Dorothy Parker maintained that “brevity is the soul of lingerie,” but Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault might beg to differ. For their first show at London Fashion Week in September, they presented what they called “militarized” lingerie- and corsetry-influenced looks for a woman who is, as Arsenault puts it, “ready to fight.” The show began with Lily McMenamy striding out in an underwire bustier and bike shorts that felt more like tactical wear than lingerie, a spandex riposte to those who’d say that dressing in the post-#MeToo era means covering up. “People are tired of [the idea that] the only way to empower women is with big suits,” says Arsenault, who was inspired by the girls he grew up with in the hard-core punk scene in Montreal. “They would wear the craziest outfits, and you could not undermine them because they were so empowered.”
Partners in design and in life, Knowles and Arsenault met in the MA program at Central Saint Martins. Knowles’s graduate collection there held the seeds of her later work, mocking the male gaze with looks that sported exaggerated bra cups cast in silicone. While she and Arsenault never formally studied corsetry, they’ve since dived deep into researching its history, along with the history of military garments like bulletproof vests. This combination—the fragile with the feral—appealed to them, as did the concept of reinventing revealing dressing for a modern woman. Arsenault theorizes that the increasingly blurred lines between public and private have helped make this style more palatable. “With social media, there is more and more transparency,” he says. “People have the choice of showing what they want. They’re much more comfortable wearing things that are more revealing because they have control over it.” The two say they’re careful to keep the clothes from objectifying the wearer. “Even if she’s wearing a really tiny harness bit, it’s never sexualized,” Arsenault says. Adds Knowles: “It’s really about the nuances and the placement. It is very considered—where we reveal and what we choose to reveal.”
Their vision has already connected with celebrity fans like Solange Knowles and Hunter Schafer. But their name recognition really got a bump when Bella Hadid wore a two-piece Charlotte Knowles look to the VMAs, which the two say was unexpected. “We didn’t know she was going to wear it,” Knowles says. “The morning after, we were tagged in a bunch of things.” Call it the Instagram era’s version of a Cinderella story.
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This article appears in the February 2020 issue of ELLE.
Véronique Hyland Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s fashion features director.