The Reshuffled Culture of J.W. Anderson
The Reshuffled Culture of J.W. Anderson
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date January 21, 2019
In fashion, the ability to curate references and cultivate ideas from them reigns supreme. While we immediately jump to current cultural juggernauts—Virgil Abloh, Demna Gvaslia, etc.—Jonathan Anderson’s unrivaled curatorial eye need not go unmentioned. Over the past ten years Anderson’s eccentric, irreverent and quite frankly child-like collections have catapulted him into the upper echelons of the fashion sphere. Through his award winning eponymous label and celebrated overhaul of Spanish luxury leather house Loewe, Anderson’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. While the ability to sample and reinterpret youth culture runs rampant in today’s fashion, it is Anderson’s ability to sample culture at the speed of the internet that has garnered him a rare combination of critical and financial success. Where some designers embrace culture, Anderson elevates its energy—to unexpected and fantastical results.
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Born in The Loup, a small village in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Anderson grew up on a farm. His mother was an English teacher at the local elementary school and his father, Willie Anderson, was the captain of the Irish national rugby team. Despite spending his childhood in a rural setting, Anderson had numerous outlets into the world of finer things. After international rugby matches, his father would return home with unique presents from his travels abroad which Anderson attributes to his curiosity and worldliness. Meanwhile, Anderson’s grandfather worked for a textile company that specialized in camouflage and his grandmother would turn leftover scraps from the company’s factory into lavish bedspreads. “So I think there’s always been this obsession with fabric. There is something that is so magical about it because it lasts forever,” he said to The Guardian in 2017.
Despite a seemingly picturesque childhood, Anderson grew up during a violent, politically fraught time. Referred to as The Troubles, 3,600 people were killed and over 50,000 injured during the period of civil unrest where the unionist, predominantly Protestant majority fought to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom while the nationalist and republican, predominantly Catholic minority fought to become part of the Republic of Ireland. “It was a very difficult period. Car bombs, a town getting blown up. It was awful, and really confusing as a child to live through that, but it toughened me up. I don’t take anything for granted because I know that life is like a fuse,” he said to The Guardian in 2015. The Troubles not only forced Anderson to develop the thick skin and fortitude needed to make it as a fashion designer, but also—along with struggles in school due to his dyslexia—gave him reason to want to escape his surroundings, if only through MTV and magazines. “I remember once seeing an editorial with huge bag trousers and becoming obsessed with bag trousers. I think all those things knit together. When you’re younger is when you decide who you’re going to be and what your taste levels are going to be,” Anderson said to Matches Fashion in 2018.
While Anderson had an interest in fashion from an early age, he initially pursued a career in acting. He performed in London’s National Youth Music Theatre and at 18 moved to Washington, D.C. to study at the Studio Theater. However, after blowing a Juilliard audition, Anderson realized he didn’t enjoy acting as much as he had thought and ended up moving to Dublin. While back in Ireland, Anderson took a sales position at renowned retailer Brown Thomas where he coincidentally met the late Manuela Pavesi, Miuccia Prada’s legendary fashion coordinator and right hand woman at Prada. Inspired by Pavesi, Anderson moved to London to study menswear at the London College of Fashion, while working for her as a visual merchandiser at Harrods and then Prada. “She had the most incredible taste, and never compromised on anything. That was when I transitioned into wanting to be a designer, because I wanted to be her. I wanted to operate like she did, creatively but in a commercial context,” Anderson said.
By the time Anderson graduated, he had already laid the building blocks for his eponymous label. After consulting for a handful of brands, Anderson launched J.W. Anderson in 2008. Initially focusing solely on menswear, Anderson showed his debut collection off-calendar in London and with the support of Fashion East—a foundation that highlights emerging British talent—showed his Fall/Winter 2009 and Spring/Summer 2010 collections as part of London Fashion Week: Men’s. Those early collections featured a free-for-all approach to garments, silhouettes and details more often associated with womenswear. While the tone may have dissuaded major European department from buying the line, it garnered Anderson an immediate cult following in Japan, Korea and Singapore, where his designs flourished. Soon, the trends migrated to Europe and the U.S. as well.
Anderson’s first collection featured street-ready sleepwear for men (a decade before pajamas became a trend for women) that included nightgowns, pajama tops/bottoms, sheer cardigans and tank tops with plunging necklines. Although some may interpret Anderson’s gender-fluid approach to design as a statement on politics or gender, Anderson never saw it as such. “My issue is that we decided it was only about gender and not about identity. I have never thought differently between a man and a woman. For me it’s about product and it’s about clothing,” he said to Matches Fashion.
In fact, Anderson’s approach to gender is as much about business as it is about his feelings on identity. “The reason I started doing womenswear was because our contact at Liberty liked some menswear t-shirts, so we just translated them into smaller sizes. They were already being worn by women anyway. But, when I look at why we ended up doing womenswear, it was simply to sell more clothes. And we approached it with the logic of not having to buy more material. It was just a very easy way to cut costs,” he said to 032c. Anderson’s expansion into womenswear marked a significant step for his business that resulted in a rapid succession of awards and collaborations. In 2010, following a sponsorship from the British Fashion Council’s NewGen committee, Anderson launched a women’s capsule collection at the behest of his fans. The capsule immediately led to a full-fledged women’s line. Later that year, British brand Sunspel hired Anderson to reinvent its cotton basics.
Only two years later, Anderson was already considered a rising star. In 2012 he won the British Fashion Council’s award for “Emerging Talent, Ready-to-wear” and collaborated with Topshop on a limited-edition collection that sold out in hours. In 2013, he released a second collaborative collection with Topshop, was the guest designer for Versus Versace’s 2014 Resort collection and won “The New Establishment Award” from The British Fashion Council. Within five years in the business, Anderson was a at the forefront of a new generation of designers shaping the future of British fashion.
In September 2013, LVMH bought a minority stake in Anderson’s eponymous label and hired him as the creative director of Spanish brand Loewe. Following the LVMH investment and his new appointment, J.W. Anderson’s stockists quadrupled, transforming the brand from industry darling to international staple nearly overnight.
When LVMH initially approached Anderson, his pitch for the Loewe job was not sketches, but rather a book of 100 images that opened with a beach scene featuring model Kirsten Owen taken by Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia in 1997. “I was like, I don’t have a collection, but I have this image. This person, this beach, right now,” Anderson said to The Guardian. The photo not only helped Anderson land the job but became a central image for Loewe’s marketing campaign. Contextualizing Loewe’s move from Madrid to Ibiza—where Anderson spent childhood holidays—the tone perfectly suited the fashion industry’s current obsession with ‘90s references.
Photo book aside, what set the new Loewe apart was Anderson’s meticulous approach to reinterpreting the brand, including taking a year to build a streamlined and recognizable design language before debuting a collection. “The pencils, the door handles, the style of the press release, the stone of the buildings, the choice of photographer. All of these questions had to be asked, because ultimately, you need to make people forget what the brand looked like before, and get them to believe that the brand was always like this,” he said to The Guardian.
In 2014, Anderson won the British Fashion Council’s “Menswear Designer of the Year” award for his eponymous line and, in 2015, he won the organization’s “Menswear Designer of the Year” and its “Womenswear Designer of the Year” awards at the same time—the first-ever designer to receive both honors simultaneously. WWD estimated that Anderson’s namesake brand was generating $7.5 million in revenue at the time while Loewe grossed approximately $378 million.
Like with his eponymous label, Anderson chose to begin with menswear for his grand unveiling of a reimagined Loewe. After a year of brand development, Anderson opted for a lookbook rather than a runway show—those are reserved for his women’s collections—a theme which continued for every seasonal collection until the Fall/Winter 2019 menswear season. Introducing the key elements that have appeared in every collection since—the exaggerated cuff Fisherman jeans, the striped sailor sweater, the premium leather totes and backpacks–the Spring/Summer 2015 Loewe menswear collection juxtaposed Anderson’s wistful, playful, grown-up children into those very same ‘90s Meisel-esque beach scenes which are central to the brand itself. While more restrained, the childlike Anderson-ian impulses that buck gender and conformity remain the same.
In 2016, Anderson introduced his most unorthodox collaboration to date, live streaming his eponymous label’s Fall/Winter 2016 menswear show on gay dating app Grindr. “I think fashion is a sexy platform as well, ultimately. We’re all humans, so we all have to be somewhat sexually attractive to someone. That’s the name of the game, with clothing,” Anderson said to The New York Times. Never one to settle on a collaborator or a theme for more than an instant, Anderson released a 33-piece collection with Uniqlo inspired by British heritage garments for Fall/Winter 2017, as well as a follow-up collection the season after.
Along with Anderson’s drive to be the best—“I’ve said it before: I am extremely competitive. If you’re in this industry and you’re not, why bother,” he told W Magazine—his ability to balance edginess and commercial success through a diverse mix of collaborators makes the rapid rise of his label a no brainer—especially when considering the financial resources of LVMH. What is surprising, however, is the critical praise he has received along the way, despite the fact that he doesn’t see himself as a designer, let alone an artist. “What I think I ultimately do is curate. I’m curating people, curating campaigns, curating stores, curating collaborations. It is about taking all these components and arranging them in a way that makes sense. It’s like doing brain zen: you have to arrange objects into a certain configuration that feels… right,” he told The Guardian. What Anderson brings to the table is the way in which he juxtaposes and remixes references at the speed needed to keep up with or even outpace pop culture. He stores thousands of images on his phone—from prints and textiles to books to vintage furniture—that he’s constantly rearranging and, while these images don’t necessarily make it into his collections, Anderson’s compulsive habit is indicative of his approach to design.
Many of his garments, and even collections have sampled the aesthetics of other designers, such as the sculptural approach of Rick Owens for his Spring/Summer 2014 menswear collection, or recontexualized silhouettes and details traditionally worn by women in Western culture onto men’s clothes. This approach both reflects Anderson’s obsession with collecting and curating objects and the current Instagram-influenced point in culture, which encourages people to compulsively consume, reshuffle and reinterpret images and ideas instead of carefully considering them. Yet, it’s up for debate whether Anderson’s quick and culturally attuned curatorial eye is a good thing for fashion or the world in general. While some of the most avant-garde designers and artists toil for years honing their perspectives (and crafts), Anderson seems more interested in dialoguing with culture in a way that is fluid and, at times, contradictory.
In fact, one might wonder if, like many #influencers of our age, Anderson is more interested in having his voice heard than in saying something meaningful. “Every single thing that goes into the collection is about microscopic obsessions. As a human being and a creative, the best way to become non-formulaic is to work hard on your input, on your references. Every day you have to be open to like things you’ve never liked before. Every day you have to realize you can’t get too comfortable. It’s like that round table. The minute I get bored with it, or the arrangement on it, I have to add another object to it, to the point where it becomes a cake of objects. But in that cake there is a recipe and formula. If you were to strip it down, it would mean something. What the meaning is, I have no idea. Do I care? Not really,” he said to 032c. While Anderson’s non-formula for keeping J.W. Anderson and Loewe fresh in the minds of consumers has proved successful time and again, his rhetoric can make him seem like an opportunist, willing to say or design anything for success. For every declaration about democratizing fashion or not believing in luxury, Anderson’s brands produce luxury items that only a fraction of the world’s population can afford.
Over the last year, Anderson has claimed a more personal approach to design. For his Spring/Summer 2018 J.W. Anderson menswear collection, he showed a collection of “no fuss fashion basic-ness” featuring clothes he’d feel comfortable wearing on the street and for Fall/Winter 2018 he combined his men’s and women’s shows for a collection that interpreted fashion’s current fascination with uniforms through military and girl scout influences. So, has Anderson adopted a more vulnerable design ethos after a decade in the industry or is this simply another shift to keep consumers and critics interested and off-balance? It seems that he may not even know. “People sometimes ask me if I have a shrink. I have to tell them I do interviews instead. They’re literally the best therapy, and the most cathartic process. They make you stop, reflect, and digest,” Anderson said to 032c. “My only problem is that I always talk too much—today on this subject, next week on something completely different. I am always contradicting everything I’ve said before.”