“Yeah,” says Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault. “We’re here for ten days.” The couple (in both life and business) are dialing in from an unglamorous Airbnb situation in New York. A stock landscape hangs behind them in an MDF frame and the walls have been painted a claustrophobic shade of magnolia. Likely described as “welcoming” on the rental website, the overall impression of the place is, well, different from where Knowles and Arsenault live in London: a slender terrace house where Danish credenzas are decorated in vintage Opp Jihlava lamps and eccentric 1970s figurines.
“Our taste is very eclectic,” Arsenault explains. “Charlotte grew up watching MTV and I grew up in the metal scene in Montreal. So while we’re obsessed with product design and high-fashion finishes, everything we do exists between the trashiness of subculture and the trashiness of pop culture.” It’s a philosophy that sits well within the world of Jean Paul Gaultier. This is a designer who spent decades challenging staid notions of good taste with showgirl bras and trompe-l’oeil torsos, and with whom Knwls has created a behemoth 40-piece collection, which gets its worldwide release this afternoon.
“JPG was the polar opposite to the other houses in the ’80s and ’90s. It was loud and punk and it poked fun at fashion,” Knowles says. “Even though the couture pieces were, and still are, mind-blowing and complex, it wasn’t considered artful. It was ‘vulgar’ and ‘oppressive’.” Arsenault says Knwls encountered the same criticisms when the brand emerged from Fashion East in 2019. “We were doing underwear and corsets and people were like ‘This is not what we want.’ Like Gaultier, they didn’t understand that we were trying to create a new dialogue around women’s empowerment.”
Even in Knowles’s graduate collection at Central Saint Martins – where she dismantled the push-up bra – Gaultier’s extreme approach to dressing women has long shaped this brand’s ethos, and the comparisons between that piece and Gaultier’s subversive cone-breasted corsets are tangible. “Both prod at the idea of distorting your body so that it conforms to feminine ideals,” as Knowles says, which is a concept the couple revisited for this collaboration in a spiral-boobed mini dress that laces up the side. “It’s about taking Gautier’s ideas and placing them within contemporary culture,” Arsenault adds.
“It’s beautiful because there’s no sexual intention in the observer,” he says. Might that argument extend to the criss-crossed crop tops, sinuous bodycons and waist-snatching bustiers that make up the rest of the collection? Critics would maintain that this look (a sort of high-octane femme fatale for the Instagram age) reinforces the mechanisms it tries to destabilise. But perhaps this is what power dressing looks like in 2023: both the purring come hither and the fang-toothed bite. “It comes down to how it feels on the body and I will take the lead on that,” Knowles says. “It’s an emotional response.”
But where dangerous cut-outs and low-rise pants reveal the hard angles of their chosen woman, the absence of bigger-bodied models (with the exception of perhaps Alva Claire) often makes its way into post-show conversations. “As a young brand we do our best. Everything is so tailored and intricate, which makes it complicated and expensive. 90 per cent of the time people will just get a famous plus-size model to walk their show in a random outfit. But does she feel good? She can be the most amazing person in the world and the look will be terrible,” Arsenault explains. “So it needs to feel authentic.”
Even at the more established houses, which have the financial resources to produce multiple samples, the number of curve models fell by 24 per cent last season. “I think sometimes the gun is pointed at the wrong person. I’d much rather see Chopova Lowena and Di Petsa do it right, than to see someone squeezed into the wrong size as a box-ticking exercise,” he adds. Knowles nods in agreement. “We’re always checking our tags on Instagram and so many curvy girls feel empowered in the brand, so I don’t think the customer feels excluded. We’re going to do what we can,” she adds.
It helps that the designers are using the Jean Paul Gaulter Knwls collaboration to expand their offering beyond groin-slicing undergarments. “At first it was all about layering minuscule bits of fabric. But as I mature, I want the wardrobe to develop with me. I want trousers and knitwear and coats,” Knowles says. One of the strongest proposals in this collaboration, then, is a maniacally-cropped biker jacket with pale pink fuzz rupturing through its seams; a more imposing silhouette that will continue into their spring/summer 2024 collection. “It feels like something that could exist in both the Jean Paul Gaultier and Knwls archive.”
The same goes for Gaultier’s signature marinière print, which has been rendered in bleached plaid across skin-tight minidresses and lithe flares and off-the-shoulder knits that look as though they’ve been sundered in a riptide. “We were always going to be drawn to things that could exist in our world, but we also wanted to choose these very classic tropes to make it obvious,” Knowles says. Fashion nerds will also recognise the tattoo-illusion leotards, borrowed from Gaultier’s spring/summer 1994 collection, and redrawn with wailing serpents and crystalline love hearts and industrial barbed wire.
Ingrained in all those who wear Knwls is the desire to look like a hot and hardcore It girl: like Bella Hadid, Rosalía and Kylie Jenner with their dissociative Kubrick stares. “We’re very influenced by women on social media. Even Malia Obama bought something through our site and wore it last week. I love her being a Knwls girl,” Knowles says. “It’s weird when you get famous people buying clothing for themselves. It’s like ‘Oh! You’re actually a fan of the brand?’ That was when Grimes ordered pieces from us, which is great because it’s rare for a celebrity to do that,” Arsenault adds. “She still messages us.”
Endorsements like these are the hard-won successes of a brand that has taken all the right measures to survive. No longer an emerging designer label and not yet a household name, Knwls occupies a rare (and therefore precarious) position in a hostile fashion landscape. “It’s about survival,” Arsenault says. “Brexit fucked young designers, and then Covid, and then Ukraine. The conglomerates took this as an opportunity to buy factories to try and snuff out the competition, but we challenged ourselves to learn about business. Now we need to compete with brands that are bigger than ours.”
Perhaps the apex of these efforts is a hand-braided corset that took a little less than 12 months to complete. It is almost mournful to look at. “That’s one of the most amazing pieces we’ve ever done,” Knowles says, holding an iPhone to the camera. “I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to work outside of commercial restrictions. I felt like a student again.” The piece is hourglass like a Jean Paul Gaultier perfume bottle, and its leather has been screen-printed to resemble an eroding vert-de-gris statue. It feels like a forgotten piece of arcana, a once-glamorous showgirl, stepping back into the limelight.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.