their lives.”

For the pair, having two minds working on a singular brand vision is more trump card than Achilles’ heel. “In a way, if you are doing it with the right person, it doesn’t really feel like you have two minds.” says Chopova. “We are definitely our own people, but something great that always remains is two people’s filters of what work is strong enough, and what the right thing to do is.”