Although she has worked for brands such as Maison Margiela or Celine, Masha Popova openly admits not being in love with the fashion industry. What has truly captivated her is the possibility to create messages and generate debates through a language that does not require words. She works on the mannequin and prefers everything that denies symmetry and perfection. She prefers to design “on her own terms”.
Let’s go back to your first approach to fashion. You studied at Central Saint Martins, where you have just completed your Master in Textiles for Fashion. But I guess your first contact with fashion took place previously. How did your admiration for this industry arise and what was it that captivated you?
I didn’t really have an admiration for the industry – I still don’t. I love the craft part, the design and making process, creating the story, etc. But this has nothing to do with the industry. I feel clothes are a way to express certain things in life and we can use them as a tool to do it. I didn’t get into this because I was dreaming of working in a fashion house surrounded by luxury or to have a glamorous, fashionable life.
Quite the opposite to the 1990s and 2000s in Ukraine, where I am from, where everything that had to do with luxury was tacky and stunk with bad taste. I didn’t have much knowledge of fashion history or the current state of the industry and had never seen a real fashion magazine until my late teen years. I think this background definitely gave me a different angle about fashion.
Essential figures such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano have been part of this prestigious London school. Not everyone is accepted by this university, which requests several demonstrations of your work to assess your candidacy. Is there as much rivalry and competitiveness as we think?
Of course, there is a lot of pressure and surely many people feel very competitive. Many students graduate every year and you hear only about a few. But what I learned is that you can’t be the best and people who try it often get lost along the way. You have to focus on trying to be the best you can be and try to find your voice and develop your language. I think if you are really catching the wave of a joy making your collection, that’s the winning direction.
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I think the most important thing is to enhance your personal style and be able to communicate it through the garments. In your case, prints and draped designs are two of your strengths. What other aspects would you highlight of your aesthetic imaginary?
I think you pointed really well my strengths, or at least what I enjoy the most doing. I love working on the mannequin building up the shape. I definitely let myself be led by this. I love the rustle of fabric against the body, the movement. My clothes are nothing about linearity or symmetry. To me, perfect symmetry or a perfect fit look flat or contrived. If I had to describe it in a few words, they’d be irreverent elegance, decadent sportswear. It is sexy dressing but on its own terms.
In the summer of 2018, a few months before you started your Master in Textiles for Fashion, you recognised in an interview “being specifically focused on continuing to create.” Is this still the leitmotif that gives meaning to your life? What has changed since then in your way of understanding fashion?
It’s quite funny that you quote this. It sounds a little bit naive. There are many things that give meaning to my life, for example, love. But definitely creating things and translating my emotions are some of them too. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want to, but when they do, and sometimes in an unexpected way, they can give you goosebumps and an influx of energy.
What has changed since then is that I was just creating a fantasy, clothes that looked good in my opinion but that I wouldn’t wear. Now, if I don’t want to wear what I make, or if it doesn’t make me feel powerful or sexy (or any other strong emotion), it means it isn’t good enough. At the end of the day, fashion is a message we use to communicate visually with the world. And if the message isn’t powerful enough, what’s the point in sending it?
I would like to delve into the colour palette and shape composition of your garments. Your Bachelor’s Degree was specifically focused on fashion print. You opted for this option, instead of the proposals aimed at menswear and womenswear. Do you think that a print is capable of representing a person’s personality?
I don’t think I actually fitted in the Fashion Print of CSM realm. At least, I felt that way. I was kind of convinced to do print instead of womenswear by tutors on my foundation because of the way I worked and my use of colour. But surely it was the best decision for me. Printing is a very powerful media to express personality, mood and energy.
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If you had to define yourself through a print, how would it be like?
Weird, multilayered, colourful and distorted.
I notice a certain psychedelia in your clothes but always presented in a structured and premeditated way. Tell us about your creative process. Do you follow certain phases or do you let yourself be carried away by the emotions you feel at any moment?
There are certain phases, of course. But when I catch the wave, I’m definitely getting carried away by the process. And it gets quite unstructured. I start with a lot of research and then I think through sketching. I work on the mannequin mostly, and simultaneously I try to translate the idea through textile experimentation. It takes lots of mistakes and unsuccessful trials before you come up with something new and unique. It is a very organic process for me, like constructing a puzzle.
I find a similarity between my process and the cut-up technique that became popular in the late 1950s, influenced by American Beat writer, William Burroughs. The core of this whole technique lies in the surface of unpredictability that forms awkward relationships between ideas. But this essentially enhances the unconscious intelligence where first-hand couplings become startling and even provocative. This gives the imagination of a new, less constructed way of working.
Nylon, denim, and even a dip-dyed embroidery feather suit. There is no doubt that you enjoy experimenting and trying new techniques.
That’s what I love the most. I find the greatest joy figuring out new ways of printing or working with denim or any other fabrics techniques. I feel a little bit like a scientist doing many trials before achieving a new result.
“Fashion is a message we use to communicate visually with the world. And if the message isn’t powerful enough, what’s the point in sending it?”
Let’s go back to your brief (and intense) journey as a designer. Marques’Almeida, Celine, Maison Margiela… Wow, your resume is amazing. Being so young, few people can say to have collaborated with such renowned brands. How did you become part of such powerful corporations?
Maison Margiela comes to CSM (and a few other schools) every year and selects around twenty students for John Galliano to make the final selection himself. It was quite an intense process – so was the time there. With Celine, I got a little help from Edward Meadham. He told Daniel Lee (who was working at Celine back then) that there was a talented girl who wanted to intern there (or something like that), and a couple of days later, I had an interview with a member of the design team. M’A was my first-ever internship before I started my BA. I guess they just needed free hands, so it wasn’t that hard.
Your first experiences as an intern were in brands where perfection and a sense of responsibility are two essential requirements. What surprised you the most pleasantly in your collaboration for these companies? And the most unpleasant?
At Margiela specifically, I was impressed by how respected and important interns were in the house. It was very exciting to be part of every stage of the process, and we all loved the dinners held by John Galliano on several different occasions. Apart from earning almost no money and waking up some mornings feeling only half alive after working sixteen hours sometimes and partying, of course, I have nothing to complain about. Of course, there were a few dramatic moments along the way. It is fun to remember and laugh about them now.
Looking carefully, I recognize certain references that evoke me to these Maisons. Almeida’s respect for colour, John Galliano’s deconstruction… Do you think these experiences have imprinted their essence on your imagination?
I think that the whole point of doing internships in brands that you like is to learn directly from the people you admire. I think that’s why you see some resemblance. Another reason I wanted to intern in Maison Margiela was to see the amazing full Margiela archive they have in-house. Every single collection was there up until the last one. No museum or exhibition can ever offer that.
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I am sure that working for Galliano has been a before-and-after moment in your vision of fashion. Am I wrong?
Not quite, actually. I fell in love with Galliano’s work rather later. It grew on me while I was there. Nevertheless, there is no doubt he is one of the most important figures in fashion history, and I am incredibly honoured to be able to have learnt from him.
Now, you work as a design assistant for the Italian brand Fiorucci. A much more commercial bet, famous for incorporating angels into their garments. Is it easy to work for a company whose aesthetics is far from what you offer through your own brand?
Well, first of all, Fiorucci’s legacy is quite amazing. Not only for their graphics and prints, which were truly amazing and made the brand but also for the whole universe around it: the people, parties, magazines, etc. The idea of being a part of an Italian label’s return to London’s fashion scene was quite exciting.
I was rehired by Annabel Lacuna, who I worked with at Margiela, who just got an offer to be the head of womenswear there. Obviously, it didn’t turn out as expected. It was a short period of time and, to be honest, compared to previous experiences at Celine and Margiela, quite underwhelming, but also very chill (work-wise). The funny part is, there wasn’t a single mannequin in the studio and all work was just computer-based or research.
Focusing on your personal project while working for another brand isn’t easy. What does each facet mean to you? And how do you manage time?
I haven’t had to combine those two together yet, but it’s something I will have to face for sure. Working for another brand as a creative consultant is something I’d love to do.
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We have talked about imagination and creativity, but sales are essential for achieving business success. How do you market your clothes beyond the catwalks?
Honestly, I feel quite clueless in the business part at this point. Hopefully it will come with experience. I didn’t really market my clothes, and so far, this collection is doing the job on its own (thanks to Instagram). The storytelling extends to the marketing I guess.
Perseverance and patience. Two essential qualities for every entrepreneur. What others would you highlight?
Integrity and a clear vision.
Where would you like to lead your project, now that you have finished your studies?
Now that I have finished my studies, especially in such a complicated time (basically graduating in lockdown), I need to think of how I want to work and on what terms. I don’t have a business plan or a plan of action. Even before the pandemic, it was quite unpredictable to know how things would turn (which is even more exciting in my opinion). I think I want to take things slow and make sure everything I make has great value to me creatively. Having received a lot of private requests for making unique pieces, it is definitely something I am intended to do once we are out of lockdown.
I want to keep focused on developing innovative textile techniques combining craft and new sustainable technologies. I don’t want to rush with new collections or presentations. There is no point in neglecting the work that has been done, I want to let this collection live longer. We all understand that seasonal collections and the whole system have to be reconsidered. But for now, all I can do is enjoy boredom and the free time while I can.
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