The Fashion Duo Making Clothes in the Bulgarian Mountains

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Photography by Greta Ilieva, Styling by Gary David Moore

We speak to Chopova Lowena, the second design partnership ever to enrol in Central Saint Martins MA, about working with Bulgarian communities to create luxury fashion

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“In Bulgaria, women would pleat skirts by wetting the wool, moulding it into a row of wooden sticks, and then drying it in the sun. They would do that repeatedly, and at one point the wool takes on the shape and the pleats become permanent,” Emma Chopova says excitedly of a traditional technique she and Laura Lowena incorporated in the first collection of their brand, Chopova Lowena, which refashions folklore with the contemporary. That, and an unlikely dash of 80s rock climbing. 

Born more than 2,000 kilometres apart (Sofia and Somerset respectively), their story together started six years ago at Central Saint Martins: Emma was the first person Laura spoke to on the BA, and after wrapping up their undergrad, they became the second duo to ever have enrolled in the college’s MA Fashion course after Marques’Almeida. “Meeting each other was the most vital and significant moment for us,” they say. “We don’t feel that we could have developed our point of view in the same way and as strongly as we have together.” Their respective backgrounds play a big part in their lives, as they mix heritage with ‘something abstract’ or references that would juxtapose with more traditional images. Chopova, for example, can soak up her motherland’s culture with a certain outsider point of view, as she moved away from Bulgaria aged seven. It gives her a unique perspective to look at costumes without strong correlations to pride and tradition, but instead with an appreciation of the techniques and the freedom to apply them and disturb conventions.

“Meeting each other was the most vital and significant moment for us” – Chopova Lowena

Taking a cue from the way that people currently dress in Bulgaria, a thread runs through their work in the shape of clashing old and new. “We are really fascinated with the mix of secondhand clothes and traditional pieces,” Lowena says. “The way in which people style themselves, wanting to wear a dress that was handed down from their ancestors but putting it on with some sunglasses and some old sneakers. That’s a really important aesthetic to us, this sort of DIY ridiculous mix of these cheap, western secondhand clothes that all of a sudden come into contact with very precious folk garments – a mash-up which is so off-putting yet so beautiful, in a way.” They hope to reach that point with their future collections; an unsettling juxtaposition, a disturbance of the folk with the industrial, “or whatever the next thing we choose to clash it with”.

Like rock-climbing, the subject they chose for their first collection. It appeared to them after understanding the need to harshly oppose the traditional Bulgarian materials and aesthetic. The lightbulb moment happened when Laura found an image of climber Catherine Destivelle wearing a pink bathing suit, a pink harness strapped across her chest with quickdraws hanging from the belt. “For us there was an instant relationship between the harnesses, the metal and the skirts,” Lowena explains. “The idea of the suspended skirt came quite quickly after.”

“A Bulgarian woman has this tradition to fulfil in making her costume, from weaving it to pleating and embroidering it. It’s about the way that tradition binds her to wear something specific, while also giving her the freedom to create something personal” – Chopova Lowena

Next task: the merging of two disparate topics. Aesthetically, there’s an unlikely symmetry between the subjects – the metal hooks and embroidery, the harness, the colours, and the mythological purpose for wearing skirts around the waist. “There is a certain kind of freedom and self-discovery involved in climbing, and there is this sort of mystical parallel between the two which we find so fascinating,” Chopova says. “Bulgarian women have this tradition to fulfill in making their costumes, from weaving it to pleating and embroidering it. It’s about the way that tradition binds her to wear something specific, while also giving her the freedom to create something personal. Also both things have a backdrop of mountains and small communities of people, that kind of world is very interesting to us. A mysterious gathering of like-minded people, almost ritualistic at times.”

This particular community of like-minded people can be traced back in how they create the garments, by working alongside those whose craft techniques have been passed down through generations. What Chopova Lowena sets out to do is to work with these old techniques to create modern, special pieces. “We hope to one day soon open a small atelier in the Bulgarian mountains where we can sample old techniques, and develop and modernise them,” they say. One step and pleat at a time, they go about building their own business, but realise it does not come from creating in solitude. “Working within the communities and giving people the opportunity to use these skills and revive them is a preservation of quality, tradition and authenticity,” they argue. “That is so special and with a goal to create luxury fashion, we couldn’t imagine something more luxurious than that.”