Each January, the streets of Pernik, Bulgaria are transformed by the Surva festival, and its Kukeri – the men and women who in fur, ribbons, feathers, and with ringing cowbells on their waists, masquerade as monsters to ward off evil spirits and usher in a bountiful harvest.
The festival has become a particular fascination for Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena – the two parts of Chopova Lowena, a design partnership born at Central Saint Martins – much down to the former’s roots. Chopova was born in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, and though she may not have lived there since she was seven, the country has proved a constant point of inspiration for her and Lowena’s work.
Their graduate collection – only the second in the history of the Central Saint Martins MA to be presented by a duo, the first being Marques’Almeida in 2011 – began with them looking at Bulgaria’s mountain dwellers, particularly the women, and the way they dressed. There, they found a juxtaposition: intricate, and precious, handmade folk costumes were worn with secondhand western sneakers and sunglasses. “It’s about the way that tradition binds her to wear something specific, while also giving her the freedom to create something personal,” they told AnOther at the time.
“When we paired them up we tried to create characters and looks – like they’re communicating with each other, to create something different” – Emma Chopova
Their most recent collection also began in the country, starting with a longtime fascination with Bulgaria’s winter festival, the Surva, at that point only experienced through photographs and videos on the internet. Working once again from oppositions, the collection was born from a combination of the Kukeri’s costumes and the luminously toned lycra of 1980s wrestlers – the common ground being their DIY beginnings. “It was all the people in the background of the festival,” Chopova says from the pair’s London studio, “who are this weird mix of half dressing up, half not dressing up, creating these really interesting interpretations of costume.”
When it came to photographing the collection – Chopova Lowena have eschewed the fashion week schedule in favour of collaborative image-based projects each season – it seemed logical to experience the Surva festival first hand. Drafting in photographer Charlotte Wales, as well as AnOther’s senior fashion editor Agata Belcen, they would capture the collection in situ, later interspersed with images taken in a London studio. Dazed’s art director, Jamie Andrew Reid, provided art direction.
“It was amazing. It was not what we expected,” Chopova said of the experience. “There was literally so much to see. One guy made a whole suit out of these bottles, and it was really amazing – when they don’t have the costumes they just make up their own. They are like fairy costumes, to ward away evil spirits.”
The result of the trip is Kukeri, a book which launches this evening at London’s Claire de Rouen Books. (Lucy Kumara Moore, CDR’s Director, contributes Kukeri’s introduction.) A frenetic opposition between fashion and documentary, on its pages some images are split, collaged from two disparate images – like the changing symbols on a fruit machine – creating what the pair call “characters”, where the bottom half may be a leg and high-heeled foot, the top half a fur-clad masked Kukeri. “When we paired them up we tried to create characters and looks – like they’re communicating with each other, to create something different,” says Chopova.
“I think it’s really important to get out of your bubble. When we’re in our studio and we work on the collection, we see the collection as one thing, other people expand that” – Laura Lowena
Ultimately, though, Kukeri was about the spirit of collaboration. “I think it’s really important to get out of your bubble. When we’re in our studio and we work on the collection, we see the collection as one thing, other people expand that,” Lowena says. “We wanted it to be a really creative project for everybody,” Chopova adds, “we wanted it to be really free.”
Kukeri launches on June 6, 2018 at LN-CC, The Basement, 18–24 Shacklewell Lane, London, from 6:30-8:30pm and is available to pre-order from Claire de Rouen.