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The Jonathan Anderson Experiment

A last-minute switch from live-showing in Milan to film-making in London was the designer’s latest exercise in ingenious Covid crisis management.
Models in J.W. Anderson Men's Autumn/Winter 2022 and Women's Pre-Fall 2022.
Models in J.W. Anderson Men's Autumn/Winter 2022 and Women's Pre-Fall 2022. (J.W. Anderson)

LONDON — Jonathan Anderson should have been climbing into bed in Milan, after showing his latest collections for men and women on Sunday night. His 30-strong team would have travelled from London for the event. But the ongoing pandemic means it’s never been truer that life is something that happens when you’re making other plans.

Last week, with Omicron blossoming, Milan was scrapped. In a last-minute turnaround, the show was swapped for a film lensed on Friday in the Scala Theatre in King’s Cross, a seedy but sainted venue that has been home to decades of bad behaviour. Anderson remembered it fondly from his student days, which might have seemed scant compensation for the change of plans if it weren’t for his positive outlook as team leader. “Ultimately you have to be like, ‘It’s all going to be fine,’ and ‘We’re going to make this collection no matter that we all haven’t gotten flights to Milan…’”

Besides, Anderson insisted, “I actually enjoy the whole thing because you’re kind of just making it up as you go, and then through that, you find things.” However much his optimism may have been sorely tested over the past two years, it seems he’s been able to locate a silver lining. “I’ve kind of enjoyed the last period for the reason that it’s not about the review or ‘Do people like it?’ It’s just about putting stuff out there and enjoying it. Because I’m so lucky to still have a job.”

If the original decision to travel to Milan for an actual real live fashion show came across as a relatively orthodox gesture after all the radical alternatives to the live experience — show in a box, show in a book, show on a wall, even a DIY exhibition of images by Juergen Teller — Anderson has been exploring for the past two years, it was in fact supposed to be the launchpad for a whole new strategy.

The idea is still to build a new schedule to replace the four shows he was doing for his own label before the pandemic struck. (“For a brand that is incredibly small, it really was overstretching our resources.”) So, each January should feature a show for men’s winter and women’s pre-collection, ideally in a different city: Milan was the plan for this season, but it could be Manchester next time, or Tokyo. “A travelling circus,” Anderson mused. The rest of the year, there might be a show in a box, or another alternative — even a standalone women’s show in September. That was the plan, all very experimental. “Maybe I was being optimistic but I wanted to change the rhythm because I felt like I did 10 years in this rhythm,” Anderson sighed. “And I was fed up.” And then, hello Omicron!

It is an amazing moment for experimentation.

Creatively, Anderson has proved himself more than a match for Covid. “Yeah, I think it’s been probably the most creative moment in my career,” he said. There’s some kind of complex blueprint there for change: how to infuse the conventions the fashion industry seems so keen to resuscitate with everything Anderson has learned. (His show for Loewe in Paris last October provided a dazzling glimpse of the possibilities.) “You start to realise it’s going to take baby steps… because you have got a system that is slowly being rebuilt back in the same likeness that it was, and how do you operate within it? Especially when you’re a small brand, you are trying to use your media wisely so that you can sell product when you don’t have the budgets of huge brands. And this is where I’m in a unique position, where I’m in a large brand and in a very small brand. You have a lot of different types of reality checks.”

The latest reality check at JW Anderson meant the designer spent a day locked away in the Scala “just having fun with the team playing with this collection.” I’ve always thought play was fundamental to his namesake label. How often have his clothes and accessories looked like glorious toys! New favourites include a sequined football jersey. In the solitude of lockdown, after he ran out of things to watch on TV, Anderson found himself glued to a documentary on Cristiano Ronaldo. Not at all inclined to football, he nevertheless was inspired. “You’re finding joy in just actually living life and you take time to realise that these are the little things that end up on a catwalk.”

I’m also partial to the pigeon clutch bag. It reminded me of the whole Dada element in Anderson’s last Loewe show, and how Dada was an artistic reaction to the carnage of World War One. And also how timely a similar response to a world collapsing into conflict on all sides would seem right now. “I wanted a bag that was a pigeon that you opened,” said Anderson. “It’s ridiculous but we live in ridiculous times.”

Ultimately, it’s the classic Comme des Garçons answer. Not why the sequined football top, the pigeon clutch, the knitted elephant, the blow-up bags and shoes, but why not?

Anderson compared his own label to a laboratory, “where we are exploring things in a very primitive way. From that you can acknowledge what works, what doesn’t work. It is not about perfection. Ultimately, that’s what I have started to love about my own brand again… It is like a mom and pop shop which has somehow been able to survive through a housing crisis and a financial crisis. And we’re still hanging in during the pandemic, and Brexit.” Ah yes, the other dark shadow hanging over the British fashion industry. “It’s not about being on either side, it’s just dealing now with the ramifications of rebuilding a business in the global world but from an island, and this has actually become a bigger toll on the process than I would have ever imagined.”

No wonder Anderson considers that it’s almost like restarting his brand, with all the naïveté that implies. “As a team, we’re willing to fall back in love with the idea of fashion through going back to a primitive way of putting things together.” Which translated in Sunday’s showing into a real glee in both the clothes and their presentation. “I feel super-excited by clothing right now,” Anderson said. “The pandemic is about experimentation because there’s so much going on, our concentration span is like we’re goldfish right now. You might be like, we only need to do one show a year, or maybe we want to do 50 shows a year or maybe we’re going to just do one look per month… Do whatever you want to do, because it is an amazing moment for experimentation.”

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The State of Fashion: Technology