LONDON, United Kingdom — Clutching a mug of coffee, Jonathan Anderson plonks himself down on a chair in a nondescript meeting room on the ground floor of the East London headquarters of J.W. Anderson, his namesake fashion label, and casually places three grey iPhone 6s on the table. Our conversation has yet to begin and already Anderson has taken me away from my carefully planned interview guide.
Why would anybody possibly need three mobile phones?
“One is a Loewe phone, which is a French number,” he says, referring to the Spanish leather goods brand owned by Paris-based luxury conglomerate LVMH, where he is creative director. “One is my personal number I’ve had since school and the other one is J.W. Anderson.”
And just like that, Anderson summarises the three things he is trying to juggle in his busy life, hopscotching between London, Paris and Madrid. First, there’s Loewe, the once moribund brand that historically attracted a large following in both its native Spain and Japan, but struggled to gain traction elsewhere, even under the creative direction of prominent designers Stuart Vevers and Narciso Rodriguez. Since Anderson took the creative reins in 2013, he has turned Loewe into a zeitgeist-defining label. LVMH does not break out revenues or profits for Loewe in its financial results, but the brand is certainly on the rise and wholesale partners report strong consumer interest, especially in its leather goods and accessories.
Then there’s J.W. Anderson, one of London’s most influential, buzzed-about fashion brands. Anderson started the business in 2008, three years after he graduated with a menswear degree from the London College of Fashion. The J.W. Anderson show, held each season on a Saturday afternoon, has since become the de facto opener of London Fashion Week and the label now offers womenswear and accessories alongside its menswear. In January, the company also launched its first retail concept, J.W. Anderson Workshops, a space for creative collaborations as well as product, installed in a storefront next door to London’s Ace Hotel. According to the company, the brand’s revenues have grown by 300 percent since the LVMH investment in 2013.
And, of course, there’s also his personal life. On the day of our interview in London, Anderson is about to head back to Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, to visit his family, to whom he remains close. (His brother, Thomas, even works with the designer, managing legal, operations and human resources for J.W. Anderson.) During our interview each of his three phones endearingly rings as his mother tries to pin him down. What’s a mother to do to keep track of her son when he’s one of the most eagerly watched fashion designers on the planet?
It’s a typically peripatetic month for Anderson. In a few days, he is off to Beijing — his first trip to China — to meet with customers, students and the media. Before returning to Europe, he will touch down in Singapore to open Loewe’s third interiors-focused Casa Loewe store. Somehow, he will also need to fit in a photo shoot in Spain with Alasdair McLellan for a top secret project he cannot discuss.
“I actually see life as split into three things now,” says 31 year-old Anderson. “Well, it’s two things fundamentally — which is work and personal life — but in a weird way you have to kind of not let both brands bleed into each other, so it’s better to isolate the two, because you know that everything on one phone is to do with one brand, and then the other phone has another and you don’t get cross pollination.”
Anderson’s multiple phones help him to keep things separate and clear in his mind. But they are also emblematic of the post-Internet generation to which he belongs, which grew up feasting on digital content. Indeed, Anderson’s creative output often reflects a dizzying mishmash of references, ideas and inspirations, which, when remixed in a novel way, give birth to something completely new.
He takes some water glasses and starts placing them in a formation on the meeting room table. “So the way I work is, I like this cup, which is from one brand, or I like this one from another brand. By mixing them, it makes it yours. It makes it more personal. For me this is a natural process when you go to the Internet or to a reference site or to a market,” he says. “Creative direction is not sitting and designing an entire collection. For me, it’s about editing and making a script.”
Last December, Anderson became the first designer ever to win the award for both menswear and womenswear at the British Fashion Awards in the same year, surprising everyone including himself. But, early on, naysayers wondered whether Anderson’s approach would translate at a luxury house like Loewe, which was founded in 1846 and is sometimes referred to as the Spanish Hermès (though with an estimated €300 million in annual sales revenues, Loewe is a much smaller business).
There have certainly been some awkward moments along the way, but his Autumn/Winter 2016 collection shown in Paris in March struck a winning balance between the house’s luxury heritage and his own personal aesthetic. Anderson’s precisely sculpted silhouettes of cinched waists and handkerchief point hems in leather and crisp cotton, body-conscious latex-like leather and tweed suits with asymmetric fringing, were tied together with striking cat mask pendants and, of course, a stream of Loewe leather accessories including variations of his best selling Puzzle bag and the classic Loewe Amazona bag.
But Anderson’s shows aren’t just about the products on the runway. Everywhere you looked at the designer’s showspace, the Maison de l’UNESCO, there was something interesting to absorb — a striking curation of objects conjured from Anderson’s eclectic mind: a Joan Mirò mural, “Wall of the Moon,” paid for and restored by Loewe; Perspex cubes-cum-seats filled with razor blades, brillo pads and talcum powder bottles; artworks by George Platt Lynes; and an 84-year-old barren Turkey Fig Bonsai Tree.
“It is like a continual running dialogue. It’s running information,” he says, before dipping into one of his frequent, sometimes meandering digressions.
“With fashion, I think the fundamentals are already there,” he begins. “So it’s sort of like, roads. Roads are roads. You either have a benign road or a roundabout or a bypass. There is no other method of doing it. You know, the trouser is the trouser. You can reinvent the shape of the trouser, but the function stays the same. So you can make it prettier, or you can make the jumper have two useless sleeves that you will never use to tie around your waist, but it still needs two sleeves so it’s technically a jumper, it still has to fit within the parameters.”
This is where Anderson’s penchant for mixing and matching comes in, bringing in visual references from every possible direction to add an unexpected twist to his designs. “I’m a fashion obsessive in terms of imagery. I like the look of something, not necessarily the object. I don’t go, ‘Oh, it’s a three button jacket.’ It’s more like, ‘I like that image, I like that character, I like how it is.’”
It’s like taking a picture, cutting it up into tiny squares, throwing them into a box, and rendering them back together in a way that’s better than it was.
This focus on cut-and-paste — the appropriation and re-combination of imagery — is reflective of his approach, which the designer contrasts with that of leading designers like Raf Simons and Nicolas Ghesquière, who he revered while in college. “I think we lived in this period of designers as kind of like oracles. So, the natural thing was that high street copied from these designers, which then elevated the power of that design. Now, the next generation has become more liberated. We can bring it back. You can take a bit from here and a bit from that. But we don’t get precious — there’s not the preciousness of owning things.”
“For me, the creative process is this giant patchwork of information. Today’s creative director has become more of a consumer of imagery or information in search of the new, weird, and wonderful. It can be online, research libraries, markets, vintage bookstores. The next thing will be clothing. Clothing, from something prehistoric to yesterday. It could be something from Cos. It could be something from Zara. It could be anything. Bang!” he says, for emphasis. “All of that goes in, including editorial, old magazines, just random pictures, which could be another 20 books.”
“Then you have fabric developments, which are just things that we like that we want to use — and knitwear, which is another big thing. And from that, I will sit in a room — myself, the head of men’s or head of women’s, our stylist, and a model — and we will do some looks on the body which might be, ‘Let’s take that jacket and cut it up and put it on inside out.’ And we pin a fabric to it and take it to Photoshop, someone mocks it up and it might be that we get to drop in a fabric to another jacket or cut and paste something else.”
“Then you have an element with a lot of drape work, where, for example, it will be two images,” he continues. “So one might be a tear from a newspaper, which might just be a textual thing, like a field, but then you have someone else’s face and you want the look to feel like that. We would give that to someone who drapes and they will go off and work on 50 or 60 options.”
“So everyone is managing these projects and then what happens is it all comes together, all these different elements, and you just go ‘Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no.’ It’s like taking a picture, cutting it up into tiny squares, throwing them onto a box, and rendering them all back together, but in a way that’s better than what it was.”
But at first, Anderson’s creative process didn’t deliver results that worked — critically or commercially. His Spring 2013 menswear collection for J.W. Anderson, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, was a case in point. “You had a guy in just a coat and a pair of sandals and a head scarf, you had them in a lace onesie or laced two piece, a men’s shirt or a men’s trouser cut with lace, then you had like Grateful Dead bears on a bib. It was not very well received — let’s put it that way. Financially it didn’t work,” he admits.
“For the next show, we bought three rolls of duffle fabric and we started doing these looks on the body that were very flat-fronted shorts, kind of like lederhosen, with ruffles from the women’s [collection] cut in the same fabric. It was about this idea, proportion, where lines should be, and where they shouldn’t be. And, I think, when people saw it, it was —” he stops, as if reliving the moment, recalling an article that appeared afterwards in The Daily Mail.
“At J.W. Anderson the humiliation of the models was made truly complete, as the designer sent out his clan of put-upon male beauties wearing frilly shorts, leather dresses and frill-trimmed knee-length boots,” wrote the tabloid, which reaches more than 200 million monthly unique visitors globally. “One blonde looked so down in the dumps it’s a wonder he didn’t tear the offending garment off and run for the hills.”
“That collection didn’t sell either,” Anderson says, matter-of-factly. “When you work in a studio you ultimately have a cohort of people that make you feel like everything is normal. But then we put it in the outside world, and it’s not so normal because people are seeing it for the first time, whereas you’ve seen it for three months.”
But fast-forward to today and not only has the idea of blurred gender lines now become de rigueur in fashion circles, it has also been thrust into mainstream culture, driven by popular figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Jaden Smith. Indeed, looking back at those images now, it’s almost as if Anderson somehow divined the future — or shaped it.
Anderson attributes the shift to the power of provocative images, which now spread like wildfire on social media, and the websites of tabloids like The Daily Mail — something which he might not have understood at the time, but has now become a key part of his communications strategy. (His last menswear show was even streamed live on the gay hookup app Grindr, creating mountains of press coverage based solely on this strategy — or gimmick — depending on your perspective.)
“I think it’s down to the power of Instagram, the power of social media and the fuelling of tabloids,” he explains. “In the beginning, when you first deal with a tabloid writing something negative, it gets very complicated. We stepped outside of our comfort zone without knowing it and we stepped into the un-comfort zone of mass media. But thank God they did it, because if something like that happens, it means it goes to public domain. It becomes a public thing.”
Soon, critics started paying closer attention to Anderson, who had the ability to experiment and provoke. “This is the experimentation of a young designer dealing with his own signature line — as opposed to the marketability of a megabrand — and Anderson has adventurous young customers to match, each in turn finding out who they are,” wrote Jo-Ann Furniss on the now defunct Style.com about his provocative menswear show for Autumn/Winter 2013. “Womenswear has known this kind of experimentation for years. Now it is time for boys to have their turn, or otherwise be doomed to the terminal boredom of the standard men’s wardrobe.”
Eventually the conglomerates came calling. Operating on a shoestring budget and barely able to keep his business afloat, Anderson needed to find a way to translate his creativity and knack for garnering attention into commercial viability. It was around this time that he re-engaged with LVMH, who first spoke to him about the creative directorship of Kenzo in 2011, which eventually went to Opening Ceremony founders Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. In September 2013, LVMH announced it had offered him the Loewe job and taken a minority interest in his own business, providing the structure, team and capital to shore things up.
“What I’ve only just started to understand about LVMH, is that they let you be the entrepreneur,” reflects Anderson. “Pressure only exists from you. I think it’s an illusion out there. Because I know where I get my pressure from. You’re breathing down your own neck. Why? Because you’re always trying to out do yourself, be the best, sell more.”
And, in his journey from provocateur to entrepreneur, Anderson has learned to balance his creative instincts with commercial considerations. “When you start off as a designer you want to be the best creative director, you want to make the best shows. But then you want the best shows and the best press from it, so then you want more editorial but you don’t care about the sales. Then you start to add the show and the press and the sales and being able to manage it all. So your pressure is fundamentally managed by yourself. The key today is to be the entrepreneur creator.”
A big part of this has been setting specific, ambitious goals. “For me, I have to have a visual. To sit in front of a board with projections, with figures, I just can’t work that way. So, I have to be like, ‘We want to make more money, then let’s focus on this one product and sell 20,000 units of it.’ It has to be boiled — it’s very market tradesman in a weird way.”
“I remember when Delphine Arnault interviewed me for everything, she said, ‘I want you to still be the entrepreneur. Do not lose being the entrepreneur.’ It stuck with me, so every time I have a meeting with people, I’m just like ‘What would you do? Do you think that is entrepreneurial or not?’ For me, being entrepreneurial is thinking big. So if you want to sell 50,000 bags, write it down. Work backwards.”
Anderson was also forced to develop the kind of meticulous organisational skills that were an anathema to the designer early on. “When you have 12 collections a year, you have to be very organised and be very methodical in terms of how you approach it,” he says. “That’s why phones are separated, teams are separated, and that’s why I have individuals for every single section. If you have good management and you have an ecosystem that you trust, anything is possible.”
A key part of that ecosystem is also the world-class creative talent that his partnership with LVMH affords him — art directors M/M Paris, casting director Ashley Brokaw, photographers Steven Meisel and Jamie Hawkesworth — who together have helped Anderson to elevate his aesthetic for the luxury world. “The power of the image is so important,” says Anderson. “I learned that from M/M. And for me, when you have Jamie doing mood books, and Steven doing silhouette, Ashley doing casting, these are some of the most incredibly talented people in the industry. It is that rhythm of all those people that makes the image right.”
But it is his stylist, Benjamin Bruno, with whom he has built a close creative partnership, who has perhaps been the biggest key to Anderson’s evolution. “What I realised is that I need someone to bounce off," he says. “Instead of working in an isolated environment in your room and then going to a stylist and saying, ‘Oh, I’ve done all this, can you put it together?’ I liked the conflict of designing clothing with Ben. It is about trusting conflict. So you are fundamentally challenging each other, sometimes to breaking point, to get the look. I think in your lifetime you meet one person you will collaborate with and for me Ben is that person.”
But ultimately, success will come down to Anderson’s ability to build real businesses, both for Loewe and J.W. Anderson. Three years in, is he up to the challenge?
“I think sometimes the media expect a creative director to go into a brand and it happens the next day. There is that anticipation,” he says. “But these brands are incredibly large and they do take time. If you want longevity, they take time. If you want quick fixes, it’s difficult, because you’re trying to create a new language with existing heritage language. So it’s trying to jolt it but at the same time ensure that people are coming. You’re dragging in new customers and keeping the existing ones. This is what is the hardest.”
The next generation has become more liberated. You can take a bit from here and a bit from that. But we don’t get precious — there’s not the preciousness of owning things.
“You can have stable products that you can gain volume from, does that come from ready-to-wear now? I personally don’t think so. It can come from bags, it can come from shoes, and it can come from knits, which are the classics — that’s not rocket science,” he explains, speaking as fluently about product merchandising as he does about his creative process. “Now, if you do not keep newness, bags can go up like that, plateau and dive bomb because the trend for a bag is now quicker. I think the days of just relying on ‘the bag,’ as one thing are over. You have to keep reinventing it, you have to keep adding, [but] you can keep the core, whereas J.W. is a ready-to-wear business, so it’s a lot more complex.”
“My biggest thing is that I have my own brand and I will continue to grow it and make it work and make it have its own legacy. I want to one day be able to be alive to see someone else do it. Whereas Loewe isn’t my brand, but I always will need another brand. I did Sunspel, I did Versus. I think both brands can learn from each other. But my job at Loewe will be going in the right direction if the brand can talk for itself.”
Anderson is also focusing on carving out a distinct point-of-view approach for his own brand. “We have a niche amount of followers at J.W. Anderson — at Loewe it’s bigger things, a bigger brand. But people come to J.W. Anderson for ideas. If we go and do a black dress, we never really sell it. We don’t have a consumer that comes to us for the black dress. They want the black dress with the knot and the tie and the slip in the back and the thing. They want it to be twisted enough from a classic.”
“It’s actually tougher to build a ready-to-wear business today than ever because there is so much choice. We go from one to the next, there’s no loyalty anymore. The only way to create loyalty is to not stand still. So as culture is moving at that speed, you have to move in parallel with it and you have to stay ahead because you still have to give them something they didn’t think they wanted.”
To be sure, rather than dismiss the quickening pace of fashion, like some of his more senior peers, Anderson seems to thrive on it. “I enjoy it. I don’t see it as pressure and I don’t see it as running out of ideas. I enjoy this idea of running dialogue. I want one thing and the next thing, and it’s just a natural thing that’s in me that I want something and then don’t want it anymore.”
“I say to every designer who works in Loewe or in my brand: ‘Go into a department store!’ I used to work in one. Go and see what it’s like because the way people consume, it is evolving in such a speed — it’s the same as everywhere, it’s the same as Tesco, you have to put things at the front and put things at the back, but ultimately what sells is new product.”
That’s not to say Anderson believes in endlessly churning out product. “The biggest misconception is that clothing is not made by people. When we do make clothing in mass volumes it is dangerous because we have so many examples in the press where catastrophic things happen. So for me, luxury — if you call it luxury, which is fundamentally what I see as cultural — is if we make a product to a standard with the right materials, with European legislation on human rights and with all these things, your bag is going to be expensive.”
Anderson also feels strongly about reinventing the retail model for luxury and fashion, something that is reflected in his own experimental store concept, J.W. Anderson Workshops, which doubles as a platform for creative collaboration and events, and a growing number of Loewe stores around the world — which each have with their own special experiential elements. (For Loewe’s first US store, which opened in Miami’s design district last year, the brand installed an 18th century Spanish stone granary building, taken from a small town on the border between Galicia and Portugal.)
For me, the creative process is this giant patchwork of information. Today’s creative director has become more of a consumer of information in search of the new, weird and wonderful. It can be online, libraries, markets, bookstores.
“When you go to a store, they are public buildings as much as they are privately owned businesses. You walk into Topshop, you walk into Loewe, you walk into J.W., you walk into a department store — they are these open buildings, which I feel have to go give back. Now, they can give you back an experience, customer service, or something you’ve never seen before so it’s educating you at the same time."
"I enjoy going into a store where I find something new, so when I go to Dover Street [Market], I go 'Wow, that fuelled me up for today.' Now I will come back and make a repeat purchase, it’s not a hard sell. We need to lure people in to make them feel part of what we’re doing.”
As for the ongoing hand-wringing about the increasing demands being placed on designers, Anderson is characteristically pragmatic about it. “It’s very complex at the moment but it will start to pan out, in the end,” he says. “I think we are going through change, which is normal. Change happens in every industry, you know? Things just speeded up and you either sink or swim — and that’s life.”
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion.
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