Charli Cohen | Spotlight
Spotlights are a 12 part series documenting emerging creatives in London. This week we met with Charli Cohen, who has been designing clothes from the age of 15. Charli Cohen utilises her background in fitness to influence her collections, which heavily feature innovative active-wear. With a self-confessed dislike for the fashion industry, Charli is an advocate for improving it from the inside. Her mental health initiative, Shades of Blue, was created as a platform to de-stigmatise mental health in an industry where its high prevalence is largely ignored.
How did you get started?
I started my first fashion brand when I was 15, which I ran for about 3 or 4 years until I began a fashion degree at Kingston University. I wanted to get really grounded in the industry and learn everything that’s involved in having a brand. At that point I had no idea how to build a company, but I was in a great situation to learn. I could afford it because I was living at home, still at school and didn’t have to rely on it for financial independence, so I was free to figure things out through trial and error. I started with customising t-shirts. Once I had learnt the ropes a bit with the marketing, accounting and all the fundamental basics of running a business, I developed it into a broader womenswear collection.
When I was at uni, I built up a social media community through my blog, and also did some social media consulting. I used my last year at uni to prepare for the launch of Charli Cohen, by sorting out the branding and finishing my graduate collection, with which I first launched with.
What was the transition like between university and work?
I was really excited to leave uni. I couldn’t wait to get it over and done with so I could do my own thing. The transition was great, I could finally work in my own way rather than ticking boxes for grades. I was working in a way that was inefficient for me, so it was amazing to be able to start using my own process.
What’s your design process?
Rather than sketching, I pretty much figure out everything in my head and then refine it during sampling. This process wasn’t great for university where they want you to show your workings throughout, but it’s quite sufficient for me as a designer. Usually I’ll start by going straight into a collection rather than creating visuals. I will write a song or something that will be the starting inspiration for the collection.
Do you have any other creative outlets?
I sing and play the guitar. Throughout my teens I used to sing and do jazz festivals, now I sing in a punk band as a side line. As a teen, I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue fashion or music. I decided to go with fashion because I figured it would be easier to tie it in with music somewhere down the line rather than the other way round. It’s something I actively do within the brand; we collaborate with the music industry a lot. It’s awesome to be able to consolidate all of my passions within the one brand.
What’s your take on collaboration?
We collaborate a lot with different creatives, whether that’s artists, photographers, illustrator or art directors. I think you can make something that is more exciting or inspiring when you’re working with someone from outside the brand. It’s really interesting to get an external perspective because when you’re so close to it, you only see things one way.
How do you incorporate technology into what you do?
I like to try and balance fashion design with product design. Fashion design is about something that very aesthetic led, interesting silhouettes, runway styling, and the product side is more about technology, practicality and sustainability, and I find both really exciting. I like the challenge of trying to make them both work together. Because of this, there’s a lot of unisex utility and sport references. With technology we work with mills who specialise in bringing sports technology into fabrics and with sustainable textiles. I learnt pretty early on at uni that it’s important that my designs are comfortable and practical, as well as being aesthetically pleasing.
How do you choose your models?
Casting somebody who that we feel is a strong personality fit with the brand is really important. That extends to the whole team we work with. Whether it’s photographers, stylists or makeup artists, it’s always people that we feel embody the brand or who can add another dimension to it. When we shoot with any models or artist, we try to convey their personality through the photos. We get the models to style themselves; we want them to be showcasing their own personality through the clothes, rather than our projection of that onto them.
Were you ever worried about going into the industry?
The fashion industry is quite an intimidating place, it’s why I wanted to get a grounding in it as early as possible. The fact that I fundamentally dislike the fashion industry and am uncomfortable with it has been a really strong inspiration behind the brand. I want to be able to make a change from the inside rather than complaining about it from the outside.
What changes would you make?
We have a mental health awareness platform called Shades of Blue that has a focus on the creative industries. The industries tend to draw a lot of people that struggle with mental health, but they probably have some of the worst infrastructure for supporting those people. There’s a lot of abuse and bad working practices that don’t get talked about much, but people are too afraid to speak out about because they’ll probably get fired. So, we want to have a platform that first of all builds a support community, can start doing a little bit of whistleblowing and can really shed a light onto what is actually happening behind the glamour facade of the industry.
Has social media had a big role in the brand?
Social media has been massive for us. I think for any brand now its really too big a platform to disregard. I built up a a community whilst i was at uni, which provided us with quite a strong platform to launch into. It’s a way for us to speak directly to our customers and to get really fast feedback; I think it’s a really really important tool within every element of our business. However, I think if my business didn’t rely on it, I’d stay away a bit more. I find Instagram especially can be a bit toxic. But, it is a really amazing way to build our brand, and the majority of people that have heard about us have come across Charli Cohen via instagram as an entry point.
What is next for you?
We have a few big things coming up this year. First of all will be a collaboration with Reebok that launches this year. The second thing we’re doing is a personalising service called The Forge where customers will be able to personalise their items with limited edition patches and techniques. People who bought items from us previously can send them back to be upcycled and personalised. We’re also going to be launching a series of capsules that are fully based around upcycling, using military surplus. The third big thing we’re doing this year is launching a production arm to the business, CC Industries, which will be focused on the music industry; creating content and music videos to promote artists.
What are the differences in creativity between fashion and music?
In my opinion, designing a garment and writing a song is essentially the same process. I’ll have a rough idea with a song that will give me the overall melody and structure, and with a garment it will give me the overall silhouette where I can fill in the details.
One of our most recent collections was based around Anti-Western intervention within the Middle East. That was something that I had written a song about first, but it was something I was so angry and passionate about that I translated it into a collection.
Are your strong beliefs what separates you from other brands? Is that how you put your personality in your work?
It’s fundamental to me that there is a broader story; that there’s an idea that goes beyond the product and seasonal trends.
Where do you want to be in the future?
I would really like to set a president for a new type of model within the fashion industry that’s more sustainable for the environment and the progression of the industry. So, it’s important to me to develop a model beyond seasons. I think the seasonal approach to fashion creates a lot of issues within the industry. First of all, it forces people to work to fast which tends to kill creativity. It also results in a lot of waste and irresponsible consumption. Moving away from traditional seasons was the first thing that I started doing to try and separate ourselves from the luxury market. It’s important to me that we create more value around production for the customer, so that it’s something that they keep wearing forever rather than throwing it away. This can be in the quality of the garment, how transitional the piece it. I think bringing in the personalisation helps to create more of a connection with the customer. I think the broader the story that we put into each collection creates more value around it for the customer.
Why get into fashion?
The fashion industry needs a more anarchist approach, it’s so antiquated and regimented. There’s an old guard within the fashion industry that’s terrified of it progressing, and it’s down to young designers like myself to be able to make that change. I was brought up by a mother who’s a little bit anarchistic. I spent most of my youth going to protests and thats something thats fed into everything I do, whether it’s music of clothes or journalism, its a set of valued that I was brought up with.