“Cycling, a woman in the city – that’s the story of me,” says Johanna Parv, Tallinn-born, London-based designer. While mobility and presentability can often be conceived as antithetical in womenswear, Central Saint Martins graduate’s experimental designs merge functionality with elegance for urban cyclist women.
“Johanna’s designs combine comfort with elegance. It is something that you can cycle to work in and then work the whole day in the office. It does not limit or restrict the wearer in any way,” says Mika Kailes, photographer and a long-time collaborator of Parv’s. Their lockdown project lenses Parv’s collection in action, using deserted streets of London as a stage for their urban dystopia.

With public transport use discouraged, cycling levels have significantly gone up during lockdown in the UK, and Parv’s collection, presented in February, seems to have predicted the trend. Over the course of fashion history, we have seen cycling aestheticised on runways. Amy Molyneaux incorporated bicycles in PPQ’s Fall/Winter 2012 show, and during Spring 2019 shows, amidst the biker short craze, everyone from Jacquemus to Marine Serre offered their iterations of the street style staple. Despite the abundance of instances where the aesthetics of functionality are imitated, the functionality itself, the core of activewear is often lost in sartorial translation. On the other hand, Parv’s collection – as an outcome of societal observation of urban women and incessant experimentation – unifies aesthetics and function.

Freedom of movement in Parv’s designs does not indicate the absence of elegance. The idea of elegance that runs counter to the very conception of any functionality is here incorporated seamlessly in the designs that explore not only functionality but also the idea of dysfunction in stereotypically feminine, purely aesthetic ornamentation of womenswear.
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Upcycled ‘50s handbags and second-hand backpacks are reconstructed into a hybrid, action-friendly alternative. The masterful pattern cutting that allows the incorporation of these bags, “reconstructed and altered for action,” result in asymmetrical, ornamental draping in the absence of bags, devoid of their intended function. Elegance suggested here thrives on the considerations of human ergonomics, and achieves a visual reduction of an underlying intricacy of the designs, resulting in an effortless display of sophistication.

The essence of Parv’s designs can not be reduced to exclusively protective or exclusively ornamental; instead, they propose the new language of elegance which incorporates both – the concept of elegance that blends functionality, femininity, comfort, performance, freedom, adaptability, and ease of mobility. “The movement creates action, and therefore, narrative. The narrative where the body, the clothing and the movement come together – that’s my design, really,” Parv says. “There would not be any need for function if there was no movement.”

Interest in garments in motion is something Parv shares with Kailes. Kailes’ work captures “the in-between, something that feels quite raw but at the same time, quite composed. That interplay is something that I am personally interested in. The human body, our interactions with our garments, or how we interact with space,” the photographer adds.

To mark their collaboration, Parv and Kailes discuss their urban dystopia, lockdown, future of fashion communication, the importance of repurposing existing products, and their love for cycling.
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You have collaborated before this project on Johanna’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection. How did you two meet?
Mika: I was a first-year student at Central Saint Martins at the time, and Johanna approached me in the tube and her first question was what I did and if I wanted to work with her. I immediately said yes. Literally two days after we met, we were viewing show venues.
Johanna: I had received the sponsorship from Beste and was working on my first collection after graduating from the BA course at Central Saint Martins. I saw Mika in the train and instinctively asked if he wanted to help me. And from that moment on, we worked for two weeks on the show together.
Johanna, you designed a collection after graduating from BA. Why did you decide to go back to Central Saint Martins after working in the industry?
Johanna: I was really ambitious and excited to start creating without actually knowing how to. I felt that there was just so much that I had to learn about myself and step towards being more professional. BA was all about creativity, but because of my year in the industry, it made me realise that there was so much that I still didn’t know.
Central Saint Martins is notorious for prioritising creative aspects of the design process rather than the commercial or business side. What did you take away from your MA degree?
Johanna: MA allows you to get to know yourself and communicate with others. The course encouraged me to look at myself as an individual, question what my brand is about, and if I am a brand at all. You are a designer there to learn how to design, but also how to make money or work for other people. You have to go back to who are and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
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What drew you to each other’s work?
Mika: Even going back to Johanna’s BA collection, there is a sense of a strong, unapologetic woman, and that’s what I was drawn to. Me, coming from Finland and Johanna coming from Estonia, there was an instant connection. Her work spoke to me on many levels, conceptually and in terms of taste. Her MA collection is an elevation towards finding the footing on the thin line between creativity and commerce. The focus of my work is not necessarily product-based but often the question is whether there is a purpose in creativity if the result does not have a function or a purpose. Designs don’t need to be mass-produced and sold, but for me, the purpose has to be there.
Johanna: I think it is about spirituality and the understanding, and in general, the way we see the world and people. I trust Mika, and somehow, I feel related to him. We value similar things. There is something symbolic about it, he is not doing things just for the sake of doing them.
Mika: I trust my instinct when it comes to my work. For me, a powerful image is an image that does not need an explanation; you either understand it or you don’t. I try to convey things that I believe in or things that are important to me. Of course, I am drawn to beauty, the sculptural and painterly elements of the photographs, but it often happens naturally, quite instinctively.
Johanna, your designs are conceptual and experimental, using and incorporating upcycled materials into new designs. But there is also a strong wearable aspect, the functionality that is often lost in highly conceptual creations. For example, designers have often based their collection on an aestheticised idea of cycling or sports but the functionality aspect is often absent. How do you ensure that functionality and conceptuality coexist in your designs in a way that one doesn’t overpower the other?
Johanna: It is a result of long experimentation. Creating functional, wearable garment requires a lot of experimentation but you must have a need to say something. My work comes from a very personal place. I am living it through. Cycling, a woman in the city – that’s the story of me.
Mika, your work revolves heavily around exploring and capturing abstract ‘unwearable’ fashion, garments that push beyond conventional definitions of fashion. Right now, the fashion industry is going through a change, catalysing discussions surrounding the purpose of production. Where do you stand in regards to the debate on art and fashion? Do we need clothes that have no life beyond the catwalk?
Mika: We have so many products, so I think it is important for young designers to propose new ideas, new ways of thinking rather than just producing another collection. It has to be meaningful, you have to strive for a change through that, and I think that should come first and collection should follow. There needs to be a systematic change. Ready-to-wear prices are very high but it is still not seen as an art form, and then it becomes elitists. Who are we designing for? Are young designers just designing for the elite?
Johanna: I think the emotion and the experience are also valuable aspects of any project. It is a business at the end of the day, but before business, there is creativity that needs to be expressed. Often, young designers’ collections do not even get to the point of becoming a product, they stay on the level of art.
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Tell me a bit about the project which you have shot it the empty streets of London. How did lockdown affect or shift the ideas that you wanted to convey?
Mika: Initially, the idea was to see the collection in action. It started with the movement, we had the idea of bringing the bicycle in and capturing how clothes would actually function in the streets. When the UK went into the lockdown, the concept shifted.
How did the project reflect the tumultuous events of this year?
Mika: The project explored the place of a working woman in this deserted city. When we were shooting it, it was the first time that we were able to go outside and see the first signs of women returning to work again, there was this sense of coming back to things.
Johanna: As Mika mentioned, the initial idea was to shoot garments in the real environment, with a natural, urban backdrop. But because it was empty, the city became a sort of stage, it became its own character. So the project shifted to being about the woman and the city.
Mika: It became another dimension. The empty streets became far more surreal, dystopian in some way. For most of us, including models, it was the first time since lockdown that we had a sense of normality. Before that point, we had all been sitting at home.
Your work as a photographer and as a designer, respectively, revolves around movement. Johanna’s work explores the idea of mobility and Mika captures motion. Why is movement such an important consideration for you?
Mika: I like to capture the in-between, something that feels quite raw but at the same time quite composed. Capturing the sense of movement brings out that visceral element. That interplay is something that I am personally interested in. The human body, our interactions with our garments, or how we interact with space. Johanna: There is something so human and natural about movement. Mika, do you think it has to do something with questioning time?
Mika: Yes, it is about capturing the fleeting moment. Some of my images are often surreal, even incidental where the body looks almost inhuman. But even when the body is abstracted, the movement that the image captures has the feel of it, and there is something human about what comes through.
Johanna: For me, the movement creates action, and therefore, narrative. The narrative where the body, the clothing and the movement come together – that’s my design, really. There would not be any need for function if there was no movement.
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In light of Covid-19, Johanna’s collection has arguably gained new relevance. Stuck working from home, we all have been wearing nothing but sweatpants and hoodies. Johanna’s collection proposes the transitional alternative for people going back to work: functionality and comfort, plus the elegance that does not come short of that of traditional office wear. What do you think women will be wearing after lockdown? And how does your collection fit into that?
Johanna: I have always been and still am excited and interested in tailored clothing, traditional office wear. But with my designs, I think more about the ergonomic side, giving the design the function to transform and adapt to different times of the day. It is about comfort, it allows freedom of movement, but it considers the side of presentability. Often, simple, stretchy one-size-fits-all clothes are not necessarily the most elegant ones, so I worked on the patterns in a way that the clothes would work on different types of people.
Mika: Johanna’s designs combine comfort with elegance. It is something that you can cycle to work in and then work the whole day in the office. It does not limit or restrict the wearer in any way.
The collection incorporates the Action Handbags, reconstructed vintage bags that you have adopted to optimise mobility. Where did the initial idea of these hybrid bags come from? And why did you decide to repurpose existing products?
Johanna: That grew out of my concept very naturally. The bags are almost a separate collection inside the collection. I was looking at the idea of elegance and the functionality of it – what does elegance mean to me, what has been the meaning of it historically. How have products that, for instance, were produced in the ‘50s, changed? How are they different from what we need now. The handbag is a symbol of desire and need for me. I started thinking about how I could adjust or change the product that was designed at different times for different needs and bring it in the urban setting of today. It was almost like a collage of thoughts.
The first vintage bag that came to me was very instinctive. I saw a crocodile handbag on the shelve. I was looking at it and it was looking at me. I just felt a desire for it. I knew I had nothing to do with it because I would have never carried a handbag like that, but it looked so beautiful, so obscure… It looked like my woman, the woman I was designing for. So I just bought it.
I thought it was a waste of money because I would never wear this handbag, but then, I realised that I could transform it into something useful, something functional. That was basically what I was trying to say with my collection: that something elegant and feminine can become functional in a new context. It is about working with the idea of how much we can do with things that already exist, how as designers we can make them useful again. New and the old should proudly exist next to each other.
Mika, you have mentioned before that your personal wardrobe is mainly made up of vintage, second-hand, or charity shop finds. What do you think about the idea of repurposing existing, discarded products?
Mika: I think it is very important. Like I mentioned earlier, we have so many existing products and materials, and I think so much of it can be repurposed whether it is through recycling or incorporating existing products into something new like Johanna has done with her bags. Investing in that sector is definitely worth it, instead of producing huge amounts of new material, which often leads to lower quality products.
Slowing down the pace through that and promoting the idea of second-hand and vintage is crucial. Because, in a lot of countries, there is still a stigma surrounding second-hand clothing. It is good to see the change. Not very long ago, in order to have labelled yourself ‘fashionable,’ you needed runway.
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Johanna, you have referred to your work as something that’s created ‘responsibly.’ Do you think the term sustainable should be replaced with the word ‘responsible’?
Johanna: Sustainability is a method, it is part of the process. It’s a responsibility and we should produce less with more function and purpose. For my collection, for instance, I could have produced all the gloves and bags from scratch. But why would we do it if the product already exists? It is actually what I learned from MA, there is nothing shameful in using existing materials. And it does not mean that you can not do it yourself.
Mika: It often has to do with greenwashing. And sometimes, when someone labels themselves as a sustainable designer, it just puts them automatically in the box, with an expectation that their clothes are these organic shades, etc. There needs to be a new approach. The collections are not about sustainability, they just happen to be sustainable.
Johanna, this is not the first time you have explored the idea of an urban cyclist in your designs, and you have mentioned that it comes from a personal place. Why cycling?
Johanna: Why do I like cycling? It just makes me so happy, it’s cheaper, it’s healthier, it’s better for the environment, it gives you so much freedom. I am so impatient. After four years in London, I was so exhausted and sad, there was something missing in my life. Cycling was like a new light of hope that it would be possible to live in this big city.
Mika: When I was a kid, people knew me as this guy who always cycled no matter what the weather. During lockdown, I rediscovered cycling, and through that discovered the city in a new light. Everything is more accessible, I feel free.
Due to lockdown, we have come to realise the significance of fashion communication. Do you think this focus on the online and digital experience of fashion will continue post-pandemic?
Mika: The importance of that has been growing regardless. We have seen that during lockdown, things still continued, illustrating the power of how we can adapt and continue building our visions through digital platforms. I don’t know if digital fashion weeks and collections launched during lockdown were successful, but I think it is a process, and we are definitely going in that direction. Because that is how we live, how we consume images – we live through our phones. That’s how we might know about an exhibition or about a collection. It is through what designers put out and create digitally. Going to the store is becoming a smaller part of how we consume fashion and art. That’s where the future is headed I think, but we are still adjusting.
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It is understandably difficult to foresee the future in the ever-changing times we live in but what are your plans?
Mika: I am about to begin my final year at Central Saint Martins. I am excited to get back to my work.
Johanna: I want to keep working, all the time. I would like to develop who I am. There is so much to do. But also, it is important that the ideas I am working on are actually realised, that the garments perform their function in the real world. Also, we will keep supporting and promoting cycling! (Laughs).
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