Images: Imaxtree, courtesy of brands
Made of upcycled Bulgarian aprons and accented with carabiners, the ubiquitous skirts helped the London-based label build a global following.
Do you ever recognize a product before you know — or even can name — the brand that makes it? In "This Thing's Everywhere," we delve deep into these ubiquitous pieces and the impact they have on the businesses of their creators.
It's been a victorious couple of years for Chopova Lowena.
In 2020, the London-based brand was among the eight winners of the LVMH Prize, which, in addition cash and mentorship, provides young designers with an international spotlight bolstered by the global fashion community. In the case of designers Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena-Irons, it created even more buzz around the vigorously pleated, hardware-focused skirts made from upcycled Bulgarian aprons that had been a part of their brand since their 2017 Central Saint Martins graduate collection.
Editors, stylists and celebrities alike couldn't get enough of it — and still can't. Is it punk? Is it romantic? Feminine, masculine? Utilitarian, even? Folkloric? The beauty of Chopova Lowena's biggest success lies in the idea that it can be any and all of those things to any and everybody. Literally.
Chopova and Lowena-Irons don't think or construct within a binary. That's why you've seen folks across all identities take part in the coolness that is Chopova Lowena.
"We didn't set out to make a core product," Chopova tells me over Zoom. "We made a collection as part of our degree. I think it was very lucky the way the skirt came about. The way we developed it after we graduated was really good and it worked."
You'd think this type of virality would shoot to the designers' heads. However, Chopova and Lowena-Irons don't feel the pressure to replicate the success of the carabiner skirts.
"We sell a lot more other things than we do skirts," says Chopova. "The skirt has allowed us to have a brand that produces many kinds of things."
"The carabiner jeans might be the follow up," Lowena-Irons adds. "They need a bit more time for people to get used to them. But yeah, try a carabiner jean."
Hailing from two different countries in similar suburban-like environments (Chopova in the U.S., Lowena-Irons in the U.K.), they were brought together by their fashion education at Central Saint Martins; their immediate connection compelled them to complete their M.A. as a duo.
Growing up in New Jersey in a Bulgarian family, Chopova was heavily influenced by music, even more so than fashion. Lowena-Irons — who described her younger self as more "bookish" — grew up with a technical foundation by way of her grandmother, who taught her how to knit and sew.
"I definitely always stood out as a bit of an oddball wearing different things," says Lowena-Irons. "But I like that!" Same goes for Chopova: "I wore really extreme outfits in high school, and loved the fact that everyone hated it."
As adults, they've basically created a line that mirrors the sartorial sensibilities of their younger selves, only elevated. At Chopova Lowena, they split responsibilities: Lowena-Irons is more involved in the oversight of practical duties that make it possible to run a business (like accounting), while Chopova is more involved with the production aspect of things. Design, though, is 100% a team effort. The two are so in sync, design-wise, that when they're coming up with ideas, they never fear whether or not the other will like something.
"Everything has to go through a filter of Emma and Laura to be able to make it into the real world," says Lowena-Irons.
Though it seems impossible given all its idiosyncrasies, there's even more to the skirt than meets the eye.
The intricately stitched aprons that serve as the skirt's foundation call back to Bulgarian life from the 19th century and onward, when they're believed to have been designed as a protective measure for women's reproductive organs. They feature symbols and other woven designs meant to ward off the evil eye, creating a full circle of protection of the female body. (While these aprons are certainly not produced en masse these days, Chopova Lowena is able to source vintage ones from a variety of vendors within Bulgaria and on eBay.) The symbolism isn't lost on the designers, but they aren't tethered to the folkloric meanings: It's ultimately up to the wearer to interpret.
In the beginning, there were some production struggles: It was a fight to get factories to produce it — according to Chopova, it took a year until someone said yes. But the duo got some encouragement from key industry figures that really helped set the skirt off on its stellar trajectory.
"Natalie Kingham from Matchesfashion came and she was like, 'I love them. I can see everyone wearing them,'" Lowena-Irons says. "At the time, we didn't even think about it. I remember pushing them forward and everyone being like, 'But they're crazy. How would you wear that?'"
"When I first came across Chopova Lowena, I was struck by how fresh it looked," says Kingham, who was the luxury retailer's fashion director at the time. (She left the company in 2021, and is now a fashion consultant.) "I found it fascinating to look at the mood boards and to understand the blend of upcycled folk fabrics and sportswear elements. I truly believed in the unique approach and the integrity of the women."
She knew even then that they would find an audience. "I was delighted I had found them and am not sure how they were overlooked by others, but it was a blessing as a great relationship blossomed."
MatchesFashion picked up the brand in 2018, with 30 skirts adapted from that graduate collection. According to Liane Wiggins, the head of womenswear at the retailer, "they sold out almost instantly."
"Chopova Lowena are a great example of a brand that is working hard to champion and preserve ancient craft techniques, fusing heritage with modern design," she says. "Each piece has a story to tell, that journey of discovery is something our customer really enjoys."
Olivia Kim, SVP of creative merchandising at Nordstrom (another of Chopova Lowena's stockists), remembers coming across the brand's first lookbook and being struck by "how different the brand felt compared to the other collections coming out of London during that time."
"We were seeing these opulent, feminine looks, whereas they were producing items from the very beginning that felt different – not overly feminine or masculine, but fluid in a way that would immediately strike you," she says. "They bring a versatile newness when approaching their designs tactically by utilizing deadstock materials, conscious of needless amounts of abundance that feels so relevant to today’s customer."
As for why the skirts in particular are so appealing, Kim points to the novelty and modernity applied to an otherwise traditional item. "It's sport and utility that's gorp, yet feels cute and flirty at the same time," she explains. "There's something pretty but unexpected about the skirts being held up by the carabiner. The details on the belts also stand out as an accessory on its own."
Chopova and Lowena-Irons can't pinpoint how or why the skirts have amassed their following, but they talk around a lot of its killer attributes that kind of answer the question: wearablity, comfort, the potential to be styled up or down, versatility, history. It also seems to suit a range of body types, a benefit of the skirt's construction
"Everything is made adjustable to be able to fit, in the way that you would want to wear it," Chopova says. "You can tighten it or you can wear it loose and you could wear it lower. The elastic goes with different body shapes. All of the things being adjustable kind of work for being able to suit different bodies."
Per Wiggins, the upcycled nature of the garment makes it feel "truly unique and special," and the designers have managed to keep it from ever feeling stale.
"Each season, they have found a way to reinvent the skirt, whether it's using light cotton and embroidery, introducing different lengths or adapting the silhouette into dresses," she adds.
Kingham recalls wearing the skirt around New York's East Village, and having people stop her on the street to tell her they love the brand.
"I believe that they've really tapped into something that women love to wear, especially in urban jungles, so to speak," she says. "It feels tough and cool."
More than virality, the brand places an emphasis on its sustainability practice, which was paramount for the designers from the jump.
The process of bringing together a collection while doing your best to reduce your environmental impact at such a high level isn't black and white: There are many different elements at play, issues that arise throughout the supply chain. Take Chopova Lowena's commitment to using deadstock fabrics, which is difficult to scale.
"It becomes a financial issue, and it takes quite a lot of investment to make deadstock a really core part of the fabric that you use," says Chopova. "Each season we'll have a couple garments, usually folkloric pieces of fabric, which are, for example, too thick to be a skirt or too loosely woven or maybe doesn't make it right for a skirt, but it's great for outerwear."
More than deadstock, the brand works to source fabric made from recycled fibers that don't have to travel very far — "because often you buy a sustainable fabric, and then you ship it halfway across the world, and it kind of undoes all of its sustainability," Chopova adds. "That's a huge factor that nobody really talks about." The designers try to keep as much as they can within Europe.
This past September, Chopova Lowena hosted its first in-person runway as part of London Fashion Week, showcasing a collection whose central themes were split between the Bulgarian Rose Festival and high school Lacrosse. Since the brand didn't debut with a show, Chopova and Lowena-Irons didn't want the anxieties of bringing together a major production to hinder what they created.
"We didn't want to design a collection because we were doing a show," Chopova says. "We wanted to do exactly what we do. And I think that it worked better than we thought. We were worried that we were just making a normal collection and maybe it wouldn't be grand enough or suitable for a show, and that wasn't really the case."
With the help of friends, family and street-cast models, the show brought the brand's hyper-styled, romantic silhouettes to life. Moving forward, the designers foresee doing one show per year, giving them time to design and develop new things in major categories, like bags and shoes.
"We've always tried to be smart with it, where we introduce ideas and then we really go back and perfect them or do them again. With small brands it's a lot of that, and it could get quite annoying, because you keep having to push a certain thing for people to really see or appreciate it, to better understand it more," says Chopova.
"But we're working on the next collection," says Lowena-Irons.
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Images: Imaxtree, courtesy of brands