Monday, 15 July 2024

Jonathan Anderson

The most riveting designer of today may not know exactly how to make a shirt

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But he does know how to steer two completely different fashion houses simultaneously towards the sunny shores of success. Jonathan Anderson is a cunning strategist and a brilliant poster boy for meaningful fashion in the age of Instagram. He is rapidly rejuvenating the venerable Spanish leather label Loewe while turbo-boosting his own radical concern, JW Anderson. He’s 30 years old, by the way. Jonathan is rarely seen in anything other than jeans, sneakers and a navy jumper. But here, especially for the pages of this magazine, he dresses up in his own bold designs – a spectacular departure indeed.

From Fantastic Man n° 21 — 2015
Text by CAROLINE ROUX
Photography by DAVID SIMS
Styling by JOE McKENNA

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Jonathan Anderson’s house in north London doesn’t look like the home of a superstar designer. It’s thoroughly pleasant and on a quiet residential street of identical 19th-century terraced houses. The neighbours are a mix of the newly arrived middle class and the outgoing blue-collar residents who were the area’s mainstay in previous decades. And then there’s Beth Ditto. “Well, I see her going into a basement flat over the road, so I think she lives there,” says Jonathan, who likes to sit looking out of the big bay window.

Jonathan bought the house from an actor (“but not a famous one”) who was in the ‘Harry Potter’ films. The area wasn’t his first choice – that was the more glamorous and less affordable Highbury & Islington. But it is conveniently close to the Dalston studio that his company JW Anderson moved into last June, following LVMH’s investment in a minority share in September 2013. “I have no debts anymore, which is great,” says Jonathan, ruffling his hand back and forth and back and forth through his sandy hair and recalling a time not so long ago when he was so poor that he had to abandon his flat and sleep in his old studio on Shacklewell Lane – a building that still houses his fellow designer Christopher Kane and the LN-CC concept store.

It had been a while since LVMH, the conglomerate that owns blue-chip brands including Dior and Louis Vuitton, had invested in such young talent: Jonathan was not even 30, and had built his reputation on dressing skinny boys in ruffled hems, halter-necked tops and other awkwardly androgynous fare. “We’ve been busy fixing older brands like Givenchy and Céline for a few years,” admits Pierre-Yves Roussel, the chairman and CEO of LVMH, on the phone from Paris. “But we’ve watched Jonathan grow and we’ve seen his potential. There are a lot of talented designers out there. But it’s rare to find someone who can create their own brand and identity. You’re looking at another set of skills, someone with vision and belief.”

Now the staff in JW Anderson’s Dalston studio numbers 36, 15 of whom are designers and are overseen by CEO Simon Whitehouse, formerly of Diesel and Matthew Williamson. “We only need to make sure that Jonathan’s in a configuration that doesn’t overstretch him,” says Roussel. Indeed, the true scale of LVMH’s ambitions for the designer only became really clear when, shortly after it had bought into his brand, it went on to appoint Jonathan as creative director of Loewe, the Madrid-based house that was established in 1846.

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Jonathan was born on 17 September, 1984 in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland.

Roussel talks of Loewe as LVMH’s “best kept secret,” though its posh discretion has been looking a bit like irrelevance, too. Jonathan, apparently unfazed by 167 years of history, quickly turned its identity through 180 degrees, towards the carefree Spain of sunny Ibiza, leaving behind a past hidebound by stuffy haute bourgeois values. “In my sort of brattishness I wasn’t even going to look at the archive in the beginning,” says Jonathan, “because brands are not museums; they have to be functional. But then I did look and I thought, well, we’d better capitalise on it before someone else does. The knot motif comes from it. The X on the men’s bag – that goes back to the 1940s.”

Every morning Jonathan rises at six to go to the gym in Finsbury Park, where he spends time on the treadmill. Then he returns home for a boiled egg on toast in the large and tasteful kitchen where his English pointers like to hang out. His house has four bedrooms, and one is occupied by his 25-year-old brother, Thomas “TJ” Anderson, and Thomas’s girlfriend. “They’re getting married and, in theory, they should be moving out,” says Jonathan. His brother had been a promising professional rugby player, like their father, until he shattered his shoulder. “Now he looks after human resources at JW Anderson – the hard part,” says Jonathan, who is the eldest. His sister, a pharmacist, has stayed in Ireland. “She’s the one who drives too fast; my parents keep going on about it,” he says.

The bookshelves of his sitting room where we drink tea are filled with art books and vintage magazines, many from IDEA and November, London booksellers specialised in sourcing out-of-print art catalogues and fashion publications. Recent acquisitions include issues of the seminal Comme des Garçons magazine ‘Six’ and a ‘Vogue Paris’ from 1976, edited by Roman Polanski. A framed black-and-white William Gedney photograph of a man leaning against a car is propped up against a wall. It’s a 1970s image that found its way onto a T-shirt in the JW Anderson collection. “He’s not very well known, but Bruce Weber is a huge fan of his work,” says Jonathan.

He’s barely had time to decorate – “I’ve painted one room in a rush and I hate it,” he says – though he’s already scattered some of his favourite Arts and Crafts style furniture around the place, including two handsome armchairs by Baillie Scott. “I have a thing with Arts and Crafts, which is now turning into an obsession,” he says. “I just love the functionality of it. I just love how it will always be modern, no matter what will happen.”

He asks his assistant Ruth to make us some more tea, but she can’t get out of the room when the door-knob refuses to turn. “We’ll have to fix that before ‘Vogue’ gets here,” says Jonathan ruefully, referring to an interior shoot that’s been lined up with the American edition. Nowadays, Jonathan is on first-name terms with the magazine’s editor-in-chief, having turned to Anna Wintour for advice in 2012 when he received a proposal from Topshop that would result in the retailer’s best-selling designer collaboration to date.

The following year saw an Anderson-designed capsule collection for Versus at the behest of Donatella Versace. Then in December last year, Jonathan was summoned to the stage of the red-plush London Coliseum Theatre to collect the British Fashion Council’s Menswear Designer of the Year award, surprised to have triumphed over the three other well-established contenders: Tom Ford, Christopher Bailey and Paul Smith. In a sharply cut tuxedo and shiny black shoes – not his more customary outfit of a navy cashmere sweater, faded jeans and Converse – Jonathan gripped the award and read from a postcard: “What people think is often irrelevant, and what people feel is everything.”

The right people are certainly feeling Jonathan Anderson right now. Suzy Menkes, the queen mother of fashion commentary, is so enamoured that she reportedly sang him Happy Birthday at two 30th-birthday dinners – one in London and one in New York. Karl Lagerfeld is also a fan, as is Carine Roitfeld. “He defined his signature so fast and everything is done with an energy that I like. I’m a big fan of the collections and the person,” she told me.

It’s all a long way from his first-ever show, staged even before he left college in 2007: a slightly crazed affair in a Shoreditch office building with models (hastily found on the street) striking still-life poses and Justin Bond performing.

Jonathan William Anderson was born in 1984 in Magherafelt, a small Northern Irish town, typical of its type – all white skies and bungalows. His father, Willie, was a professional rugby player (later a national coach and now a motivational speaker) and his mother taught English and French. Northern Ireland was still going through the Troubles. “One day I’d go into school and the next day I’d go and the town would have been blown up,” says Jonathan, who was 14 years old at the time of the Omagh bombing that spurred on the peace process. “That was the turning point. Sometimes I feel like a country has to vomit on itself to realise how disgusting it is.”

Jonathan buried himself in fashion magazines, while his mother had a taste for amateur dramatics. “She was part of the Rainy Players,” says Jonathan. “I remember seeing her on stage once, in ‘Blood Brothers’ in Belfast. And I was an all-singing, all-dancing child. I was obsessed with ‘Sunset Boulevard’. I went to go see it nine times when it was in Belfast. It’s the characters that still get me: they’re so dark and twisted. Kinda fucked.”

His mother’s family, originally from England, were in the textile business. “My grandfather was a director of a huge linen company, Lamonts, at a time when Ireland was making a fortune out of linen and tea towels,” says Jonathan. “My parents were not overly wealthy. They were middle class. But they worked very hard and they spent above their means.” Twenty years ago, they bought a villa in the Ibizan village of San Carlos. “My dad was smart. My mother always hated him for buying it because it was draining money and then, obviously, the euro came in and now Ibiza has become ridiculously expensive and they’re renting it out and it’s all grand.” Jonathan escaped there to plan his Loewe campaign.

After leaving school Jonathan went to the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory in Washington, DC, where he spent 18 months and then six in New York. “I’d been a good child, a straight arrow; I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke. But I got off that plane in DC and I went absolutely mental. I would go to drama school during the day and then I would be out every single night,” he recalls.

The United States proved a formative experience in other ways. He dressed like James Dean – “I was obsessed!” – and sat in cinemas, chain-smoking and watching old movies. He landed a part as an understudy in Howard Goodall’s celebrated reworking of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. “I was on stage in a pair of briefs with leaves stuck on my chest. I’m glad those pictures will never, ever surface. I was obnoxiously skinny.” And it was there he felt the call of the Costume Department.

Back in Ireland, he took a job in the Dublin department store Brown Thomas in order “to pay back seven grand of credit-card debt, of vodka. It was the time of the Miu Miu collection with burgundy leather, perforated with navy panels. Tom Ford was still big at Gucci, Stefano Pilati at Saint Laurent. And then there was Hedi Slimane at Dior men’s,” he says with a fashionista’s total recall. Slimane’s slender male silhouette was Jonathan’s favourite.

Jonathan set his sights on studying fashion in London. Central Saint Martins, he says, wouldn’t even consider him for a foundation course, but he managed to squeeze into the London College of Fashion’s menswear strand, which successfully creates industry-ready graduates rather than CSM-style superstars. “He fitted our criteria,” says Alan Cannon Jones, the course director and a highly skilled tailor. “Jonathan was keen and interested, and talked well about the industry, and designers who inspired him. He was memorable.”

He was also largely absent from school. “He was always there for the project briefing and always handed everything in on time,” Cannon Jones continues. “But we didn’t see him in between. The interaction he wanted was outside of college. Each person has to find their own route. But I think we were kind to him. We didn’t know if he’d make it in his own right or become the top salesman at Prada.”

Indeed, Prada, in his early college days, had become Jonathan’s second home. Andrew Webster, then looking after visual display for the stores in London, Paris and Milan under the watchful eye of Miuccia Prada’s trusted right-hand woman, Manuela Pavesi, had met Jonathan at Brown Thomas and then again in London when he came looking for a job. “He was a shop boy who hated selling. He didn’t want to talk to anyone,” says Andrew. “He’d been asking me what look Manuela was into, and at that time she was obsessed with Prada’s Holiday & Brown pyjamas. She used to wear them with wedges she’d bought in Japan, half a million pounds’ worth of jewellery and a black headband.” The next time Manuela was in town, “Jonathan arrived at Old Bond Street dressed in a vintage paisley-print dressing gown, hacked off to the knee, over a plain white T-shirt and skinny black Dior jeans. He was trying to outdo Manuela Pavesi! But she loved him. She knew he’d be a star.”

Meanwhile, at college, Jonathan made the most of the facilities. “He was very good at finding people to help. He used his technician time to the maximum. He had management skills even then,” says Cannon Jones.

“I’m never going to be an Alaïa,” Jonathan tells me later. “That’s never going to be my trait. I’ll never know how to cut a shirt. But I know what shirt I like.” That shirt might be frilled or tied with a bow, sailor-collared or sporting a single, celebratory button. “I’ve never been into the macho form. I think it’s too overt,” he says. “And I hate a guy in a three-piece suit. I hate a guy in a waistcoat. They make men look so unfree, completely restricted. Like, socially crippled. For me, menswear has to be pushed. You have to proceed with conviction.” I ask him how much of his own collection he wears himself. “The menswear is always going to be a fantasy of something that is not me,” he says. “I will never wear a crop top. But I love the idea of that character who does.”

Indeed, Jonathan’s theatrical past has not been wasted. “Fashion is storytelling,” he says, “and I admire big productions.” His include the young London photographer Jamie Hawkesworth’s images, Benjamin Bruno’s styling, and the pleasantly odd-ball campaigns for Loewe: dry pack-shot images of handbags, or, for the current season, a series of old self-portraits by the normally super reclusive Steven Meisel.

Jonathan pitched for the Loewe job by creating a handmade book of imagery and ideas that represented his light, sunny vision for the haughty brand. They included an image that Steven Meisel shot for Italian ‘Vogue’ in 1997 of beautiful young people hanging out on a beach. Once he’d got the job, he went on to charm Meisel into reshooting the picture for his first Loewe campaign. “We didn’t want to hide behind the inspiration; we wanted to show it all off,” he says.

“Ultimately, I want to collaborate with people,” says Jonathan. “I feel like it’s the team that makes the brand.” He identifies his own role, variously, as a “figurehead”, a “coach” and a “cult leader”, before alighting on the following: “Your friends are the people you work with. They have to be, because it’s like living in a dorm with people.” But he aims high. He enlisted the esteemed French art director duo M/M Paris to jazz up the Loewe logo, turning its four stiff Ls into a curly-wurly decal de nos jours. Michel Gaubert organises the music for his shows and super stylist Joe McKenna works on the Loewe campaigns.

FANTASTIC MAN - JONATHAN is wearing an orange cardigan and black wool trousers by J.W.ANDERSON.
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But it is perhaps the dark and intense Frenchman Benjamin Bruno whose influence is the most acute. In 2010 Jonathan participated in a showroom event that showcased British talent during Paris Fashion Week. Carine Roitfeld, then still at the helm of ‘Vogue Paris’, attended with her then-assistant Benjamin in tow. “He was standing next to a rack of clumsy T-shirts and awkward, crafty pieces exhibited like febrile trophies of youth – wrong and sweet,” recalls Benjamin. “Like an adolescent who had obviously spent sleepless nights trying to reconcile his dreams, probably by candlelight in a dishevelled kitchen with an empty fridge. There was no fashion relevance.”

Bruno, though, was smitten. As was Jonathan, who contacted the stylist via Facebook and sent him a William Gedney T-shirt, which led to a meeting in London. Benjamin, who by then had left ‘Vogue’, simply never went home. “We spent a month in his kitchen, night and day, putting together shapes, fabric and an identity for the brand,” says Bruno, who now numbers Riccardo Tisci, Chanel and Céline among his clients. “There was no money, no resources, but we were excited to achieve something together. I would give anything to get back that moment of raw freedom.”

The subsequent collection of JW Anderson stood out: chic and restrained, but with enough transgression to make it ever so slightly unsettling. And at a time when the London womenswear runway is still dominated by the “Downing Street dress” (pretty prints aimed at the Asian market) and the menswear runway by the easy style of labels like Christopher Shannon, Anderson’s more unlikely androgynous approach has kept the critics keen. While Benjamin and Jonathan’s romance has dwindled, their combined creative might has prevailed. “We’ve probably spent every day together since that show,” says Bruno. “Jonathan is a dreamer but a strategist and a staunchly pragmatic business-driven individual, too. I’m a staunch dreamer. On paper we could hate each other, but we don’t.”

Elsewhere in the team is Jonathan’s former boss at Prada. Andrew Webster is now head of image at JW Anderson, and is currently flying around the world opening a rash of JW Anderson concessions in prestigious spots such as Jeffrey in New York and Dover Street Market in Tokyo, all identified by groupings of bright-blue, high-density foam blocks. “Jonathan and Benjamin saw them in a children’s playground in Venice,” says Andrew. “They cost a fortune, but we wanted colour and energy. Not gold-and-black old-school extravaganza. JW Anderson is an ultra-modern brand.”

But then, Jonathan Anderson has never played the backward-looking heritage game. At Sunspel, the 154-year-old basics brand where he was creative director between 2011 and 2014, he says he was “trying to find newness. Heritage shouldn’t be confused with vintage. The Sunspel brand started in 1860, but it was never meant to be vintage.”

When Jonathan took over Loewe in 2013, he started stripping out the stores – of which there are now about 150 – almost immediately. What used to be glitzy spaces devised by the luxury industry’s favourite interior designer, Peter Marino, are now undergoing a transformation that says much about Jonathan’s intentions for the brand as a whole. “I think luxury fashion is over,” he says. “I’m much more interested in fashion as culture.”

FANTASTIC MAN - Here JONATHAN is wearing a silk striped shirt-and-trouser combination by J.W.ANDERSON from the current season and white leather gloves from the J.W.ANDERSON archive.

The new Loewe concept store in Milan was first on his list, and it’s a remarkably cosy affair for the city’s Golden Triangle shopping district, featuring a rare bench by William Morris and an owl cabinet by Ambrose Heal, which, like Jonathan’s own Arts and Crafts pieces, have been provided by The Millinery Works, a specialist dealer near his London home. “I thought, let’s buy the best pieces we can afford and let’s put them in the store. Then for the store in Tokyo, we said, let’s work with the most amazing local ceramicist and put his work on display.” For the soon-to-open Loewe store in Miami’s Design District, Jonathan bought a centuries-old Spanish farm building and had it shipped over to the States to be rebuilt inside the premises.

A few weeks after our first meeting in Stoke Newington, I find myself at the Loewe headquarters in Paris, in a ridiculously elegant, grand building (Catherine Deneuve occupies its top floor) where the company installed itself in 2014, moving from Madrid at Anderson’s request. It has a dramatic double staircase and views of Saint-Sulpice Church. “Madrid is mega fun, and after I got the lease on this building I kind of regretted moving the company,” says Jonathan, ruffling his hair and uncurling his long body on a charcoal sofa. “Madrid is so removed – very relaxed, good food, good wine, good people. But sometimes you have to move the studio from the source a bit; the factory needs breathing space. The designers I have would literally sample 20,000 bags a week if they were there.” LVMH’s CEO, Roussel takes a more pragmatic view. “We wanted a good creative team, and it’s easier to do that in Paris,” he says. The talk is that talent has been sucked out of several competitors’ houses, leaving certain colleague designers a bit peeved.

Now the Parisian staff at Loewe number 100; among them is Sandra, a motherly type and Jonathan’s personal assistant. She’s been with the company for 14 years and, thanks to Jonathan, is back in her hometown after more than a decade. “She makes sure I turn up and do everything in the right way,” says Jonathan, and Sandra beams. They often dine together, sometimes at Davé, that peculiarly dark and cultish Chinese restaurant that’s the Paris fashion world’s canteen. “Well, it’s kind of hilarious,” says Jonathan. “But really, we like a terrace so we can smoke,” says Sandra. “Like the Café de Flore.” For now, he stays at L’Hôtel, a fairly lavish boutique establishment just a walk away. “It was good enough for Oscar Wilde,” he says.

Today Jonathan is wearing Loewe jeans of his design, a stiff sailor cut in black denim with a deep white turn-up. He’s lighting a cigarette by an open window. On the floor below, the latest womenswear collection for the house is on display: chequerboard leather tops, glamorously loose leather trousers, dresses dangling with suede appliqués – less a tightly edited series than an array of spectacular and strange pieces brought together by one tireless mind.

With six collections for Loewe a year (two for men, four for women) and six for JW Anderson, he certainly has a more demanding workload than the average 30 year old, as well as an unusually ambitious five-year goal. “For a start, I want everyone to know how to say the name,” he says. (It’s Low-ey-vey.) “And I want someone like my mother to recognise it when they walk through the airport. I want it to be a very large brand, and I’m not leaving until it’s done.” But then he’s clearly unfazed by hard graft or dogged by self-doubt.

“Ultimately you have to work, and then you have a personal life,” he continues. “But those are two very separate things. You have to separate them. I used to mix them and it was a nightmare, and now I have a complete line in the sand. Everything is compartmentalised. I have three PAs, which may sound excessive. But there are three different brands.” Three? “The third is myself. Which is making sure there is food in the fridge.”

CONTRIBUTIONS

Photographic assistance by Alex Dias, Tomo Inenaga, Rob Wiley and Jacob McFadden. Styling assistance by Gerry O’Kane. Hair styling by Paul Hanlon. Grooming by Hiromi Ueda. Set design by Poppy Bartlett. Digital operation by Douglas Irvine. Production by Art House.