It’s difficult to think of a sport less fashionable than lacrosse; there’s the lisp-inducing mouthguards brimming with saliva, the ferocious cradling motion of the ball, and the unleashing of an uninhibited, feral kind of rage (case in point: the vicious lacrosse scenes in Mean Girls and Wild Child). Nonetheless, this unglamorous sport is one of the main references behind Chopova Lowena’s Spring/Summer 2023 show – an apt choice, considering the brand’s history of making the ‘unfashionable’ fashionable; previous references have included roller derby uniforms, 1980s rock climbing equipment and ice hockey kits – all of which are spun into beautiful, punky, subversive items of clothing.
“I was in a lot of sports teams at school,” says Laura Lowena, who designs the brand with Emma Chopova from their studio in Deptford, south London (Chopova Lowena is a portmanteau of both their surnames). “I moved schools at 15 – which is very tough when you’re a teenage girl – so I automatically went into all the sports teams and found community there,” says Lowena, who grew up in Somerset, England. “Lacrosse is a really physical and powerful sport,” she continues. “Someone said primal, which is very good,” Chopova chimes in.
Aside from lacrosse, the other key reference for the new collection is the Bulgarian Rose Festival, which takes place in the town of Kazanlak and celebrates the country’s deep connection to the oil-bearing Damask rose. “Every year they nominate a beautiful rose queen from the town,” says Chopova, who grew up in Bulgaria until the age of seven, later moving to New York and then New Jersey. “It’s super prom and pink, with all these tacky interpretations of a rose, which we find amazing.” The brand, which has an aesthetic so unique that it is practically impossible to describe, is an amalgamation of their eclectic upbringings and the cultural references they bring to the table. “Our ideas just mash better together, than [they do] apart,” says Lowena. The new collection, as usual, defies categorisation; with bristly vests and moon boots knitted in tinsel, lacrosse-rave hybrid goggles, embroidered carabiner denim jeans and skirts, and a pink, silken crossbody bag with rose petal pleats.
The collection, titled Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose (after a Gertrude Stein quote), marks the first time Chopova Lowena has ever put on a runway show – and it is one of London Fashion Week’s most feted tickets. The death of Queen Elizabeth II threw an initial spanner in the works; the show was originally set for Monday, September 19 – now the day of the Queen’s funeral – so they nabbed Raf Simons’ 8pm slot on Friday after the Belgian designer pulled out altogether. “Everyone was so on it and supportive with trying to make it work,” says Chopova, “especially with this being our first show.”
The show will take place in Porchester Hall in Bayswater – a Grade II* listed building which Chopova describes as “ kind of shabby, with red velvet curtains everywhere” – with models walking through a maze to the soundtrack of a Bulgarian choir, heavy metal, and the noises of people playing lacrosse. Like the brand itself, the show is set to be subversive, perhaps even verging on seditious. “We really wanted to wait to have a show to do it in our own venue, and have everything be exactly how we want it,” says Chopova. “We’ve never been people to rush into things,” says Lowena. “But we’re ready.”
The tale of Chopova Lowena is one of striking connection and collaboration; of finding your other half, not romantically, but creatively. There are countless designer duos in fashion – Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, Serhat Isik and Benjamin Alexander Huseby of GmbH, to name but a few – but when Chopova and Lowena first met while studying at Central Saint Martins, a chemical reaction of sorts occurred; one that birthed an aesthetic that was so wrong, so singular, that it was entirely right. When they first started working together, Lowena would bring in “the craziest Victorian children’s references” while Chopova focused on Bulgarian traditional dress books. “With research, the crazier [it is], the better,” says Lowena – “plus, craft was a big thing for us.”
When I ask them to describe the brand’s look, they both begin to laugh. “I don’t know, it’s so hard to put into words,” says Chopova. “You know it when you see it,” Lowena adds. “She’s her own person. She’s up here between us,” she says, motioning towards the space between the pair. “We’ve just become one person over four years.”
After styling their BA collections together, the pair applied for an MA as a single creative entity (they were the second in history to do so at the university, after Marques’Almeida). Their 2017 graduate collection melded 80s rock climbing references and Bulgarian national costume together in vividly coloured, cascading pleated skirts held up by carabiners. Here, their best-selling item was born: the pleated skirt with a leather waistband, which has since become a cult item worn by the likes of Harry Styles (for that infamous American Vogue story), Dua Lipa, Madonna and Charli XCX. The skirts are now sold at the likes Dover Street Market, Matches Fashion, Ssense and numerous other stores around the world – along with their clunky charm necklaces, which have become accidental must-have items after they were created on a whim for an editorial. “In the beginning, loads of our sales feedback was: ‘the skirt isn’t going to sell, it’s not gonna work,’ and I’m so glad that it did,” says Chopova.
Sustainability is at the core of what Chopova Lowena does, although on first glance, you might not know it. “The word ‘sustainability’ can have a bit of baggage,” explains Chopova. “You think of things that are maybe a bit crafty, or not very luxurious.” In Bulgaria, Chopova’s mother Iolanta sources deadstock, traditional textiles – things like aprons and blankets – which are then upcycled into exquisite pieces, all made in a dedicated Chopova Lowena factory in Bulgaria. Is it important to the pair that their wearers know about this heritage and history? “Some people will connect to the fact that it’s upcycled fabrics, and others like to know the history about it,” says Lowena. “I don’t think it’s necessary to understand the history of it,” thinks Chopova. “I think it’s okay to like it just for an aesthetic reason.”
Wearers of the brand are obsessive. “When I wear Chopova Lowena, I feel fierce and fabulous and freaky and weird,” says Isabella Burley, chief marketing officer of Acne Studios and founder of Climax Books. In a previous AnOther piece from 2020, model Lily McMenamy said the brand’s clothing “perfectly treads the line between weird and sexy and makes you want to have an amazing time,” while stylist Molly Shillingford describes the Chopova Lowena girl as “feminine, bold and tough.” To wear Chopova Lowena is to dress for yourself, not for others, and to have fun with fashion in an industry that, at times, can be jarringly self-serious. The brand, for example, goes against the icy minimalism proffered by brands like The Row and Jil Sander, instead embracing an unfettered maximalism. Both of the designers wear their own pieces nearly every day because it just feels good; “that’s how I want to feel all the time,” says Lowena. “We started out really being against making sexy clothes and we also didn’t ever think that our clothes were [sexy], even when we made the skirts,” says Chopova.
“And now I think we’re really exploring that and understanding what that means to us.” Other things the pair prioritise? “Joy, humour and glamour.” So while their S/S23 show is set to be a blockbuster pageant of howling Bulgarian chants and sports field squeals, Chopova Lowena will only do one show per year (due to budgeting and self-confessed control freakery), alongside their brash, absurdist print projects created in collaboration with Jaime Reid, Charlotte Wales, and Agata Belcen. With their mish-mash inspirations, which even they struggle to distil, the cult of Chopova Lowena knows no bounds, taking women outside of the conventional bind of femininity. Or in other words, keeping the fashionable ever-so-slightly “unfashionable”.