Representing the creative future

Chopova Lowena and the reality of owning a brand

Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena sit with their former intern Alexandra Armata and talk frankly about the realities of owning a business

For many aspiring designers, a fashion brand with stockists, orders, and press recognition comprises a life goal. What else would you want if you manage to get to a point where people are wearing your clothes? Chopova Lowena is in this “dream” space: They graduated from CSM, set up their brand right away, and followed their own steady path to running a sustainable business without compromising their artistic ethos, not even a bit. In an industry where designers have to change their work to fit into what consumers want, Chopova Lowena created a product that made consumers change their wants.

Suddenly the whole industry started wearing long pleated skirts that hang with hiking hooks from their belts and online stockists started selling out of dresses with puffy sleeves and Bulgarian vintage charms. Their process every season is unique and specific: Combining Bulgarian folklore references with sports is the starting point for every collection. It all seems effortless and fun, two best friends doing exactly what they want and being their own boss, but the reality is that running your own business in fashion is hard to a point that design might even come second after administrative tasks and housekeeping.

How do the two designers deal with orders, factories, and showrooms? What are the biggest challenges and what helped them when they felt like giving up? Emma and Laura’s former intern and recent CSM MA graduate designer Alexandra Armata sat down with the duo and they answered all her questions about what it really means to be an emerging designer in London.

Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand
Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand
Laura Lowena and Ida

Alexandra Armata: Can you take me through what you do on a day to day basis? And in which stage of the collection are you at?

EMMA CHOPOVA: We are just about to start production and getting all of our orders in. So we are at the production stage. I’m thinking about the next season too.

AA: Oh, yeah. Have you started designing for the next season?

EC: No, no!

Laura Lowena: We’ve been looking at fabrics.

AA: I remember there was one season when I was here at the studio, the show hadn’t even finished and you guys were already sure about where the next season was going to go…

EC: But that’s only because we had nothing to do. Right now, we’re producing hundreds of pieces, across over hundred styles which we’re producing almost all ourselves. There are lots of bits: gloves, socks, bags, so many skirts, necklaces. It takes a month just to get them all to the stores and under control. Ordering all the different things, all the different little bits. We use 500 kinds of charms and snaps and that takes a really long time.

LL: I had to source nearly 500 tea towels this season for one skirt style!

“You need someone that’s always on top of the numbers otherwise the business doesn’t function.” – Laura Lowena

AA: Who comprises your team? Including the people that you employ in Bulgaria.

EC: Our team is me and Laura. Laura’s Mum, who does our accounting. Laura’s sister who works for us part-time to help Laura’s mom with the bookkeeping. She will hopefully take a bigger role and overtake Laura’s mum’s job, we couldn’t live without her. We also employ Vanya in Bulgaria, who handles our textile development and is sort of our production manager. My mom, who does sourcing for fabrics on a seasonal basis. Daniella, who’s in charge of the atelier, does the distribution of the garments to the makers and puts all the textiles together. She employs, through subcontractors, the beaders, the jewellers, and the leather makers. This is the whole team.

AA: Your work is about reconnection with your heritage. You ended up employing so many people that you are related to, which really aligns with your brand. Was that a conscious decision?

EC: It was a conscious decision because, in the beginning, accountancy is very expensive. Laura’s mom had been doing this for her whole life, she is extremely knowledgeable about how to own a small business in the UK, so we got really lucky. She started for free when it was less work. Then all of a sudden, it became pretty much a full-time job.

LL: She takes care of the cash flow, projections, figuring out finances, how many orders we can take on, the financial side of things that I and Emma just can’t deal with at the same time as everything else. You need someone that’s always on top of the numbers otherwise the business doesn’t function.

Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand
Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand
Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand

“It’s also really tempting, in the beginning, to take on all the orders. It seems like a lot of money, so you immediately want to say yes and you don’t understand the fact that they don’t just give you the money. ” – Emma Chopova

AA: Can you explain how a showroom works?

EC: Showroom handles your sales and represents you to stores, like a middleman. It’s really helpful, because having a brand that has a lot of followers and hype at the beginning, which is how a lot of brands grow now, but having no showroom or no actual sales strategy and targets is very dangerous. The showroom coming early into our business was really good because they actually made a plan for us. When you graduate, you don’t know any stores, besides the basic ones: Dover Street, Selfridges, and Net A Porter. You don’t know your 50 target stores in Italy, which has the most luxury stores in the world.

LL: You also don’t understand things like terms and shipping. What do you do when someone doesn’t pay? They know who would pay on time, who’s trustworthy, they pitch you to people that they think you’re good for. It’s good and bad. It’s really scary to sign a contract, especially when you’re young. It always feels like you’re signing yourself away. But you need to. I think a lot of us don’t have that bigger business mindset. There is a point when you have to invest to grow. It is a really slippery slope. You need to know when to do it. When you know that it’s 100% right for you, do it. It’s really worth it because even though they take a commission, that makes you so much more visible and it massively increases your sales.

EC: Doing it on your own is possible. Some people do it really well. You need to have a lot of sales contacts and have a strategy for yourself.

LL: If you take on an order when you first start with someone that isn’t going to pay on time, that can completely ruin your business. If you don’t get paid on time, you’re in debt, and then they can just cancel the order…

EC: It’s also really tempting, in the beginning, to take on all the orders. It seems like a lot of money, so you immediately want to say yes and you don’t understand the fact that they don’t just give you the money. There’s a lot of time in between when you need the money upfront to produce clothing. You need to be on good terms with the store so that they pay you the deposit so that you can pay for your factory.

LL: When we first got Matches [Fashion] we made all those skirts they ordered ourselves as we didn’t even know how to find a factory at the beginning. We said yes to everything. Only then we realised how much work it was to make it all.

EC: We can’t make them perfect on our own. I’m not a leather maker, I had to cut out the belts all with scissors. You can’t just do that. But your first buyers understand that your product is still being developed. Buyers and customers know that sizing doesn’t come in the first season. Perfection doesn’t come in the first season, you need a business to do that.

LL: We’re still figuring that stuff out.

“Getting feedback from buyers is so important. It really helps you develop the product. Having a fashion brand is a lot of business, design is a very small percentage.” – Laura Lowena

AA: The more I watch you guys progress every season, the more I realise that the key thing is to start building a relationship with the buyers. It is almost as important as the product.

LL: Getting feedback from buyers is so important. It really helps you develop the product. Having a fashion brand is a lot of business, design is a very small percentage. We followed pretty much every primary technical advice, such as making the belts black and thinner. A 10-inch belt is a perfect size for you to be able to pee. [laughs] They’re all 10 inches now.

AA: What is the hardest thing about running a brand today?

EC: Everyone’s gonna say cash flow but I think the hardest thing is…

LL: Doing 100 jobs…

EC: Being incredibly overworked. It is also really difficult to know when to hire people. It needs to be the right person, but it takes a really long time for you to be able to pay them properly, so you end up not paying yourself properly. People management is also very hard. I deal with the Bulgarian team and it’s a constant stream of communication, which I find really difficult.

LL: For me, the hardest thing is doing everything. But it’s also the best thing, because you have control of your whole business.

AA: But I feel like there’s creative problem-solving in dealing with factories and all that stuff. So even though you might not draw or sew, there’s some creative problem solving going on when you’re doing all the other stuff, which seems really exciting to me.

EC: It’s always problem-solving.

AA: And a little bit of drama with the production facilities?

EC & LL: That’s not fun!

“I don’t want to be told that we should be making four collections a year when I don’t need or want to.” – Laura Lowena

AA: Have things changed because of the pandemic?

EC: The way we work has changed a little bit. I like things to be slower. When we were working from home, it wasn’t as intense and as stressful, and you end up producing the same amount and quality of work. You just don’t put that insane pressure on yourself to be here for 14 hours drawing the same thing over and over again.

LL: I agree. We never let ourselves have weekends or slow down in any way. It has taken us three years of extra time to realise that we can do what we do and have a more relaxed life.

AA: What would you change in the fashion system If you could? And what would you keep?

LL: I think how fast-paced everyone expects everyone to be. Some people make four collections a year, I don’t know how we would do it. We make two. I don’t want to be told that we should be making four collections a year when I don’t need or want to.

EC: I hate that we are all meant to sample everything in a small size. We’re sampling everything in a medium next season. We did most things in a medium this season too.

AA: If you could look back at the beginning is there any advice you would have given yourself or something you really wish you knew?

LL: Just do it. And keep doing it for as long as you can. The first half of the battle is staying in the game.

“It is not about being the best out of your class or whatever, the best of the show. It’s about having a good product that’s gonna sell.” – Emma Chopova

AA: I remember you were saying this since I was here. That the key is longevity and just persevering.

EC: Yes, it is not about being the best out of your class or whatever, the best of the show. It’s about having a good product that’s gonna sell. I wish we could give advice to ourselves during our first year on the MA. We were putting so much pressure on ourselves, it was not fun.

LL: It wasn’t healthy.

EC: It wasn’t healthy! We were not good mental health-wise, we were just struggling. And it was all or nothing constantly. That feeling is crippling. We thought that we had to make something of it right then, and the fact that it didn’t come right away felt like it was just the end of it.

LL: It is not going to happen instantly. But if you can figure out your life to keep doing it for as long as possible, then, I think, if you’ve got the good products, it does happen.

EC: I think a lot of the reason why we didn’t burn out at the start was that we met Charlotte Wales. Charlotte gave us a reason to keep doing it. She gave us something to work towards [The Kukeri book]. We had Olya [Kuryshchuk, 1 Granary founder] and a few other people behind our back. But this gave us a project, this gave us something to work towards.

Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand
Chopova Lowena on how it really is to run a brand

AA: Could you tell me the story behind the casting for the lookbook you released during lockdown?

LL: It was our five collaborators, our intern, and a model, so we had a bit of everything. I find it so annoying when you see lookbooks with models that are six-foot, really slim. You just don’t connect to them. We wanted people to see that If you’re tall or short, of whatever size, you can wear the clothes and you can enjoy it.

EC: Agata [Belcen] did such an amazing job styling it. They always look so real, like they’re going somewhere and doing something.

AA: Since your first season, has your design process changed a lot?

LL: We have always had the traditional side and the sports side. The relationship between the two sides really inspires us still, and it makes the story of each collection.

EC: I still draw a lot and Laura still collages.

AA: When it is the two of you, do you divide the labour in specific ways or is every piece a collaboration?

LL & EC: Every piece is a collaboration.

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

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