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People to Know: The Designers Giving New Life to Forgotten Bulgarian Fabrics

By Grace Cook

The fashion designer Laura Lowena (left) with her two-year-old Boston terrier, Ida, and her business partner Emma Chopova in their studio in South Bermondsey, London. The designers wear kilts and jewellery from their fall 2019 Chopova Lowena collection.
 
Jamie Stoker
The fashion designer Laura Lowena (left) with her two-year-old Boston terrier, Ida, and her business partner Emma Chopova in their studio in South Bermondsey, London. The designers wear kilts and jewellery from their fall 2019 Chopova Lowena collection.

In a South London industrial park, an overstuffed garment bag spills onto the floor of the light-filled studio of the fashion designers Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena. Its tartan contents are samples from their Chopova Lowena fashion line, just returned from a photo shoot, explains Chopova, as she swoops down and plucks a mini-kilt from the bag.

“We bonded over a love of skirts,” Chopova says, recalling how she met Lowena on the very first day of their bachelor’s course in fashion at Central Saint Martins in 2011. The piece in her hand is a segmented collage of forest green and hot pink fabrics, embellished with floral embroidery and finished with heavy buckles and metal rock-climbing carabiners that loop through the fabric to harness the skirt to its chunky leather waistband. Kilts like this one — made from a medley of vintage Bulgarian fabrics and leftover plaid, with sporty elements and a punkish insouciance — have become a signature for the brand since the duo founded it in 2017.

After only three collections, Chopova Lowena is carried by stores from the multibrand boutique Browns in London to the women’s wear store H. Lorenzo in Los Angeles. With silhouettes ranging from asymmetric knife-pleat midis to schoolgirl minis in multicoloured checks, the designers’ skirts draw inspiration from those worn by women in Bulgaria’s agricultural countryside, close to where Chopova was born. Using traditional Bulgarian dress as a starting point, the designers then add other referential layers into the mix — from classic Victoriana to sporty spandex — to create a thematic tension that defines Chopova Lowena’s off-kilter avant-garde pieces: Dresses, newly introduced for spring 2019, are a mash-up of Victorian sleeves and collars and Bulgarian farming skirts.

Jamie StokerA wall of inspiration images in the brand’s studio.
A wall of inspiration images in the brand’s studio.
Jamie StokerA pleated Chopova Lowena skirt embellished with assorted vintage leather keychains sourced from eBay.
A pleated Chopova Lowena skirt embellished with assorted vintage leather keychains sourced from eBay.

Chopova, 27, and Lowena, 28, began collaborating when they applied together for a joint master’s course at Saint Martins in 2015. “Laura loved old English children’s wear, and I was obsessed with Eastern European dress,” Chopova says of the serendipitous symbiosis of their individual aesthetics. The duo swiftly found success. Within a year of Chopova Lowena’s founding, the luxury e-tailer Matchesfashion.com picked up the brand’s skirts after a buyer for the site discovered their graduate collection designs on Instagram. “Suddenly, we had to figure out how and where to make these skirts for retail,” Lowena says. Until that point, the designers had made only a small collection for “Kukeri,” a book collaboration with the photographer Charlotte Wales. Matches ordered 30 pieces. When those sold out in just one day, an order for 25 more soon followed. Without factory contacts, the duo handmade each piece in-house. Jewellery constructed from vintage equestrian curb-chain necklaces, designed originally for styling rather than retail, also proved an unexpected hit.

As luxury shoppers pay increasing attention to provenance, part of Chopova Lowena’s appeal lies in the fact that each piece is handcrafted using mostly overstock, dead stock and repurposed irregular fabrics, and therefore one of a kind. “None of us knew how the customer would react to not getting the exact garment in the picture online, but it’s become a benefit rather than a negative,” Chopova says. “They know that they are getting something really special.” The brand exclusively uses existing fabrics, many sourced from all over Bulgaria — Chopova has a local team that scours the country for vintage skirts and dead-stock textiles, sending images to her via the social media app Viber. She estimates the brand sources about 4,000 pieces of fabric each season, from lightweight tartan aprons to heavy blankets covered in swirling 1960s wallpaper patterns. Recycled plaid blankets, for example, are reinvented as outerwear, a new category to be released in September. “There are so many amazing woven fabrics sitting in someone’s house unused,” Lowena says. “In a time when everything is so fast, it’s more special than using anything mass.” To further minimise the brand’s carbon footprint, the garments are handcrafted in Bulgaria and England, an approach that avoids the costs of shipping materials around the globe for production, and supports artisanal, small-scale manufacturing.

Jamie StokerA prototype for a coat, crafted from recycled wool blankets, that appeared in Chopova Lowena’s fall 2019 collection.
A prototype for a coat, crafted from recycled wool blankets, that appeared in Chopova Lowena’s fall 2019 collection.
Jamie StokerEmma Chopova examines a multicolour skirt assembled from various repurposed fabrics and fastened to a leather waistband with rock-climbing carabiners.
Emma Chopova examines a multicolour skirt assembled from various repurposed fabrics and fastened to a leather waistband with rock-climbing carabiners.

Images, taped up in twos, line the walls of the pair’s second-floor studio: a bow-trimmed ankle boot from the 19th century on a sheet of A4, for example, hangs next to a modern-day paragliding boot. The designers make about 300 such pairings per season — sourcing images of traditional dress and niche sports like wrestling, skydiving and equestrian vaulting from obscure Facebook groups. “They make us think how we can mix those two things together in our designs,” Lowena says. Blending these themes helps “offset the folklore,” Chopova says, gesturing to a mannequin wearing a minidress with enlarged puffed sleeves that resemble billowing parachutes. “It’s a very hard thing to use; it’s very rich,” she says of the brand’s reclaimed source material. “Sportswear is tight and sexier, all of these things it really wasn’t.”

Expanding into new categories and picking up more retail partners might lead to manufacturing challenges, but the designers have no plan to change their artisanal approach. “Scaling is an issue, as there are only so many aprons in Bulgaria,” Lowena says. That’s why the designers hope to one day weave their own fabrics using dead-stock yarns. “It’s important to us to recycle as much as we possibly can. Otherwise the world is going to explode.”