Fusing 80s wrestling culture with Bulgarian folklore might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but by golly, it looks good on paper. Fashion photographer Charlotte Wales has collaborated with recent Central Saint Martins graduates, Chopova Lowena, to release a new book that combines just those two things – along with the designers’ latest collection.
With one half of the design duo (Emma Chopova) originally hailing from Bulgaria, the book takes its title – Kukeri – from the country’s folkloric ritual monster: a man dressed in elaborate homemade suits of fur, ribbons, feathers and beads; carved wooden masks, animal faces or heavy copper bells tied around their waists to ring out as they dance along the streets. Believed to ward off evil or ill fortune (“loshotiya”), the Kukeri historically began their work at either dawn or dusk, dancing through villages, visiting houses and performing blessings. Whilst the rituals, dates and costumes have changed over the years, and across Bulgaria, there’s one place where the whole spectrum can still be found: the annual Surva festival in Pernik – which also provides the primary location for this book.
You might – understandably – be wondering where 1980s wrestling comes into things. Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena have always been fascinated by the incongruous, often jarring, juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern day. Their graduate collection featured intricately designed and handmade folk costumes styled with sneakers and sunglasses, for instance, and a course assignment on their MA saw them mix lace with material from 1970s ski-suits. Their argument, in this case, was, believe it or not, that 80s wrestling and the tradition of Kukeri have more in common than one might think: namely, handmade, kaleidoscopic costumes and overly-theatrical performances.
With that in mind, the designers headed to Pernik in January of this year (2018), along with acclaimed photographer Charlotte Wales, to document the festival revellers and to shoot the collection in situ. The fruits of the trip were then combined with more images shot in a studio in London, as well as in a wrestling ring. Charlotte, who has shot commercially for Chloé and Hermès, as well as editorials for the likes of Vogue, Self-Service and POP, brings her trademark nostalgia-tinged hues and high-fashion gloss to the project, perfectly mirroring the 80s influences found in the collection itself. A master of capturing movement – albeit usually the leggy grace of the industry’s top models – Charlotte shoots the wrestlers beautifully, snapping the flips and slams as she would Cindy Crawford.
Along for the somewhat unusual ride was stylist, Agata Belcen, art director, Jamie Reid, and a finishing touch in the shape of an introduction by Lucy Kumara Moore, director of Claire du Rouen (where the 400-edition print-run is currently on sale). The end result is a flip-book style creative mash-up of centuries-long tradition, documentary photography, fashion lookbook and an unlikely ensemble of models, monsters and athletes.