I’m speaking to Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault over a Zoom call, where the London-based partners in both life and business have just returned from a trip to Los Angeles, and are telling me all about it. “L.A was so fun, we got to be around so many great people,” says the 30-year-old Hampshire-born Knowles. (The great people she’s referring to so happen to be Rosalia, Caroline Polachek, and Devon Lee Carlson, to name but a few). “It had been raining quite a lot, but luckily we missed it. But then everything was so green and beautiful because of that.”
Arsenault, 33, who hails from Montreal, agrees. “We had a party with H. Lorenzo and dinner. We were saying that L.A. is the kind of place that we like now that we’re a bit more grown up.” As the designers have matured, so has their brand, KNWLS, which was founded in 2017. Having both graduated from the prestigious Central Saint Martins’ MA course, starting up the label soon after, it quickly became an industry favourite showing under the talent incubator Fashion East.
Since then, KNWLS has gone from strength to strength, evolving its visual language whilst staying true to its immediately recognisable codes. This includes ‘underwear as outerwear’ – think: bustiers and corsets – low slung waistlines, sheer fabrications contrasting with leather and denim, and an earthy colour palette. It’s not surprising that with its references to late 1990s and Y2K fashion (the spring/summer 2023 collection even included visible thongs) it’s gained cult status amongst Gen Z, with Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner spotted wearing clothes from the brand.
Here, Knowles and Arsenault explain exactly how the brand is growing up, discuss the impact of Brexit on the British fashion industry, and allude to the exciting projects the future holds for KNWLS.
How did the two of you first meet?
Charlotte Knowles: We both met each other on the MA at Central Saint Martins. I was studying womenswear and Alex was doing menswear. One of our first year projects was to assist the second year with their graduate collection. So I helped Alex with his, and then after he graduated, he helped me with mine. And at this point, we were dating each other and spending a lot of time anyways.
How did you start the KNWLS brand together?
Alexandre Arsenault: So after we created Charlotte’s graduate collection and it was shown at the Central Saint Martins exhibition, the guys who head up Fashion East saw it and posted it in their Instagram Stories.
CK: I had always wanted to be represented by Fashion East so I messaged them. Then me and Alex organically began working on our first collection, when I was fresh out of uni. Then we did our first presentation with them in September 2018. I felt like we never really sat down and even made a decision about working together. It just happened so naturally!
What's it like working with a partner? Can it be creatively challenging?
CK: We’re together 24/7, of course – so yeah, it can be quite intense! I feel like it’s either very dramatic and heated. Or it can be like, just really smooth sailing. And it's usually the beginning of the season that we kind of like clash a tiny bit, when we’re making decisions about the direction of a collection. But once we're kind of past that initial stage, we're just quite productive. It’s great that we can be really candid and honest with each other, too.
AA: I feel like our aesthetics and tastes are actually quite different. But because of this, it means we bring different perspectives to the brand. So I’ve always been interested in counterculture. I was part of the metal scene when I was younger and inspired by my friends, who were the powerful women in that scene. And Charlotte’s vision comes from more of a pop-culture side of things. But in the end, we have the same language – it’s our unique language that we built together.
it's usually the beginning of the season that we kind of like clash a tiny bit, when we’re making decisions about the direction of a collection. But once we're kind of past that initial stage, we're just quite productive.
Do you ever get any downtime together?
CK: Going to L.A. kind of felt like a holiday, even though it was technically for work! We went to really nice restaurants and had drinks with really fun people. We also went to Universal Studios!
AA: That was really fun. When we’re in the UK, we tend to go to the cinema or to the pub.
CK: We try to make sure we rarely work super late. And to take Sundays off when we can!
How are you preparing for London Fashion Week?
CK: We're not actually doing a show this season, it’s more of a presentation. It’s a slightly smaller collection, so we decided just to do sales. Last year really took it out of us! Also we’ve been recruiting and there's been a lot of changes in the business. We just felt like we needed to take a moment. Basically, we want to start working to the pre-sales schedule. The next time we’ll do a full show will be in September this year.
AA: From a business perspective, last year was still kind of chaotic [post-pandemic]. And then social media kind of just became really depressing, with the algorithms on Instagram, for example. We have 235,000 followers, and it shows our posts to about 10,000 people. So we’ve been restructuring the business, finding other solutions outside of social media as well to reach our customers. People can get exhausted with social media, too. So we want to explore more ‘IRL’ experiences – which is why we will be doing a show in September, but also smaller activations such as pop-ups and events throughout the year. Creating a community is really important to us. It’s key that people feel like there’s something more they’re buying into rather than just social media hype.
Creating a community is really important to us. It’s key that people feel like there’s something more they’re buying into rather than just social media hype.
How would you say KNWLS has evolved from its beginnings to where it is now?
AA: In terms of working processes, we have around ten employees now, which we didn’t have at the beginning. When you start a brand, you don't have any resources! We used to go buy our fabrics down the road, for example. Now we really have to think about production, meterage, product development. We now make shoes, bags… So much more.
CK: Yes, I feel like this is the year where we really nail these processes with our team. Aesthetically, I think KNWLS is has become more refined over the years. I think the older we get and the more collections we make it feels like the clothes speak to that experience.
How do you feel the UK leaving the EU has affected the British fashion industry?
CK: The pool for hiring is a lot smaller. There are so many amazing and technically capable people, pattern cutters, for example, in Italy or France. And the UK is missing out on this. The cost for visas is so high, particularly for smaller brands.
AA: We now have two people in the team who spend 90% of their job managing exports. Before Brexit, it was so simple. And now it's so complicated for no reason at all. I really don't see who benefits from Brexit.
We now have two people in the team who spend 90% of their job managing exports. Before Brexit, it was so simple. And now it's so complicated for no reason at all. I really don't see who benefits from Brexit.
Let’s end things on a positive note: what does the future hold for KNWLS?
AA: A lot of things!
CK: Yes, a lot. We’re dressing someone really exciting for The Grammys (Doja Cat). We really want to start dressing more people for the red carpet, actually.
AA: Yes, it’s a great way for people to discover your brand who perhaps would not have discovered it before.
CK: We also have a really great collaboration coming out later this year. It’s top secret though…