2020 ended in a red mist for Jonathan Anderson. He was trying to work, but every government was changing the covid rules every few minutes. “You’d plan then cancel, plan then cancel.” Take those shearlings that are such a feature of his new men’s collection. Anderson’s factories in Italy closed, so he ended up stitching together a few pieces of surplus and sending them off to Anthony Turner, who usually does the hair for his shows, to colour with hair dye. Anderson was questioning his commitment to fashion, never mind 2021. On top of that, he couldn’t get home to Ireland for Christmas, so it was turkey tout seul.
And then Juergen Teller happened. Last year, Teller photographed Anderson accessorised by a vegetable for System Magazine. That happened to coincide with the designer’s fascination with Dutch still lifes. Why do we give so much value to inanimate objects?, he asked himself, as Teller waved a marrow at him. “And I’d always wanted to work with Juergen, but I’d never had the balls to ask.” And all of a sudden, in one of those cosmic clicks, the perpetually sunny snapper came to photograph Anderson’s latest looks for men (Autumn 21) and women (Pre-collection) earlier this month in his London studio and the sun came out again for Jonathan. The shoot was all crazy spontaneity, no retouching, one day with local models and the actress Sophie Okonedo. “I’ve never used an actress before but I was obsessed with her in ‘Ratched’,” said Anderson. “So was Juergen. I didn’t think we could get her, but he made a call.” And that’s how Okonedo became the unlikely star of Anderson’s latest alt-fashion show.
“You could see she was into the idea of the grotesque,” he said. But letting go is a prerequisite with Teller. “You’re not in control with Juergen. But I was very happy. After the shoot, I thought we can do anything now. I don’t care of anyone likes it, but I’m enjoying being frustrated by making something. I’m getting excited about clothing. I only see opportunity now.”
When I say “alt-fashion show”, I’m obviously referring to Anderson’s show-in-a-box and show-on-a-wall, his radical responses to the pandemic-induced shutdown in 2020.
This time, the courier arrived at my door with a roll of 19 double-sided posters — 37 looks in all — in a large tube (holding on to Anderson’s “invitations” may eventually require the rental of an external storage facility). “Real” fashion shows may take up space physically and mentally but Anderson has managed to match their impact, if not in scale at least in provocation. Just as there were acolytes who hung the wallpaper from his last Loewe box, I imagine there are JW-ites somewhere in the world who have already papered their walls with these posters.
He thought of his posters as souvenirs, like something you’d buy at an exhibition. " At least it’s this thing,” he enthused. “I feel like I want the thing from the show. I saw Virgil had done an aeroplane as his invitation for Louis Vuitton. I thought, ‘I want that thing’.” Anderson loves ephemera, things, stuff you might stick in a time capsule. Just look at the boxes he sent out last year. “Fashion can be slightly demoralising because it’s about selling a lot of the time,” he said. You get the feeling his side gig as a trustee at the Victoria&Albert Museum is a treasured antidote.
And that certainly goes some way to explaining the surreal essence of Anderson’s collections, their intangible dark-fairy-tale quality. It seems to have been honed over the past year. I would guess that has something to do with the ingenious responses that ongoing shutdowns have called for. Like those hair-dyed shearlings. Anderson’s passion for artisanship is well-documented. The actual making of things enthralls him. He claimed his new looks for men and women harked back to his early days, what he called “primitive play with materials”, collaging latex and tweed and paisley and shearling. Here, the “primitive” component was most apparent in the large prints and embroideries of fruit and veg (amplified in the accessories for Teller’s accompanying photographs). There was a pristine white mohair sweater appliqued with crocheted radishes. But there was also a wool coat hand-screened with silver foil, so it looked like pewter, and tunic-length mohair sweaters belted with nylon. And Sophie in a jumpsuit that exploded in legs as feathered with white fringe as a swan’s. And there was a big patchworked handknit, the next stage of the Harry Styles cardigan which is now in the V&A, along with some of the handicrafts it inspired around the world. When Anderson talked about fashion’s reconstruction after the pandemic, he imagined “storytelling through powerful images”. The image I got from his new collections was a neo-medieval fantasia of pilgrims led by lady shaman Sophie.
But there was a calculated art as well. The pointy trousers, for instance. Could be clown pants, could be Klaus Nomi, could be ultra-dada Cabaret Voltaire. “When you wear them, they’re soft,” Anderson said. “They’re more about the idea of non-structure. Everyone is obsessed with being on the sofa, and I don’t want to be on the sofa anymore. And this is just a shape. I wanted to at least project the idea that we could wear something that is essentially fashion.”
On the advice of a friend, Anderson visited a kinesiologist recently. She was all about the dynamics of human movement. “We could trap ourselves by being non-optimistic,” she told him. It made him think he wanted to step outside in a fantastic coat. In Milan last week, designers were talking about clothes that osmosed inside and outside. Anderson’s coats and jackets and leathers were unambiguously outside. The kids — and Sophie — who were wearing them looked like they were headed somewhere, even if it was only into uncertainty. “I’ve done so many zoom calls when people do see me after this, I want them to see I’m still standing,” Anderson said emphatically. “If I have to look to the future in 2021 and it’s a bathrobe, then…” His voice trailed away in a heartfelt sigh.