How Jonathan Anderson Became One Of Fashion’s Most In-Demand Designers
“I know this sounds ridiculous, but recently I’ve been fascinated by the sound the wind makes when it goes through trees,” says Jonathan Anderson in a deep drawl, surprisingly sonorous given the sweet mien his baby-blue eyes and boy-band hair suggest. The Irish designer and I are in the middle of a Zoom call at 7:30am UK time, talking about trees. “It’s the first time I worked out that it’s actually a collective of leaves making the sound, and I thought ‘What would it be like if I were to break that down in music for a show, to take a few sounds we’re familiar with and dissect them into something atmospheric, you know what I mean’?”
The Covid-19 pandemic, while responsible for many horrors, has also provided some unexpected blessings. For the first time in seven years, Anderson is not on the Eurostar headed on his weekly journey from his Victorian home in east London to his Place Saint-Sulpice office in Paris. Instead, like almost everyone in the world, Anderson has spent much of his time in lockdown taking a magnifying glass to his surroundings.
At the age of 36 Anderson is the widely feted creative director of his eponymous label JW Anderson, and of Loewe, the LVMH-owned Spanish heritage brand famed for its supple leather accessories. Few designers helm two brands any longer—the Nineties saw a wave, including John Galliano, Marc Jacobs and the late Karl Lagerfeld—and even fewer manage to sustain the momentum of both.
Instead, Anderson’s accolades continue to stack up year after year. In 2015, he won the top prize in both men’s and womenswear categories at the British Fashion Council awards, an unprecedented feat. He is also a permanent jury member for the LVMH Prize and was named a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum by former UK prime minister Theresa May in 2019. To call him an overachiever would be an understatement; he once even described his own ambition as “Machiavellian.” “Of course there’s an obsession to be the best; otherwise, why bother?” he shrugs.
The Importance Of Making
What struck me repeatedly throughout our conversation was Anderson’s hyper-awareness both of his own character and the cultural zeitgeist, forever using his stage to draw attention to the many collaborators and craftsmen behind his work. “It’s imperative after [this pandemic] that we start to better understand how we make things and who makes them and not take them for granted,” he says. “When we know the story of a product that’s made well, we’ll buy things that will last longer.”
For example, at JW Anderson this year, his team has developed a new double-sided fabric for bags that uses 40 recycled bottles each. Traditional fishing basket weavers in England are also being employed to create the label’s upcoming straw totes. At Loewe, Japanese potter Takuro Kuwata—who was a finalist in the 2018 Loewe Craft Prize, a competition Anderson started in 2016 to spotlight artisans around the world—collaborated on Anderson’s forthcoming fall-winter 2020 collection by making bejewelled panels that appear on dresses and bell charms resembling sea urchins on soft clutches.
Anderson’s fascination with craft in all its forms, be it knitting, weaving or woodwork, is well-documented, but ceramics is by far his favourite, and he is an avid collector of bowls, figurines and buttons by the likes of Hans Coper and Lucie Rie. “Pottery is a kind of physical output where you have to connect the brain to the hand in a very technical way,” says Anderson, who launches into a stream of consciousness when impassioned. “It’s a difficult skill and such a tangible kind of art; it speaks to me.”
In defiance of the current offerings in fashion that, like sushi, seem to only come in two varieties—either very expensive or very cheap—the designer has become known for creating well-made pieces with an everyday ease and prices that are not quite so eye-popping as those of most luxury brands. It’s not so far-fetched, then, that he found a natural partner in Uniqlo in 2017. Anderson says he admires Tadashi Yanai, president of Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, for his meticulousness and determined vision of balancing quality and affordability. He lauds Yanai as “one of the most inspiring people I’ve met in this industry”.
From The Mundane To The Fantastic
“I loved that I was able to make something my sister, who’s a pharmacist, can afford, because not everyone can spend 1,000 euros on a bag,” says Anderson, who alternates between black, white and grey Uniqlo T-shirts and plain jeans as his daily uniform.
“As a boy, and this was before Uniqlo existed, I bought all my clothes at Marks & Spencer,” he laughs, his Northern Irish twang flitting in and out of his speech. “I’m not very good at dressing up. When I do, I look silly.” Quite the contrast to the statement pieces which comprise most of his collections, I point out. “I think if I were statement, it’d be very difficult to produce statement,” he says. “I think you need to have a certain neutrality to explore fantasy, you know what I mean?”
Anderson grew up in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland and was raised by his mother, who was a schoolteacher, and father, who was the captain of the Irish rugby team, amid a dark period of chaos and car bombings in the Eighties and Nineties. U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday might as well have been the soundtrack of his youth, so Anderson had to rely on escapism to buoy him through this sombre childhood, an element that continues to be found throughout his work today (Loewe’s hedonistic, tie-dye-splattered Paula’s Ibiza capsules, inspired by memories from his family’s vacations, are case in point).
He was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, which in hindsight may have encouraged him to pursue other forms of expression like acting, which he studied, at one point moving to Washington DC to train at the city’s Studio Theatre. He was entranced by the sets and the romanticism that Shakespeare offered (“He’s Britain’s best asset”), and it was the costumes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that eventually won him over to the side of fashion.
After studying menswear at the London College of Fashion, he was discovered by Miuccia Prada’s right hand and fashion coordinator, the late stylist Manuela Pavesi, to become a visual merchandiser for the Italian house for two years. Did he ever think of joining the brand? “I struggled with authority,” he says, his tone belying the cheeky smile of someone whose rebellion has paid off. “That’s the reason I started my own brand: because I realised I couldn’t work for someone else.”
See also: A Fashion Revolution In The Midst: How Coronavirus Has Impacted Sustainability In Design
I think you need to have a certain neutrality to explore fantasy.
— Jonathan Anderson
Pushing The Envelope
JW Anderson—which began as a gender-skewing menswear label in 2008 and later expanded into womenswear, becoming the most popular show of London Fashion Week—is characterised by the designer as a “cultural agitator”. Casually decorative pieces like spangled puffball dresses and giant trapeze-shaped trenches are mixed with idiosyncratic elements or tinged with irony. Remember the slime-green snails painted on jackets in his fall-winter 2016 menswear collection? Well, it was a comment on the breakneck speed at which our world operates. “I like toying with the idea of function and decoration, and flipping them around,” he says.
His studied approach is also what keeps even his most experimental products from verging on gimmickry. His in-demand Cap Bag, a cap-shaped cross-body bag shaped like a baseball cap and made at a Spanish factory with hand-finished details, is a prime example. “It very much follows Marcel Duchamps’ principles of contemporary art—taking something that already exists and giving it a different purpose, or no purpose at all.”
Anderson’s finesse and depth of knowledge under his renegade take on fashion caught the eyes of LVMH executives Delphine Arnault and Pierre-Yves Roussel, the conglomerate’s ex-fashion chief, in charge of scouting for new talent the time, who bought a stake in JW in 2013 and simultaneously invited him to revive the sleepy 1846 Spanish leather goods house Loewe as its new creative director. (A number of designers had tried before, including Narciso Rodriguez, Stuart Vevers, now of Coach, and José Enrique Oña Selfa, with less success.)
A tour of Loewe’s factories in Madrid, where Anderson saw the skill of its leather workers and a profusion of resources, convinced him to take the job. There, Anderson created what he calls “a cultural landscape”. Compared to his younger label, Loewe is a bucolic vista of elegant silhouettes, easy yet exaggerated swathes of knits, asymmetric Victorian lace dresses and occasionally raw, unpolished hemlines. He made it his mission to highlight traditional handicrafts in high fashion, and his determination paid off—Loewe sales have seen consistent double-digit growth since Anderson took the reins.
Altogether, Anderson churns out an astonishing 18 collections per year, making him one of the most prolific designers in the business. He credits his own naivety for bolstering him against the fear of becoming overwhelmed, but he also stresses that his two strong, loyal teams have helped him maintain balance. Dedicating three days a week to JW and two to Loewe, he has separate staffs and phones to keep his focus straight. “You cannot win a match with one player,” he says. “I think I definitely got that from my dad, this idea of teamwork and elevating those around you.”
Perhaps one of his most endearing qualities is Anderson’s adamant refusal to hog all the credit. A self-named curator, as opposed to a traditional designer “like Azzedine Alaïa, who could cut the perfect dress”, Anderson is a prism through which all the references he collects are refracted and spun into garments. His impactful fashion shows are akin to an exhibition by an avid scrapbooker.
You cannot take ownership of things, but you can recreate known subjects in your own point of view. It's like the passing on of information.
— Jonathan Anderson
“My brain doesn’t function like Alaïa’s. It’s always been about getting the best craftspeople who have a similar taste level into a room and just putting things together that are my vision of what the world should look like,” he says. Open, proud and reverent of all his sources, from potters to musicians, he bristles at the current culture’s obsessions with ownership, preferring his work to have a life outside his mind and become public domain. “You cannot take ownership of things, but you can recreate known subjects in your own point of view. It’s like the passing on of information.” Don’t be surprised, then, if you hear a rustle of leaves in the soundtrack of his next show.
I ask if he feels like he’s on a roll, that everything he touches seems to turn to gold lately (this autumn sees the launch of yet another collaboration, this time with Moncler) but Anderson laughs, as if it’s too early to count his successes. “The thing about fashion or film or music is there is a window in which people will give you their attention, and I feel like the minute I know where I’m at, I’ll find it difficult to go forward,” he says. “You can never be too comfortable. It has to be about what’s next, you know what I mean?”
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