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Photography Cris Fragkou

‘Jil Sander but RoboCop’: Johanna Parv brings urban couture to Fashion East

Lulu Kennedy’s latest recruit is all about providing elegant solutions to everyday problems, lifting women out of the frump of performancewear

Johanna Parv approaches the most dynamic women on the street and attempts to recreate their attitude with clothing. She studies how they rearrange their outfits (handbags slung over the shoulder, skirts gathered into the lap of a bicycle) and transforms those quirks into luxurious, engineered solutions for life on the go. The clothes she makes are about friction and speed and the need to zip through cities with ease. “I imagine the energy and power of tornados,” the designer says. “What does it feel like to jump into the full force of nature? Fashion can be so superficial but I don’t just want to make pretty clothes to fulfil some kind of utopian desire. I just want to make daily life easier.” 

Speaking from a cramped studio in Hackney on the morning of her 30th birthday, the designer is preparing her debut collection with the same fashion incubator that launched the careers of Jonathan Anderson, Kim Jones, Simone Rocha, Craig Green, and Grace Wales Bonner. “I guess the old lady finally got a chance,” Parv says, with a laugh. “I wanted to be a part of Fashion East when I was younger but I wouldn’t have been ready then. Plus, I submitted my application two minutes after midnight so I’m lucky to even be here.” Ten years ago, Parv emigrated from Estonia to do a foundation course at Central Saint Martins, where she stayed until she completed her MA in 2020, and has since been producing seasonal collections with the money she’s earned from freelance gigs. 

Though her work evokes a couture spirit in cavorting laser-cut lines and hand-stitched patterns, Parv considers herself a product designer, interrogating the needs of regular women and liberating them from the frump of conventional performancewear. She makes acrobatic, one-shouldered dresses with built-in leggings, asymmetric side-slit skirts with integrated cycling shorts, and backpack-strapped leather handbags. “I don’t want to make every season completely different from the last. I see each collection as a continued improvement on previous prototypes,” she says. These adjustments can be subtle: a broadened thumb hole, a streamlined pocket, or perhaps a more durable ripstop fabric. “It’s very Estonian to be so practical but I like to make it glam, to make it elegant, and to make it chic.” 

Much of this comes from Parv’s own experience of navigating London’s hostile, built environment where the threat of gender-based violence is an ambient part of the everyday. “Being scared of getting hurt,” she says. “It’s almost like I want to protect the female body. I treasure and cherish it so much that I want to create a protective shell.” But Parv, the practical designer, is less invested in the emotional subtext of her creations, and more concerned with their functional purpose. When inspiration runs dry, she doesn’t turn to film, art, or literature, but to the streets, where she crowd-sources motivation from real-life women. “I challenge them. I ask ‘Are you sure we need this? Another pair of trousers? How pointless!’ And then I realise ‘yes’, we do need these because they’ve never been done before.”

Utilitarian clothing rarely has the grace of eveningwear and rarely is it designed with the specific needs of cosmopolitan women in mind. It’s all well and good wearing the TikTok Lululemon BBL leggings but where else can people find a floor-length nylon gown with an in-built handbag compartment than at Johanna Parv? Given the popularity (and newfound status) of brands like Arc’teryx and Salomon in certain areas of London, there’s clearly an appetite for this level of technical connoisseurship, even when those pieces get divorced from their intended context. “People are like collectors,” Parv says. “The technology that goes into making these garments is so clever that they become desirable in their own right. Like a Louis Vuitton dress covered in stones, it’s all about craftsmanship. It’s urban couture.”

But if haute couture treats the body as if it were an ornament, then Parv’s work goes skin-deep. When made from lycra and stretch nylon, draped dresses, skorts, high-collared shirts, and sloping crop tops begin to feel like compression garments. They hoist and hug and actively heal, which might make you walk and hold yourself differently. This is the kind of clothing that changes the feel of being in your own body, as if you’re being supported from within. “That’s what it’s about, looking elegant, clean, and beautiful but feeling tough,” she says. “This is what I’m most excited about people seeing from the collection on Friday. “I want them to see the muscle and strength in women, particularly older women. Like Jil Sander but RoboCop.”