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Charlotte Knowles Fashion East AW18 lfw fashion week London
Backstage at Charlotte Knowles AW18Photography Nick DeLieto

Meet Charlotte Knowles, the designer deconstructing femininity with fashion

We speak to the Fashion East newcomer following her AW18 runway debut

Thanks to Fashion East – the non-profit initiative that helped launch the careers of Matty Bovan, Simone Rocha, and JW Anderson – London’s big names of tomorrow are given a platform to showcase their abilities. Among the newest crop of designers is Charlotte Knowles, who yesterday made her runway debut in a show styled by Dazed’s senior fashion editor Emma Wyman.

After presenting her first LFW collection last season at Fashion East’s presentations, Knowles upped the ante to join her peers AsaiSupriya Lele and special guest Symonds Pearmain at the AW18 show. “It’s our first runway show so we’re obviously quite anxious about it,” Knowles tells us. “But we really love the collection, so it’s really exciting.”

While still in its infancy – Knowles launched the brand (which she works on with partner Alexandre Arsenault) in 2017 after graduating from Central Saint Martins – the label has carved out a recognisable niche for itself. Constantly inspired by the strength of women, Knowles’ collections are unashamedly feminine but have an edge, amplified by her deconstructed approach to design that she has been honing since her MA collection. Inspired by the push-up bra, she created items that reimagined it from a female perspective. Think corsets that undercut the breasts rather than enhancing them with padding for the male gaze. Contrasting the structural elements, she brought in softer touches like tulle shirts dipped in silicone to mimic the look of wet clothes clinging to the skin. 

As a female designer designing clothes for women – a group that is surprisingly underrepresented in the fashion industry at the moment – overtly presenting femininity is at the core of her label. “I think that’s something that has become a signature for us, the way in which the body is revealed,” she explains. “It’s our interpretation of sexiness and we try to do it in a way that is very considered and a bit unexpected and I think that’s quite a unique thing about the pieces.”

Knowles notes that there is disparity when it comes to female designers in the industry. That’s without even mentioning the exit from the industry of Phoebe Philo – arguably the contemporary figurehead of female womenswear designers – leaving a void for women making things that other women want to buy.

“I feel the approach to what women design is very intuitive and personal,” she explains. “Whenever I work on something, I have to try it on and will know instantly whether or not it has potential/is desirable just by wearing it. When designing clothes for women, in my opinion a female gaze is always going to be more personal to the perspective of a male gaze.”

“When designing clothes for women, in my opinion a female gaze is always going to be more personal to the perspective of a male gaze” – Charlotte Knowles

To her, female designers (especially younger ones) are held to an impossible standard of needing to be the epitome of their work at all times. “There are plenty of male designers making womenswear and that has no direct relation to their sex/world/identity,” she says. There is some positive change though, with Knowles noticing a wave of young emerging female womenswear designers particularly in London and New York.

Words aside, Knowles is keen for her work to get the point across. Starting each season with her woman in mind, the collection is built around the idea of her. “I think it starts off quite organically, I always like going around charity shops finding pieces that really stand out to me or that I find to be quite different. Or there will be a detail that I’m attracted to, and I’ll deconstruct them and take the pattern and play around with it.”

For SS18, this manifested itself in a reimagining of the bikini. Taking the idea of beachwear and pulling it apart, the models wore looks that showed off everything, while also showing off nothing. The undercut corsets appeared again, but this time with mesh inserts that revealed tiny triangle bikinis underneath. Although printed in cute vintage florals, the looks were all created in utilitarian nylon-like materials, pushed one step further with utility belts with giant pockets slung around the models’ waists. 

For AW18 and beyond, Knowles isn’t trying to reinvent herself, but, rather, continue to evolve the brand and the staples that she has become recognised for. “We’ve done underwear again,” she jokes. “We push ourselves quite a lot and we’ve been doing a lot of embroidery. There’s still the Charlotte Knowles look to it but more layering, really refined small pieces, all sort of woven together.” The latest offering saw her branch into embellishment, blowing up sequins to giant proportions and having them cascade down tulle dresses to mimic 20s silhouettes. Elsewhere, there were psychedelic prints on figure-hugging lycra looks and, of course, the minimal corset-like bustiers.

“There are many sides to a woman,” she concludes. And and as her label continues to grow, she wants to explore them all.