Under regular circumstances, Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault are inseparable. Not only are they a couple, but the two helm one of the most exciting womenswear labels to emerge from London in the past decade. Most days, you’ll find them in their south-London studio, crafting lingerie-inspired pieces that are anything but soft and frilly. Yet, for a decent chunk of 2020, the partners have been separated: by a three-and-a-half-hour car journey, to be exact.
When Covid-19 landed on British shores, Knowles decided to quarantine in Devon at her parents’ house. “It was sort of like being in a bit of a bubble, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” she says, recalling how she relished the sparse human life and enforced detox from the world beyond the pretty green countryside. That kind of isolation would send Arsenault up the wall. He decided to stay in London alone.
The couple are the first to admit things were a bit murky to begin with. As the country went into complete shutdown, the design duo was in the midst of finalising their AW20 orders, with a growing list of stockists, including Dover Street Market London, Selfridges and Ssense. Fears of potential retailers going bankrupt if unable to open to the general public again caused Knowles and Arsenault to go into full panic mode, concerned they would end up with downsized orders or, worse, full-blown cancellations. “It was this freaky moment where we didn’t have any money coming in and we needed to produce quite a large amount of clothes,” says Arsenault. Luckily, Knowles’s mum, a business owner herself, was able to help the pair out with their accounts and number crunching – all the boring stuff they don’t teach you at school.
They kept themselves busy, working on a mammoth AW20 campaign, entitled Proxy, that would involve an army of fearless women who make up the Charlotte Knowles universe. Fourteen brand muses were sent pieces from this season’s collection to photograph on themselves. They worked with stylist Georgia Pendlebury, photographer Arnaud Lajeunie and art director Ben Kelway, with each intimate self-portrait (see throughout) – spliced with supernatural still-life shots of this season’s otherworldly jewellery offerings – emanating tangible strength in a time when we need it most.
The star-studded cast includes photographer Harley Weir, a close friend of the brand who Knowles admired from afar as a teen, as well as Olympic fencer Ysaora Thibus and make-up artist extraordinaire Isamaya Ffrench. Brand muses Priscilla Cheseaux, Aweng Chuol, Lily McMenamy and Ariish Wol wear Charlotte Knowles like a second skin, as do musicians Shygirl and Caroline Polachek. The latter toured her critically acclaimed album Pang across the globe armoured in Charlotte Knowles body-con.
“I feel like a lot of musicians rely heavily on stylists, so they’ll only wear stuff once, so a piece of clothing will have its moment and they’ll move onto something else,” says Knowles. “[Caroline] is really passionate about re-wearing stuff and making this iconic look – it’s a refreshing perspective.”
Knowles and Arsenault met while studying at Central Saint Martins, united by a mutual love for 1990s minimalist titan Helmut Lang. It was while researching for her MA final collection that Knowles first became infatuated with corsetry and classic lingerie shapes, having become fascinated by the intricate detailing and painstaking design that goes into pieces that seem simplistic on the surface. It was here Knowles established her niche. Hip-hugging flares became a Charlotte Knowles staple, worn beneath deconstructed corsets that are akin to bulletproof vests rather than something meant to minimise your waist size. Silhouettes are skin-tight, sharp and sensual, equipped with drawstrings for agile movement, doused in earthy tones and reptile-like prints. Sexual yet tactical. At moments, even protective.
“If a part of the body is being shown, then there are always other parts that are really covered, subtle slithers of skin in unexpected places,” says Knowles. Explaining the philosophy behind the Charlotte Knowles woman, Arsenault adds: “She’s not dressing to please the eye of some toxic man. She knows the kind of man that she wants and she knows the kind of girl she wants to make jealous.”
Growing up a skinny-jeans-wearing kid in the Montreal suburbs who would regularly “get stuff thrown at him from car windows”, Arsenault became part of the city’s hardcore metal scene. He surrounded himself with strong women: the moshers who wore what they wanted and partied harder than any bloke in the building. From his menswear studies at Saint Martins, he was able to transfer an attention to detail that is usually absent from women’s clothing. This sort of construction, though time-consuming to create, gives a Charlotte Knowles garment longevity – “All that kind of bad-quality womenswear just creates more product that won’t end up on the secondhand market,” he says.
It was this dedication to making high-quality, desirable product that caught the eye of Lulu Kennedy, founder of Fashion East. Knowles and Arsenault showed through the not-for-profit platform at London Fashion Week for three seasons, the Charlotte Knowles woman evolving with each iteration. The pair could have been easily driven to sticking to what they know – and to what sells – but fresh perspectives and new ideas ensured the brand didn’t become stagnant before hitting its first real stride. Think cropped shearlings in sinister cuts, futuristic padded twinsets and club-ready silk minidresses in muddy hues.
When quizzed on how they divide their workload, the two are quick to uplift the contribution of the other over their own. “We do the whole creative direction together, but I think, at the moment, I’m more of a secretary,” says Arsenault with a laugh, admitting he usually takes the reins when it comes to the admin side of things. Knowles is the researcher, whose scattered vision is organised into a cohesive narrative by her partner. The pair then build upon the story: the fabrications they will use, the integration of the underwear-y pieces, what colours and shapes will blend into the next season.
The popularity of the brand has skyrocketed over the past 12 months, thanks to a growing number of celebrity fans. Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner are regular wearers, and Lady Gaga, Megan Thee Stallion and Kaia Gerber have all been seen in pieces from SS20. Knowles and Arsenault love trawling through Instagram, finding girls across the globe in their clothes. “The thing with Instagram now is there’s this barrier between [the Charlotte Knowles woman] and the people looking at her, so she feels more comfortable,” says Arsenault. Knowles admits: “I probably shouldn’t do this whenever we make a new piece. I’m always questioning whether I would definitely wear it.”
As Knowles’s tastes mature, so do her designs. While the designer describes her breakout SS18 collection, as “quite wild, quite MTV trashy”, AW20 saw the Charlotte Knowles girl throw on crocheted shawls trimmed with dainty butterflies and paisley-printed T-shirt dresses and bodysuits. That’s not to say she’s lost her subversive edge, though, as her rugged leather jackets and terracotta trousers that lace right up the thigh show.
At the time of writing, Knowles and Arsenault are working on their SS21 collection, their first in a post-Covid world. While they were originally set on creating an offering that was “young and free”, Arsenault confesses it is shaping up to be something quite grown-up, a turn of events that surprises them both. The post-Covid fashion landscape, with its mix of digital and real-life shows, is, says Arsenault, “a good opportunity to take things a bit slower”. Knowles echoes this: “We’re excited just to create some really beautiful imagery, and it’s a nice opportunity to put that budget towards something super-creative.”
That said, the pair are firmly behind the idea that live fashion has a place in the modern world. “It’s like saying that going to a live concert is dead and you have to watch it on YouTube. Nothing is going to replace a live performance,” says Arsenault, with a shrug. “There’s a limit to how much you can isolate yourself from everything. You have to feel it, you have to experience it.” These two designers, despite only being in the earliest stretch of their careers, know what the modern woman wants from her wardrobe. She wants to feel liberated, confident and sensual. Yet, equally, she wants to be protected by her clothes as she marches through the everyday. That’s where Charlotte Knowles comes in, with fashion meant to be lived in – designed for girls who bite back.
by Paul Toner
Top image by Carly Scott.