Art of Style

The designer interview: Jonathan Anderson

JW Anderson founder JONATHAN ANDERSON is one of the industry’s most celebrated designers. KAY BARRON talks to the man whose idiosyncratic designs have made him a global fashion icon

Photography Tino ChiwariroStyling Marquessa Lucas-Box
Jonathan Anderson wears sweater by Sunspel, and jeans by The Workers Club. Allana wears tailored cargo jacket and cropped wide-leg pants, both by JW Anderson

Jonathan Anderson enjoyed lockdown, and he kind of misses it, too. “It was almost like Christmas,” he admits over Zoom, from his studio in east London when we speak in mid-November. “Because that is the only time of year when everyone turns their phone off and you get a proper break.” As the creative director and founder of his namesake brand, JW Anderson, since 2008, and as the creative director of Loewe for the past eight years, he saw it as the opportunity for a bit of a rest. And he deserved it. In 2019, he took 10 long-haul flights, as well as traveling back and forth to Paris every week, and presenting eight shows and even more collections. “In the summer, I usually go away in August, but half the company is still working and still in touch. London is open, Paris is shut, and Madrid is only partly closed, so you never really stop. But during lockdown, every brand had the same problems, so it felt like a level playing field. You could only do as much as you could do.”

Of course, what he actually did do was turn the idea of presenting a collection on its head – and his ‘show in a box’ came to define this point of time in fashion, which, let’s admit, is a lot more than the rest of us did. As brands tried to tackle the idea of virtual shows, digital presentations and slightly awkward Zoom walk-throughs, Anderson, 36, took a more creative direction for Resort 2021. Editors, critics and friends of the brand received a fabric-wrapped A4-sized cardboard box delivered to their homes. As they opened it and started poring over the contents (which comprised of images of the collection, fabric samples, pressed flowers and positive affirmations such as ‘keep looking up’ and ‘never compromise’), it became clear that this was a more intimate way to experience and explore a collection. “I like that the show became a more personal experience,” he says. “It lets the viewer in at their own discretion. When we went into full lockdown [in March], I was determined that we were going to show something, but the idea of a full fashion show was not possible, and it also didn’t feel current. I was doing research and came across Marcel Duchamp’s La boîte-en-valise (the box in a suitcase), and I thought, why don’t we translate the shows into that?” Creating a fashion time capsule of sorts, the moments of unwrapping went viral, and as social platforms weren’t being flooded with hundreds of other shows, it got more attention than one of his traditional presentations would have. “Instead of thinking, ‘Oh god, the world is a mess’, it was more of an opportunity to go, ‘OK, the world is really challenging at the moment, so let’s use this time to come up with a new creative medium.’ And I really enjoyed it. It was fun, as you still had the energy of the show, in terms of putting it all together, but, at the same time, got to explore something that you were forced to [review].”

Asymmetric shirt dress, and chain-embellished slippers, both JW Anderson

As for the collection itself, Anderson thought that it was a good time to look at the design codes he had built, including the idea of the shared wardrobe between men and women. “It was remarkable that we even got this collection made. We started it in December 2019, then had to stop, then revisit it, which was really hard. But it is also why I love this collection. I love the tailoring, the suit jackets, and the use of jersey is really interesting.” Anderson explored the idea of nostalgia within Britain – including the women’s suiting created after World War II – but also the idea of dialogue between imaginary characters; picturing them in a room together, having conversations.

We are creatures of habit and we want to get back to some type of normality, but in a way that feels different. So I have this feeling that people are going to want to explore fashion again
Jonathan Anderson
Tailored cargo jacket, JW Anderson
Tailored cargo jacket, cropped wide-leg pants, chain-embellished slippers, lid bucket bag, all JW Anderson

It’s interesting to see how creative directors have visualized us dressing in 2021, as they designed during the pandemic. And, for Anderson, it isn’t about remaining in sweatshirts but more about bias-cut floral dresses, patchwork jackets, gold brocade and wallpaper prints. “I think, from January through to June, we are going to see a resurgence in the idea of clothing, the idea of making an effort. We are creatures of habit and we want to get back to some type of normality, but in a way that feels different. So I have this feeling that people are going to want to explore fashion again.” Although he admits that we aren’t going to see it quite yet, due to it being the depth of winter and knowing that everyone, himself included, is quite frazzled. Which is where the exclusive athleisure capsule he has designed with NET-A-PORTER will keep us comfortable until we re-emerge on the other side. But he is positive about what 2021 holds. “There is promise in it for sure,” he says, through mouthfuls of black coffee. “I don’t think it is going to be a drastically different year, but there will be a bit more optimism.”

Anderson is a naturally positive person – though he says that he gets more cynical as he gets older – but he considers 2020 a milestone to be remembered. He bought items during the lower points of the year, to remember the experience by, including a small Christopher Wood painting. “I wanted it for a long time. It was painted in the 1920s, which was also a complicated period, and it still looks modern today. I wanted something that reminded me that life does continue on, and that creativity will always win out in the end.”

Fitted tank dress, and ‘Belt’ tote, both JW Anderson

JW Anderson was established 12 years ago, following a menswear degree at London College of Fashion and a very successful stint as a visual merchandiser at Prada, working alongside the visionary Manuela Pavesi. It became clear early on that Anderson was a challenger, and his greatest skill was knowing what we wanted to wear, long, long before we did – the perfect example of which are the exaggerated chain-embellished loafers that they simply can’t produce enough of to keep up with demand. Some people have branded them ugly, but the reality is that they are undoubtably the most influential (and worn) shoes of the season. In fact, in terms of sales across the board, 2020, incredibly, was a more successful year for the brand than the one previous. “Weirdly, I think that this pandemic has empowered brands. We’ve been able to focus more, and I realized that my own brand was ultimately under-potentialized. It was really inefficient in terms of delivery to market, and it wasn’t focused.”

The plan is to continue to make beautiful clothing that is trans-seasonal and easily takes you through the year, which sounds simple enough, but is not the way the fashion industry has been set up. Summer clothes are delivered in winter, winter clothes in summer, often infuriatingly for the customer. But Anderson feels fashion and the schedule is ready for a shake-up, and has been for a long time. “Even before the pandemic, change needed to happen. We are all caught in the fashion cyclone and, while we are nowhere near a clear-out, there needs to be a generational shift. For years, people and businesses have been talking about changing processes ‘one day’, and 2020 took it out of their hands and fast-tracked change. There will be a ‘changing of the guard’ and it will take us a little bit of time to get used to it. I think we need to let go and see where it takes us, instead of trying to control it.”

There are some amazing things happening in Britain in terms of brands, retailers and manufacturers, but they all have to start working together more
Jonathan Anderson
Hoodie, and sweatpants, both JW Anderson; sneakers, Veja
Dress, and chain-embellished slippers, both JW Anderson

Which is what he has come to realize is key for younger brands if they are going to survive, and yet, that isn’t what is necessarily being asked of them. Previously, the fashion industry has been guilty of backing lots of designers seasonally, and would see who or what would stick. But for them to survive in an even more unsteady market, it is about building those brands out with a long-term goal in sight. “It’s less about brands now, but ensuring they are building rational businesses that can work.”

He is passionate about the British fashion industry as a whole, knowing that if it is going to survive the next years of Brexit, it will have to reinvent itself from top to bottom. Craftsmanship is of huge importance to the JW Anderson aesthetic, and Anderson feels strongly that in the UK we need to protect that. “As we go off on our own here, as a country, which was voted for by the public,” he says, massive blue eyes widening in disbelief, “it is going to be about ideas. Ideas make money. There are some amazing things happening in Britain in terms of brands, retailers and manufacturers, but they all have to start working together more.”

It’s probably the reason Anderson is currently feeling more patriotic for where he came from than ever before. Growing up in Magherafelt in Northern Ireland, he knows that he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t been in that small village and had the idea of getting out. Escapism is a powerful catalyst. “It was always about looking to other worlds and seeing outside of the bubble. When you are in a big city, it is difficult to go to the next big city, but when you are in a little village, the big city will always feel novel.” London is now home, and while he regularly travels to Paris for Loewe, both brands get an equal amount of his time. “I split it 50/50. Loewe may have more complexities, as it has more stores, but it has a bigger team – and sometimes the problems in Loewe are easier to fix. JW has a smaller team, so there’s a lot more heavy lifting. But that is part of it. I am glad that JW is a brand that reflects what it is – it’s not bigger than it thinks it is – and we can take risks as we go.”

Sweater, Sunspel
Asymmetric shirt dress, JW Anderson

As he looks to 2021, Anderson plans to reduce his presentations, across both brands, from eight to four. While February isn’t looking too different, in his eyes, in terms of the reality of the fashion show returning, he also doesn’t think the ‘show in a box’ will return. “For me, there is a bit of experimentation at the moment, as I feel that part of me likes the parameter of a show. But, at the same time, how does that fit into today? Is it relevant? We have been looking at it from all different angles – cost-effectiveness, creativity, even logistically – as, ultimately, the whole calendar went out the window in 2020.” But it’s these challenges that keep Anderson interested, and also what make his collections so interesting, as he looks to spin a demanding situation into something that works for him – and, ultimately, into something that we all want to wear. Immediately.