The Feminine Technique with Charlotte Knowles
When Corsetry Becomes Tactical
What is utility in relation to femininity? London-based brand, Charlotte Knowles, has garnered a reputation for its clever repurposing of corsetry, bringing elements of undergarments into the realm of couture. “Reappropriating a corset, which is a traditionally oppressive garment,” says Charlotte, offers an alternate take on technical wear. “It becomes a strong piece.” We are sitting in the Peckham studio that belongs to Charlotte and her partner (in both business and life) Alexandre Arsenault, where the designs for her eponymous label come to fruition. The weather is dull, the bleak rain streaking the windows outside, but racks of meticulous, delicate designs, baring textures in Glaucous plaids and custard-yellow, offset the bleakness outdoors.
The two met in 2015 doing their MAs at Central Saint Martins—Arsenault, a year ahead, studied menswear and Knowles was studying womenswear, where they began working closely together after collaborating on a school project. Fashion East, the London-based incubator for emerging designers, approached the two quickly after the presentation of their graduate collection in 2017, functioning as the platform responsible for showcasing what has become Charlotte Knowles signature—small pieces, expertly tailored, favored by limelight celebs, from Solange to ’s Hunter Schafer.But staying inspired in an industry that reduces the shelf life of ideas to mere days can be exhausting. “I’m so boring,” says Charlotte, “I work!” On the cusp of their first independent show, and exclusive capsule for SSENSE, I caught up with Knowles and Arsenault to discuss designing in an era of industry burnout, navigating the tension between the synthetic and natural world, and how to consistently outdo your own oeuvre.
How do you feel about the term “emerging designer”?
Charlotte: It’s difficult, we were just talking about this recently—how there’s such a wave of new emerging designers coming out of uni every few months and it’s so overwhelming.Alex: The weird thing about “emerging designer” is there’s this connotation, especially in London that’s like, “I’m still a student.” The work still seems very elementary as there’s no refinement. We’ve never been in a place to be labeled that because it was always a business and a plan, and a focus on product development. Because I studied before in Canada, it was very technical, to a degree that usually isn’t associated with emerging designers.Charlotte: But there is this weird pressure from people, or young people graduating from BAs to start a brand immediately. After the recent BA CSM show there were so many interviews with the students on and . They basically just finished their BA, and all of this attention makes them think, “Oh, might as well just start a brand,” without realizing what that entails. It is a business, and there’s no education about the business side of it when you’re in school. Suddenly you’re thrown into this crazy world where you’re spending loads of money and you might not have the skills to deal with everything that comes your way.Alex: The industry really pushes people into that situation.Charlotte: They’re so hungry for new talent, all the magazines are wanting content. It’s nice to draw attention to really talented people, but the way it’s done now can feel reckless.
Do you feel like you’ve had to adjust your process since Fashion East?Given the technical and maybe synthetic nature of your garments, how do you feel your designs mesh with the natural world?Would you say then that you design in response to what you see around you? Or do you try to focus more on an internal intuition?
Charlotte: We’re trying to be more prepared.Alex: I don’t think that it’s the [nature] of the show that makes you do things differently, I think it’s more about sales and the business side that makes you think about the design differently.Charlotte: I think the natural world is always present in a way or form in our design, there are so many symbols in nature that can be used to communicate ideas. We often go back to florals, they represent ideas of beauty, delicate-ness and fragility, which are stereotypically associated with femininity. We take them apart, transforming their presentation or how they are printed—roughen them up, fading, glitched—considering how we’re reshaping stereotypes.Alex: A lot of it is in reaction to what is around us. We really like the idea that we are creating a new wardrobe for the woman of our zeitgeist and of the future. But there is still a huge part of our design that comez from very personal emotional response or intuition.
Your work is often referred to as hyper-feminine, do you feel like that’s a label you agree with, or do you feel like it’s redundant?How do you think that informs your audience’s tendency to refer to your work as having a lingerie-influenced aesthetic, or as simply external underwear?
Charlotte: I guess it kind of is, because it is about femininity, but in all of its forms—where it comes from, how we perceived it growing up, how we see it in the future.Alex: Even when something is inspired by underwear, it’s made into something that becomes more utilitarian, more aggressive. It wouldn’t feel like you were looking up someone’s skirt, if that makes sense.Charlotte: I think it’s pretty accurate to be honest, I do find underwear really inspiring. There are so many details and there’s so much history, there’s more and more references every season, endless inspiration. Underwear is so associated with hyper-femininity and delicate technicality, and we’re kind of turning it on its head and making it more tough and technical, utilitarian.Alex: With underwear in general, there’s a functionality to it—we’re interested in the idea of functionality and the body. The ability to be able to say what we want to say, sometimes using underwear as a reference, combined with something else to create a clash and send the right message, I think that’s mainly the reason that there’s a lot of underwear influence. It’s the tension we’re interested in exploring.Charlotte: Like reappropriating or using a corset, which is traditionally an oppressive garment, and making it actually a very strong empowering piece.
What is the most boring thing about fashion right now?Whether it’s genuine or not, one thing that’s a hot topic right now, especially with the newer generation, is sustainability. Do you feel pressure to participate in that dialogue?
Alex: Everyone is following the same trends. Loads of the big houses, the decisions on who they put at the head are just based on clout, there are so many young talents that could do a much better job and they just choose some random person because of money or popularity. That’s boring to me. A lot of the big catwalks are quite soulless as well. There’s no world building anymore. Even if they spend millions of dollars, even it looks like an incredible world—if you don’t feel anything from it… I think that’s boring.Alex: The dialogue surrounding sustainability is super important, a lot of the time they include everything in fashion as contributing to the sustainable problem, but I think it’s the high street that’s the problem, when they talk about fashion, they should talk about consumer attitudes, which is a result of the high street. If you think about our stuff, the quantity we create, the durability, and the timelessness of the garments, all contribute to it being sustainable, without us even going to look for sustainable things. Plus we’re adamant about recycling in the studio, it’s very rare that designers recycle their studio.
Like materials?Yeah, at this stage there are definitely small steps everyone should be taking.
Alex: Even just paper and stuff, a lot of big houses don’t do recycling in their studio. We use so much paper everyday!Charlotte: Every season we look into more sustainable fabrics, too, we try to find better supplies that we can work with. Alex: I think sustainable as a word gets thrown around a lot and for many reasons.Charlotte: And fashion is not at all sustainable.Alex: A lot of these brands that refer to themselves as being sustainable simply are not. It’s good to be sustainably conscious, and I suppose referring to yourself as that at least draws attention to the issue, but properly sustainable brands, there are very few.Charlotte: Fashion as a model just isn’t sustainable. We produce new products every season. But I think making products that are super durable that someone invests in, and that will last forever, can help. A lot of people say that their stuff is luxury, but when you look at it in a shop, you’re like “that’s literally gonna rip as soon as you wear it.” People aren’t considering the importance of finishing or durability so much.Charlotte: That’s why we make really tiny pieces!