Fashion

Womenswear Designer Christian Cowan-Sanluis Has More to Offer Than the Selfie Hat

We met up with Christian shortly before his London Fashion Week presentation to talk about tacky influences and what it's like to be a rising star while you're still in the middle of your fashion degree.

by Bertie Brandes
23 February 2015, 8:30pm

Christian Cowan-Sanluis in his studio.

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Photos by Carl Wilson.

It's hard being famous, because you never shake the fear that people will only remember you for one thing.

Robbie Williams, for example, must worry he'll only be recalled as the man who soundtracked the moment three of your distant relatives were lowered slowly into the earth. Cheryl Fernandez-Versini will wonder if she'll go down in history as the woman who battered a toilet attendant. Britney will forever be bald, ramming an umbrella into a car window. And Christian Cowan-Sanluis, the London-based womenswear designer, will always be the man who invented the "selfie hat."

Except, in truth, he probably won't; he'll probably also be remembered for single-handedly making a pink glitter tuxedo chic. But the selfie hat is how you know him and his fashion creations, so the selfie hat is how we'll begin.

One of the walls in Christian's studio

"It was on 50 Cent," Christian says, and pauses. "50 Cent wore it on international television." Just let that sink in: 50 Cent wearing a pink, glittery hat designed specifically to help you take photos of yourself. Lady Gaga, Rita Ora, and Charlie XCX have all worn his clothes, too, and he's increasingly being commissioned to make special pieces for celebrities.

Dreamed up in a meeting with his now-sponsor Acer, the selfie hat was sadly a one off—"It was meant to be a press stunt that might get some coverage on the Mail Online, and it ended up everywhere"—but headwear remains central to Christian's collections.

"I love Amish hats," he explains, "and because the whole Amish thing is about the simple life, I took the hat and made it huge and really flamboyant."

What I've already realized after spending less than an hour with Christian is that he's the living embodiment of a character from an American daytime TV show about outrageous, fabulous fashionistas, probably called Outrageous, Fabulous Fashionistas. Or maybe Death by Chic. Apparently Wilhemina from Ugly Betty was an "instrumental" inspiration, for instance, and it shows.

"I've never been the kind of designer who's inspired by Bauhaus architecture—I'm very proud of my cringe references," Christian explains, adding that he grew up thinking Girls Aloud were "awesome." "I was 14 when Lady Gaga broke, and I thought she was the coolest shit ever because I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a farm. The internet was my life."

The result of his "cringe references" is a clothing line that looks like it could be the forgotten wardrobe for a Pamela Anderson cameo in The Fifth Element. There are the Amish hats, tiny pink toweling hot pants, chaps, metallic pinstripe skirt suits, and enough glitter to bring Victoria Beckham out in hives.

Looks from Christian's new collection.

"I was obsessed with Legally Blonde, Paris Hilton, Britney back in the day—all of that," Christian tells me. "I was never that into Tumblr; I was more like an internet stalker. I would Google people non-stop. I really fell in love with that fake, American Barbie culture. I know it's not the nicest underneath, but on the outside it's hilarious. I'm so pro-cosmetic surgery. Not in the sense that people should feel like they have to do it for someone else—I'd never want that. But I love the idea that you can do it for yourself and change."

Christian grew up the youngest of 11, with nine step-siblings and a fair amount of parental pressure. "My mom wanted me to be a GP—my whole family is in medicine," he says. "I hated growing up—hated it. It was that classic thing of being a gay kid in a private school that was all focused around sports."

Looks from Christian's new collection.

Skipping school at 15 to assist make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench, and dipping his toe into London nightlife, helped Christian finally realize he was always destined to be more Vogue than verrucas. It was then that he started making outfits to wear to clubs Boombox (2.0) and East Bloc.

"I remember one time I bedazzled these sex harnesses so they were covered in big diamonds and stars, and underneath I wore a T-shirt with a Hindu god on it and leopard print jeans with platforms. Then I took off the jeans and I had hot pants below. And I had a spiky arm harness." And breathe.

After sixth form he got a place at the London College of Fashion, where he's currently studying womenswear. I assume, out loud, that everyone in his class hates him for being so successful. "I don't know!" he insists. "I think because I always have to turn down parties to work full time on this that people assume I'm saying no because I'm being sassy, which is not the case."

A hat from Christian's new collection.

It must be semi-weird going to lessons in the day to learn how to be a fashion designer, and then going home to make outfits for Lady Gaga and Rita Ora. However, Christian doesn't really even entertain the thought of dropping out, which will probably keep his mom off his back. (In fairness, the more we talk, the less she sounds like your average pushy parent: "My mom's glam," says Christian. "She's called Mercedes, and when she was younger she had super long black hair and used to wear black pencil skirts and little white tops. She's 100 percent one of my influences.")

Christian might enjoy talking about his glam mom, but it's only when we get onto the subject of my personal life idol, Courtney Stodden, that his face truly lights up. "Pink, tight, and sparkly" is what he can see her in, or maybe on a Playboy cover? "Absolute dream. Literally a dream."

Courtney manifests all the traits that Christian admires and is something of a poster girl for his AW15 collection, which is all about the American Dream. "This season is kind of a parody of Republicanism," he explains. "Republicans are quite anti-drag queens, but I think drag queens are the epitome of the American dream. Take Ru Paul, for example—his family were immigrants and he's now a multi-millionaire international star. It's basically a joke version of the presidential campaign with rainbow gay pride pinstripe and a glittery presidential stamp of approval."

Rifling through the rail, Christian pulls out a little white toweling halterneck. "I wanted to take the piss out of them being really wholesome and going running with their dogs, so I've got their gym gear, too." His hand stops again on a fluffy white jacket. "Oh, and there's also the shaved poodle, of course."

For the show itself, naturally Christian's concept goes beyond the usual "let's be groundbreaking and stand some of the models on plinths" idea.

"There are two parties in the collection running against each other, and at the presentation people can vote," he explains. "I never want to do a standard show. I can't wait until I have a huge budget; I always have these ideas that would cost hundreds of thousands of [dollars] to produce."

While the budget might not be there yet, the amount of support Christian's getting from the press means those days surely can't be far off.

As we wrap up the interview, I ask if he was ever obsessed with the reigning queen of Americana, HRH Barbie. "I wasn't; I actually destroyed my stepsister's Barbies," he laughs. "I would burn them. I blew them up with my stepbrother. And her Furbies."

Wilhemina would be so proud.

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