“I like the idea of a woman unashamedly keeping a stash of porn under her bed or in her bedside drawer,” says Charlotte Knowles breezily about the mindset behind her final MA collection at Central Saint Martins. Brash, provocative or just purely bold, her collection of underwear inspired pieces aims to question and oppose a predominantly male gaze society, asking women to find strength in themselves and feel good about it. Strongly influenced by women’s empowerment through their sexuality, the young English designer is starting to find her voice and questioning the industry’s well established male-dominated perceptions on fashion, women and sex. “It’s about women indulging in their sexuality, for themselves, unashamedly.”

Contextualising the environment in which her work takes shape, Charlotte says that “there has been a surge in the media about encouraging and normalising female openness regarding sex.” For example, OMGYes!’ is designed to demystify female pleasure via touch-screen tutorials, down-to-earth demonstrations and frank discussions of female sexual pleasure. There’s also been articles highlighting the female gaze, women looking at women. “I think it’s all very encouraging.”

Raised in Bramshott, Hampshire, Knowles knew she wanted to work in fashion from around the age of thirteen. She recounts looking through fashion magazines and closely studying garments in her grandmother’s boutique in Bath. Later on, Knowles dreamt of pursuing the MA in Fashion at Central Saint Martins. She began studying fashion design at school and then went on to do an Art Foundation at Kingston University, later graduating from the BA Womenswear Fashion course at London College of Fashion. After her BA at LCF, she took a year off and worked for McQueen, Gareth Pugh and Acne Studios in Stockholm.

Charlotte Knowles doesn’t like to take things for granted, and every situation is a learning experience. “You have to make things happen for yourself, you can’t always rely on someone coming to you and making it happen for you.” The MA Fashion course confirmed this to her and she feels stronger and more independent as a result. That strength is what one finds in her collection, which is “more conscious in terms of body and femininity”, and designed for a woman who is “very confident in her sexuality, carefree and just pretty bold.”

In terms of inspiration, Knowles took a particular interest in photographer Bettina Rheims. “The honesty and sensuality of her work reflects a time where women are beginning to be more expressive about their sexuality and sexual interests.” Rheim’s imagery drove her to research further into underwear, intimacy and the sexual aspect of dressing and undressing, and exploring the idea of the female gaze. “I looked at Chantal Thomass’ work from the late 70s / early 80s in depth. Her work was provocative but not vulgar.” Charlotte loved the “playful, tongue in cheek” characteristics of Thomass’ work and wanted to incorporate a similar atmosphere into her collection.

She collaborated on separate occasions with female photographers, such as Anna Best and Steph Wilson, to give it an exclusively female point of view. “I like the idea of a female photographer behind the lens shooting and directing another woman, especially in such an intimate context where the subject is wearing sensual or revealing clothing. I think you can see it in the results of the images; there is a natural understanding between subject and photographer; a sense of ease.” The roughness of the sculptural materials and shapes of the bras and corsets are softened by filmy negligees and trousers, lycra basic t-shirts and miniskirts that, paired with a feminine lens, create a more sensitive and soft approach to the woman’s body.

When it comes to the technique of casting, it began by deconstructing bras and playing around with the structural elements. “I was interested in the idea of the push up bra and the way it moulds and reshapes the breasts, enhancing them. The silicone cast cups were derived from the cups which I extracted and cut through the middle to reveal the cross section of the foam.” These were used to create two-piece plaster moulds in which she would pour the silicone into. She wanted to ridicule the shape of the bras’ cups, and work on the idea of how the ‘perfect shape’ of bust intended for the male gaze was created by two or three inches of foam. The shiny, fluid fabric that makes the trousers and negligees look more wearable is tulle dipped in silicone and oil paint pigment cured for a few days. “The result is that the silicone runs down the fabric in streams and cures in this way, giving a wet effect against the skin,” Charlotte explains.

The final silhouettes were achieved through styling, since the designer finds it difficult to envision an entire look at once, saying that, “it can be more natural to make separate pieces and style them together. You can also find better solutions or combinations which you may have not imagined.”

As a designer, Knowles sees her work motivated by powerful women. “I guess all the inspirational women in my life, especially my mum, who has always been a role model in my eyes – she brought up both me and my sister whilst building a successful company with my dad from the ground up.”

And as for the near future, Charlotte Knowles just wants to get her work out there and keep reflecting on these issues. She has freelance work in New York and some exciting collaborative projects on the horizon. She is also keen to collaborate with photographers, stylists, and other designers to broaden her horizon and explore different paths. Developing a new collection is also part of the plan, following the main feel of her latest one. She intends to expand her range, incorporating outerwear and more casual wear to compliment the underwear pieces, whilst developing existing pieces.

Knowles understands her role and responsibility as a female fashion designer, and the importance of fashion for women’s sexual liberation. “To me fashion is a passive but effective way to express a point of view. I love that you can poke fun, criticise or comment through the subtle shape or highlight of an element within individual pieces or entire looks, or even the way it’s all worn or put together… At the same time it’s all open to interpretation.” In a widely male-dominated society, where slut-shaming is still commonplace, Knowles believes fashion can have an important role in changing this. In her words, “I’ve never been afraid to put these clothes out there – even if they are quite brash or ‘shocking’ – because it’s intended to be uplifting and sexy, and it’s the woman’s body and at the end of the day it’s a celebration of that.”

Words Maria Lopes Images Anna Victoria Best