The Man Turning European Fashion Into Something Raw and Real
Jonathan Anderson’s creations for Loewe and his own brand have made him one of the most forward-thinking designers working today.
Aug 19, 2019
“THERE MIGHT BE no other place in the world as good as where I’m going to take you,” says Jonathan Anderson, with a final drag of his cigarette. We are standing on the vast stone steps of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses one of the world’s most extensive repositories of decorative arts. He grinds the cigarette out with his heel and hurries inside, bolting past reception and bounding up the marble stairs to a series of high-ceilinged rooms.
The ceramics galleries on the top floor have been relocated since their 1868 inception and were reconfigured a decade ago. The 11 rooms house over 30,000 vases, platters, cups and tea service in porcelain, earthenware and stoneware from 2500 B.C. to present day, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Cotswolds. Only a few of the anterooms contain the sort of edited, thoughtfully labeled, artfully lit displays found in modern museums; most of the floor space here is occupied by rows of 12-foot-tall glass cases, each ignominiously stuffed with stacked pieces. The contents’ origins are written in plain letters on the surface of each case, almost too high to see: China, Japan, the Middle East. You can glimpse the royal blue and marigold iridescent lip of a platter here, the rough neck of a sand-colored hand-turned vase there, but not much more: You would have to stand for hours — as Anderson has — day after day, to absorb it all. It resembles less a museum than a series of oversize storage closets of the sort you’d find in a Georgian countryside mansion, packed with generations of heirlooms secreted away to weather the Great War. “There’s so much here because families keep all this history,” Anderson says as he walks the aisles, stopping occasionally to look up at one of the cases. “Yes, it would probably be easier to put much of this in storage to make a better viewing experience, but you would never want to tamp down the love.”
Although he was recently named a trustee of the museum, Anderson himself is not a historian or a gallerist but the 34-year-old creator of strange, beautiful clothing and accessories that occupy the liminal space between the rivetingly avant-garde and the satisfyingly wearable, and among the most forward-thinking designers working today. He first visited the Victoria and Albert Museum as a teenager with his mother and now goes at least twice a month, traveling by cab from his Victorian house in East London or the headquarters of his namesake label in Hoxton. In 2008, he launched JW Anderson, his off-kilter, androgynous men’s line, introducing tissue-light leather dresses and ruffled hot pants in duffel-bag cotton fabric in an era before such gender transgressions became common. A couple of years later, he added a line of well-crafted and witty women’s wear (a mod silk paisley pajama suit with a white rubber clerical collar, square-toed studded boots balanced on a steel-barrel heel), all of which he produces from an airy 3,000-square-foot atelier. A 2012 collaboration with Topshop brought him mainstream attention, and a year later, LVMH bought a stake in his company while also naming him creative director of Loewe, a venerable but sleepy Spanish leather-goods company that neither Narciso Rodriguez nor Stuart Vevers, now the creative director of Coach, had been able to awaken.
After moving Loewe’s design studio from Madrid to the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris (an easier commute to London, yet far enough to allow a creative distance between those collections and his own), Anderson set upon establishing his Loewe: collections of clothes and accessories that possess both a couture level of craftsmanship and a distinctly raw, handmade energy. It’s a conflicting, friction-producing combination that has come to define — and propel — his vision for the brand. The decisions he has made for Loewe may seem counterintuitive — there are no flashy logos, and he’s unafraid to show the figurative hand of the artist in his garments (a multicolored striped angora sweater, for example, looks as if it has been sewn by an amateur, and his popular calfskin handbags bear a signature exposed cotton top stitch, a plain-spoken touch). But Anderson’s concepts resonate because he has managed to speak to our moment, to our inchoate and inarticulable yearning for the earthbound, the slow, the imperfect and the anthropological.
For fall, the surface of a wool sweater is covered with luminous pearls of varying sizes, like barnacles, paired with raw, oversize, wide-legged jeans. A three-quarter-length patchwork coat with a traditional check has bell sleeves and a stand-up collar of natural-hued calfskin. A dress that begins as a soft wool turtleneck morphs at the waist into a white cotton organdy peasant skirt stitched with spare scalloped bands. Bags include iterations of Anderson’s best sellers — the geometric Puzzle; the Gate, with its rakish tie — but also faux-naïf one-offs like a knit mini-purse in the shape of an otter: something that could be mistaken for a child’s toy. There are also hats that suggest a nun’s wimple or bat ears, and headbands topped with dandelion-colored marabou feathers.
But what makes Anderson so radical — and explains why the ceramics collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in all its fusty, cluttered, rough-edged glory, is a diorama of his magpie mind — is that his vision includes much more than only things to wear or carry. “I love fashion,” he says, “but I will not let fashion dictate me.” It is a statement that’s both pronouncement and promise, and accordingly, he doesn’t labor to show unified collections, consciously attempt to follow the zeitgeist or even bother accentuating the human form — his muses are not models or actors. Instead, his primary sources are the people for whom clothes were generally something worn beneath a smock: the masters of early 20th-century craft. Both JW Anderson and Loewe have become his mad-scientist experiments in returning traditional handiwork to high fashion. It has proved to be a prophetic but provocative notion, partly because craft has always had an uneasy place in the world of fashion. Every now and then, a designer cultivates the genuinely homespun — Natalie Chanin, who in the early 2000s launched the sustainable American line Alabama Chanin, with its fine beading and embroidery on T-shirt cotton and denim made by local women in Florence, Ala., comes to mind — but it can often wind up feeling insincere or genuinely homely.
In 2016, Anderson made his connection to craft official by founding the juried Loewe Craft Prize for artisans from around the world working in everything from glass to leather to paper. It has become a cornerstone of the brand and of the designer’s aesthetic. His clothes are subversive because they suggest that craft ought not exist in the service of fashion but that fashion should exist to support craft. Under his hand, the wearer becomes a vehicle, one meant to display what the human hand can do. “Some places use ‘craft’ as a synonym for ‘exclusivity,’ to convey a sense of eliteness,” he says. “But for me, craft is a stripping back to the roots, a fidelity to something raw.”
ANDERSON WAS RAISED in Magherafelt, an Ulster town of about 8,800 people in Northern Ireland, the son of a schoolteacher and a professional rugby player turned Irish national coach. When he was in primary school, he was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. Along with coming out at 18, during the year he spent studying to be an actor at Washington D.C.’s Studio Theater, his dyslexia has profoundly shaped his life. Even now, he avoids writing simple emails. But he believes that having to visualize, contextualize and translate has heightened his ability to live in both future and present tenses, a necessary skill when creating 18 well-differentiated collections each year — six for his own label, 10 for Loewe and two for his ongoing collaborations with Uniqlo.
“Limitations can actually be really freeing,” Anderson tells me the day before our London museum foray, when I meet him in Paris, in his spacious office at the Loewe design studio overlooking the Église Saint-Sulpice. He splits each week between the two cities (his boyfriend works in fashion in Paris) and visits Loewe’s Madrid headquarters twice a month. The room, at the top of a grand, winding stair, is reflective of how he ricochets between the excessive and spare: His huge desk, clear as a cutting board, stands before a bulwark of flush, frameless wooden closets; on the opposing wall are long floating shelves displaying a collection of more than 27 late 19th- to early 20th-century French ceramic mushrooms that he bought at auction. “I can sometimes go into hoarder mode,” he says. “And then I’m suddenly sick of it all and wonder what I’m doing.”
When Anderson was named to head Loewe, some wondered if a polymorphous niche designer whose only experience beyond his own company was a year or so in merchandising at Prada could manage to reconceptualize a moribund legacy brand (while also coping with internal politics and economic realities). But in addition to his endlessly fecund imagination, Anderson has a quality that few young talents of his stature, especially those in the vanguard, seem to possess: a head for business. Instead of chafing under a corporate master, as other renegade designers have — Alexander McQueen, famously, for one — he seems to savor the balance of commerce and culture; Loewe has experienced strong growth during his tenure. “No designer today can be completely detached from the realities of business. Maybe a decade ago, but no longer,” he says. “It’s about surviving, of staying around long enough to say all the things you want to say.” This embrace of the practical has inspired his latest project: remaking many of the brand’s 111 stand-alone stores into what he calls Casa Loewe, a showcase not only for his designs but also for the artists, artisans and even floral designers he admires. The New York City store opens in SoHo this fall, but you can see the result of his most recent efforts in London’s three-story flagship on Bond Street in Mayfair, which opened in April. There, the clothes and accessories share space with colorfully pocked vases by the Japanese ceramist Takuro Kuwata, Anthea Hamilton’s drippy blown-glass stop-sign-red 2014 Vulcano table and baskets woven by Hafu Matsumoto. Throughout the shop are obvious inflections of Kettle’s Yard, Anderson’s self-described spiritual home, the Cambridge gallery that was once the four-cottage residence of the 20th-century art collector Jim Ede and his wife, Helen (they donated it to the university in 1966), a model for hybrid domestic-retail environments. There, works by the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and the painter Helen Frankenthaler are displayed amid the Edes’ original furnishings, as well as with rotating shows of contemporary and modern artists.
But while the stores may be reflections of Anderson’s tastes and vision, the designer himself is not. It’s common these days for creative directors to embody their own aesthetic — think of Gucci’s fanciful Alessandro Michele, for one — but Anderson, whose uniform consists of loose jeans and a sweater or button-down, his sandy blond hair askew, is not a peacock. “I’m trying to dress better, but it’s hard for me,” he says. At home, he can’t bear the presence of anything he’s made. At both brands, he relies heavily on teams, perhaps more than some designers; they are enfranchised to transform his constant stream of inspirations — such as a 16th-century portrait miniature, which is translated into the puritan collar of a wool coat or the cravat-style flourish on a white silk blouse — into looks that can parade down a runway. Although he sketches well (his maternal grandfather, who worked as a manager at a textile firm and collected delftware, made Anderson and his younger brother sit at the kitchen table when they were children, drawing various teacups and vases over and over to teach them about volumes and dimension), he sees himself more as a curator than a designer. His working relationship with Benjamin Bruno, his longtime stylist, is closer to that of a partner, he says. He may be the only women’s wear designer who starts from men’s wear and adapts the shapes from there. “I’m a man who’s attracted to men,” he says. “So that’s where the energy is.”
That he has been able to maintain JW Anderson’s acute weirdness over the seasons as he rewrites Loewe’s long, sober story with leather into a tale both effervescent and enduring is, notes Amanda Harlech — an old friend and muse of Karl Lagerfeld, who brokered a friendship between the two men before Lagerfeld’s death this year — “a mark of a rare kind of genius, the sort of intelligence you saw in Karl, the sort of voraciousness.”
“THE UNDERLYING IMPULSE is the same with the clothes, to make something that can stand on its own terms,” Anderson says. He’s gesturing toward a tall, slender, gray stoneware vase by William Staite Murray, a celebrated English studio potter who worked after World War I and was associated with the Seven and Five Society of progressive artists, which included Hepworth and Moore. “Look at that piece. It’s both incredibly simple and incredibly intricate,” he says. “It was made to be used but also amaze.”
Ceramics obsess Anderson, certainly, but so do virtually all crafts — knitting, braiding, weaving, wrapping. Most recently, he acquired at auction a tiny 18th-century embroidery of people tilling a field, simply because he was intrigued that the artist had been able to convey the subjects’ plaintive oppression with mere stitches.
In conversation, Anderson veers easily into other eras and art forms (he is especially entranced by New York City in the early ’80s, including the work of the multidisciplinary artist David Wojnarowicz), but he is most truly the defender of the peculiar propriety and eccentricity of British craft from the Medieval and preindustrial eras, which saw a renaissance in the late 19th century as a reaction to the rise of machine manufacturing and cheaply rendered ornamentation. Back then, William Morris, the philosopher and designer who might be Anderson’s most direct forebear (Anderson used his patterns for a November 2017 Loewe capsule collection), became a crusader for artistic integrity in the decorative arts, championing the intellectual and social status of crafts and challenging the dehumanization of labor that characterized the Victorian Industrial Revolution. Morris famously mastered textile weaving on a loom in his bedroom as well as the block printing of cloth and wallpaper, which had been obliterated by shoddy mass production. At Morris & Co., his Oxford Street emporium, he offered the work of traditional artisans with small-scale countryside workshops, whose hand-hewn pieces in glass, straw, cotton, paper and molten metals had been shoved aside by cheaper, flashier, factory-made reproductions. Inspired by the writing of the Victorian-era critic John Ruskin, who posited a connection between the way in which goods were produced and the social, economic and emotional health of a nation, Morris codified the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s as a bulwark against what his biographer Fiona MacCarthy called “the cynical proliferation of the useless,” in hopes of returning to an era in which beautiful, well-made objects were created for everyday life, produced in a way that allowed their makers to remain connected with their product and those who used it. It is a message that is not lost on Anderson, whose first piece for his own line, more than a decade ago, was based on an Aran Irish fisherman’s sweater he saw in a museum; it had been dredged, he recalls — hundreds of years after its 18th-century creation, its beauty intact — from the bottom of a peat bog.
The cult of the handmade as purveyed by Morris, who died in 1896, held sway until after World War I — the movement’s influence can still be seen in places as far-flung as Pasadena, Calif., where the Arts and Crafts bungalows designed by the architecture firm Greene and Greene in the 1920s remain — but by the middle of the century, the design world, enamored of unadorned Modernism, came to dismiss handicraft, once again, as mere decoration. Over the past decade and a half or so, however, a contemporary English aesthetic, one that rejects the confines of polished minimalism, has announced itself. With raw energy, puckish intelligence, local materials and fine handwork, it invokes the region’s pastoral agrarian roots, echoing Morris’s call to return to preindustrial workmanship, with ceramists, basket weavers and textile designers as the drivers of innovation and creativity. The British design ethos has turned from a whitewashed, sharp-edged spareness intended to clash defiantly with the country’s historic architecture toward a craggy, hand-turned naturalness that seems at peace with it. Showrooms such as the New Craftsmen in Mayfair, which opened in 2012, have elevated hand-spun artistry into a fine art, representing the East Midlands-based British potter Bronwen Grieves, whose vessels are made from flattened coils of stoneware clay that have been grogged (fired and then ground up), and Catarina Riccabona, who works in southeast London, hand-weaving wall panels from paper yarn.
For Anderson, no technique or material more fully embodies the complex evolution of the English aesthetic than ceramics, the ultimate earthbound art, conjured from a clay pit in the ground itself. His principal obsessions as designer and collector are the British studio potters of the postwar era. They were inspired not only by the Arts and Crafts movement but by the Wiener Werkstätte, Josef Hoffmann’s Vienna-based precursor to Art Deco, as well as Bauhaus and the Omega Workshop, the Bloomsbury Group’s craft-focused offshoot, which produced textiles, murals and furniture. Clustered around London’s Camberwell College of Arts till the ’70s, this loose collective of ceramists included the Austrian-born Lucie Rie and the German immigrant Hans Coper, who began as her studio assistant. Though Anderson has never tried making ceramics himself — such artistry, he feels, can’t be attempted as a hobby — you can find allusions to the British studio potters’ rough glazes, aggressive shapes, unorthodox proportions and textural juxtapositions in the designer’s intellectually provocative creations: the swagger and curve of Loewe’s Hammock bag, say, or a JW Anderson dress patched together from contrasting panels of fabric, decorated with mismatched buttons.
ANDERSON HAS STUDIOUSLY ignored his phone during our time together, but now it buzzes and he looks down at it. It is not business that breaks his concentration but the latest salvo in an online bidding war for a set of six rare pale pink porcelain Rie buttons that he’s hoping to add to his collection of over 100 (he also owns dozens of pieces of her pottery). He loves them not merely for their delicacy but for their back story: Rie, who died at age 93 in 1995, escaped the Nazis and supported her early work by selling the buttons — tiny sculptures unto themselves, shaped like bowls or knots or mushrooms — to Harrods in the fallow years after the Blitz. With their imperfections and lack of refinement, they are a reminder never to forget the scrappiness of beginnings. “You used to be able to get them for nothing, but not now. Some guy in China is jacking them up,” he says, his eyes narrowing. “This is not good.”
But a few minutes later, as we wind our way out of the museum, he glances again at the screen: victory. He will add the buttons to the others he has had sewn in patterns onto lengths of vintage African cloth. Some of them are framed and hang in his weekend home in Norfolk, a two-hour drive north of the city. Others are draped over Axel Vervoordt tables beside the stacks of illustrated volumes on Chinese pottery and Egyptian glassware in his rowhouse.
On the steps, he takes a cigarette from a pack in his back pocket. One long inhale before he heads to a cab bound for his studio, where, pinned to white boards, dozens of fabric swatches, pebbly to silken; lengths of crocheted trims; and even bits of lamé will, in the coming weeks, become the JW Anderson spring 2020 collection. All he will say is that it will be “subtly fragile, collaged.” What is certain is that it will be as free of self-reference as it is feisty. Like the artisans he venerates, Anderson’s influences become unrecognizable after he’s respun them. In an industry built on jittery speed, quicksilver trends and the endless (literal) referencing of past decades, cultures and movements, his aesthetic stands alone as an artful, ragged quilt of ideas, stitched together in an order that only he could imagine — a product, perhaps, of his dyslexia and his unique way of filtering beauty.
But ultimately what makes his work transcendent is that it forces us to slow down; indeed, it gives us little choice. Esoteric yet primordial, the best of his creations are not instantly appealing nor easily likable; Anderson will never be mainstream. Instead, his clothes beckon, bewitching us, if we allow them to, synapse by synapse, as they bid to be touched and seen and felt. They allude to the past with their deliberate mix of ancient techniques and posit a future of a winsome, off-kilter mosaic beyond the reach of time and haste. And what emerges, season after season, is this: not merely a crocheted sweater for a crisp afternoon in Kensington or TriBeCa, nor a jaunty patchwork handbag, but a jagged poetry that is perfect and imperfect, modern but also unevolved. It’s not fashion, as he might argue — it’s something else. It’s another way to see the world.
Glasses throughout courtesy of Pour vos beaux yeux. Earrings throughout courtesy of Karry Gallery. Model: Assa Baradji at Cover Paris Model Agency. Hair by Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner. Makeup by Janeen Witherspoon at Bryant Artists using Chanel Beauty. Set design by Andrew Tomlinson at Streeters. Casting by Helena Balladino for DM Casting Agency. Production: Brachfeld. Manicure: Alex Falba at Artlist Paris. Digital tech: Philippe Billemont at Imagin. Set assistants: David Konix and Samantha Lanteri. Stylist’s assistants: Charlotte Thommeret and Laëtitia Leporcq.