LONDON, United Kingdom — “I honestly didn’t think I was going to win,” recalls Jonathan William Anderson, sitting in his sunlit studio in East London. “It was so surreal.” Anderson is recounting the events of the night before, when he was presented with the prize for Emerging Talent at the British Fashion Awards, beating out Michael van der Ham and Simone Rocha. Just two days later, it’s announced that the 27-year-old will design a capsule collection for Donatella Versace’s younger line, Versus, the first in a series of designer collaborations aimed at repositioning the brand.
The news caps a remarkable year for Anderson, whose stockists now number more than 60 and include influential retailers like Barneys New York, 10 Corso Como, Lane Crawford, LN-CC and Dover Street Market. His work has been featured in multiple editions of Vogue, as well as on ‘it girls’ like Rita Ora and Alexa Chung. He has produced a hit collaboration with high street powerhouse Topshop. And the critical acclaim keeps coming.
“Mr. Anderson’s clothes reveal an impressive freehand quality, especially in the cutting, and, at the same time, a great sense of judgment. He knows what looks very uncool,” wrote New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, singling out Anderson’s Spring 2013 women’s collection as a London Fashion Week standout.
But how did it all happen? When were the seeds of J.W. Anderson’s success first sown?
Anderson grew up in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, and went on to study menswear at the London College of Fashion. But he soon left to work as a visual merchandiser at Prada, where, under the watchful eye of photographer and Miuccia Prada’s right-hand, Manuela Pavesi, his unique approach to fashion first took shape.
“It was a very major learning point for me,” recalls Anderson, a few weeks later. “She had a very sharp eye. I liked the way that she mixed things. I remember, one day, her turning up to work in a polka dot jacket, pyjamas and a pair of wedges, and I remember thinking: ‘You are the woman I want to know, you are the woman.’ There are not many times in your life you’re going to meet someone like that.”
“She had this uncompromising approach where her vision was so strictly kept to this one pinpoint,” remembers Anderson. “It was my first introduction to clothing and it will always have a stamp on my identity. I believed in her aesthetic, that character… The minute you start compromising, you are diluted and everything becomes duty free,” he continues.
“Fashion for me is about living, and being stimulated. It’s about finding something new, and yes, ultimately [not compromising],” says Anderson. “We did men’s today and we worked for months on that,” he adds, refering to a provocative collection that collided effeminate frilled knickerbockers with more masculine camel and pin-stripped overcoats. “If people like it, they like it. We haven’t compromised on our agenda,” he says. “When I was at Prada, they did not compromise and it’s the most powerful and incredible brand, because ultimately… they have integrity.”
Whereas the word ‘brand’ can so often seem like anathema to many of London’s emerging designers, the importance of brand building is a frequent topic in conversation with and about Anderson. “I think Jonathan has always viewed his brand as its own entity and as something that can stand on its own two feet,” says John Skelton, creative director of LN-CC, an early supporter of Anderson’s work.
Following an entirely self-financed menswear debut, shown at Trinity Hall in Marylebone, J.W. Anderson introduced a womenswear line for Autumn/Winter 2010. But it was a year later, when the designer decided to blend womenswear and menswear in the same show — featuring paisley printed pyjama suits, leather jackets, patchworked parka hybrids and beaded angora sweaters — that the label first hit its stride and Anderson’s brand DNA, a uniquely twisted and uncompromising take on androgyny, really coalesced.
“Weirdly back then, it was actually quite a new concept; I don’t think people were used to menswear designers going into women’s,” recalls Anderson. “I think the brand will always be about androgyny,” he continues. “I love the relationship between men and women — that coupling. Men with men, women with women, women and men, that kind of mixture of sex and sharing of garments — I think it’s normal. It’s about wearing clothes that tell a story and an emotion; it’s not so much about gender.”
The show was sufficiently strong and buzzy to gain the attention of some of the most influential people in the fashion industry, including American Vogue editor Anna Wintour: “What I love about her is the brutal honesty,” says Anderson. “[She’s] someone who is so sharp and has seen everything and gives you that feeling of being able to have your own vision.”
Recently, Anderson had the opportunity to communicate his vision on a larger scale with a major Topshop collaboration. “When I saw his first womenswear collection, I just saw something straight away and just thought this guy knows what he’s doing,” recalls Topshop creative director Kate Phelan. Anderson was given unusually free reign. Working with set designer Gary Card, he created an entire shop-in-shop and went about applying the J.W. Anderson brand to everything from clothing to pens. “I think it was that clarity that he knew what he needed to do,” says Phelan. “I actually think he will be the next success story because I think he’s coming into it being a brand from day one.”
“I remember when designing the logo, it had to be called J.W. Anderson [and not Jonathan Anderson] because it wasn’t just about me, it was about a brand,” recalls Anderson, referring to the label’s anchor-shaped emblem. “Branding is ultimately what this industry is about. It’s about amazing design, but it’s also about a brand [space] that people want to dream in.”
Kin Woo is a writer and editor based in London and a contributor to Dazed and Confused, AnOthermag.com and Dazed Digital.