In a white-walled studio in Deptford, south London, two days before Chopova Lowena’s first show at London Fashion Week, a small speckled gray and black pug named Jello sits peacefully among the clothes rails. They abound with a profusion of prismatic, accessible and tactile pieces, crafted from fil coupé ruffles, dense fairytale tapestry, shimmering tinsel and floral-patterned denim. The towering rails clink with chunky carabiners, swan buckles, chains, and cartoon charms. Nearby, accessories are neatly arranged on the tables: cheeky smiley badges and crystal cat brooches, embroidered shoulder bags and patterned sleeveless gloves.
The mood is calm – surprisingly – given that the 2017-founded label’s show, which was originally scheduled to take place on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral, had to be brought forward four days. But it’s a moment that’s been rigorously considered ever since Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena-Irons began collaborating, while working on their master’s degrees at Central Saint Martins.
“When we started, we couldn’t imagine being able to afford a show,” says Chopova, who was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and moved to New Jersey when she was seven. Reversing the traditional route of debuting on the London catwalk, the brand’s designs – including its signature pleated kilt, now adored by Olivia Rodrigo, Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid – were picked up by Matchesfashion.com shortly after graduating of their degree, and quickly sold out. “As we worked on the shoots and video, we saw the energy that comes from dressing our community with our clothes. Being able to see the movement of our pieces is also very important,” adds Lowena- Irons, raised in Somerset, who is finally making her fashion week debut.
It reinforces the principles that drive the Chopova Lowena aesthetic: the fusion of sport and folklore, and a joyous celebration of Bulgarian craftsmanship and rich recycled fabrics. The brand’s collections have referenced ice hockey and Renaissance fairs, surfing and traditional Germanic costume. “We really wanted to go back to those Bulgarian roots for our first show,” says Chopova. The starting point for Spring/Summer 2023 was an annual “sticky, pink and wonderful” rose festival and show that takes place in the village of Kazanlak and sees a rose queen crowned each summer. Make up for that sweet celebration? The tenacious team spirit and the sustained effort of the lacrosse players.
Chopova and Lowena-Irons are interested in the role of sports teams in the development of adolescent identity. The symbolism of the school years is still present in their designs, which riff on custom uniforms, and the angst of 90s grunge and 2000s emo. For Chopova, the cliché of the popular American “jock and cheerleader” strengthened in high school. “I was really the underdog,” she says. “Sport was the cool thing to do.” For Lowena-Irons, who changed schools at age 15, joining a team was a way to make friends. “The girls were mean,” she says. “It was my way of fitting in and finding a community.”
Community is the key to the brand’s first fashion show, for which the designers brought together a group of entirely street-cast models, all friends of the brand. Among them: Mahoro Seward, identifier the magazine’s fashion editor, Georgina Kemball, the London jeweler who collaborated on the brand’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection, Lowena-Irons’ brother Harvey, and fashion designer Louise Gray. (On the day of the show at London’s Porchester Hall, they parade down a jagged maze-inspired track to the music of a Bulgarian choir and the squeals of lacrosse players.) “We want everyone to channel a competitive brisk walking,” Chopova told the Preview. “Each interpreted this energy in a different way, bringing their own character to it.”
The densely embellished, kaleidoscopic, flocked and flower-embroidered collection seeks to shift sartorial categories and standards, subverting formal and occasion wear, tailoring and sports kits. Multi-layered skirts that attach and remove nod to the petticoats of festival pageantry; carabiner denim refers to the black market jeans that Chopova’s parents bought in the “back streets of Sofia” during the communist regime; crop tops and shoulder bags bloom with 3D pink bodices; the lacrosse bibs are imagined in tactile garlands; and Peter Pan-necked shirts and macramé ties handcrafted by Bulgarian artisans evoke uniforms hanging in locker rooms.
There’s a stunning level of detail to Chopova Lowena’s pieces, with each figurative button, smiling rose charm and shimmering floral bow: here pieces patched with intricate beading, there a graphic fil coupé pattern spelling out “CL.” in Bulgarian. The collection includes naive prints that Lowena created using the Spraypaint tool on Paint – a computer program she considered “the coolest thing ever” when she was seven years old, and cartoonish designs made by photocopying old plastic children’s toys from the 50s and 60s from Bulgaria. There’s also an expansion into lacrosse-inspired sunglasses (a collaboration with TD Kent), as well as frog- and dog-shaped macrame shoulder bags, healing crystal-embellished straps, and shoes. with second-skin garlands.
In Chopova Lowena’s workshop, the brand’s dedication to Bulgarian heritage and craftsmanship, to the inner workings of adolescence and to community is evident in every ornate fold, beaded patch, length of chain. In a nod to the close family ties and wider sense of London Fashion Week solemnity, the show was dedicated to Chopova’s two grandmothers, Emilia Minkova Ioveva and Antoaneta Kostova Shopova, who recently passed away. The opening look, with a black overcoat, commemorated the Queen’s death.