Meet London Fashion Week’s 'pride and joy', Derry-born Jonathan Anderson

Rachel Marie Walsh meets Derry-born Jonathan Anderson, London Fashion Week’s “pride and joy”.

Meet London Fashion Week’s 'pride and joy', Derry-born Jonathan Anderson

Rachel Marie Walsh meets Derry-born Jonathan Anderson, London Fashion Week’s “pride and joy”.

Two reasons for this business of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about fashion, from Lagerfeld Confidential to Dior and I, is that there are as many ways to do the job as there are designers and millions who wish to learn. And while such films climax in drama, I think most aspiring viewers would rather arrive at work three days before a show as Jonathan Anderson does: calm, focused and exuding omnicompetance.

He is done with his Autumn 2019 women’s wear collection, he tells me, in his Dalston studio. An exploration of volume with leather baseball hats and a pink fluffy coat everyone was talking about, it debuts to rave reviews.

Who wouldn’t want to learn from the 34-year-old behind JW Anderson, a multi-award winning ready-to-wear brand, part-owned by luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH)? He is also Creative Director for Loewe, an LVMH flagship, and produces seasonal collaborations with Converse footwear and high street giant Uniqlo. Previously he was a creative head for Sunspel, the luxury staple and British heritage brand, and is responsible for one of Topshop’s most successful designer collaborations to date.

Donatella Versace trusted him with her “baby,” the colourful contemporary line Versus, and compared him to her late brother Gianni. Sarah Mower MBE, the respected fashion journalist and British Fashion Council ambassador, credits him with single-handedly starting a gender-fluid approach to fashion that is now more mainstream and calls him “our pride and joy.” Have I mentioned he’s only been in business a decade or so?

And clothes really aren’t the whole story, alongside collections he moves between art, photography and accessory collaborations, always researching, producing and progressing at a frenetic pace. He nurtures relationships with some of the best journalists and editors in the world, and has an online following so beguiled that they make videos praising his accessories to sceptics.

This wasn’t even his first career choice.

Risk-taker

Jonathan Anderson wanted to be an actor. The son of Ulster and Ireland rugby great William Anderson and his wife Heather, an English teacher, he grew up in Magherafelt with his brother Thomas, who now does legal and operations work for JW Anderson, and sister Chloe. Attending The Actor’s Studio in Washington DC he recalls discovering himself but not really enjoying the course, though early experiences like constructing characters and totally immersion in a subject (James Dean was his idol), arguably served him well in fashion.

Returning to Ireland, he moved to Dublin, where his dad was coaching Leinster, and worked in Brown Thomas. He came to fashion through visual merchandising, dealing “dreams through the glass,” as Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo calls luxury retail’s scope to pitch product or even a whole world through a well-done window.

Taken with Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme and Prada, Anderson began arranging BT’s designer men’s wear of his own accord. This caught the eye of Manuela Pavesi, Prada’s fashion coordinator and an ex Vogue Italia editor, who became a professional mentor. He moved to London to study men’s wear at the London College of Fashion but by his own admission missed much of the first two years as a result of taking a job at Prada, which was a first-class education itself.

Jonathan Anderson at London Fashion Week
Jonathan Anderson at London Fashion Week

On-the-job learning at established brands is a consistent feature of his career and of great benefit to JW Anderson, his own platform. He began consulting for the Nottingham-based Sunspel after showing his first eponymous collection in 2008. His own men’s wear quickly impressed the BFC and Topshop’s NEWGEN commitee, which got him business support and sponsorship.

Yasmin Sewell, a consultant known for getting future stars on prestigious shopfloors, encouraged his move into women’s wear. Then an ‘it’ girl with a real job (Chief Creative Consultant at Liberty London), she is well photographed, so also served as an early ‘influencer’ while wearing JW Anderson. He quickly garnered support from style icons of his generation, too, including Alexa Chung and Chloé Sevigny, who wore JW Anderson to the 2015 Met Gala and later appeared in a campaign.

The brand’s A-list fans are authentically won, never pursued, with Anderson’s team as surprised and delighted as anyone to see Beyoncé or Jake Gyllenhaal out and about in ‘J-Dubz’ as the label is sometimes monikered. His collections start not with a starry muse but a fantasy character onto whom he projects the clothes, and for this he needs a partner.

Sounding board

That would be the handsome stylist Benjamin Bruno, who came to see Anderson’s NEWGEN collection in 2010 while he was an assistant to Carine Roitfeld, then editor of French Vogue. Bruno is a trained art critic who spent six years with Roitfeld and five with stylist Marie Amélie-Sauvé, long-term collaborator of designer Nicolas Ghesquière.

Now a consultant, his fashion background is more traditional than Anderson’s, with an emphasis on polished image-making and igniting desire in the consumer.

Bruno is also a writer (he came to fashion through newspapers) with an articulate, intellectual approach that Anderson says “confronts him,” aiding both creation and editing.

The two appear in a charming chapter of Fashion Together, Rizzoli (2017), for which SHOWstudio editor-at-large Lou Stoppard also profiled Philip Treacy and the late Isabella Blow. Tensions in their visual conversation often produce clothes with elements you’ve always liked mixed with some you’d take a chance on.

A trench with a polo’s collar, for example, a cold-shoulder dress with poet sleeves or a toffee leather mini-skirt with a drape panel that swishes as you walk (all three are available at jwanderson.com).

Teamplayer

“The Andersons are teamplayers,” says Sarah Mower, who always asks questions about a young designer’s formative years to gauge whether they’ll “stick.” She puts their son’s tenacity down to his strong work ethic and competitive nature, and also recalls a childhood anecdote in which he and his brother ran a plastic vegetable ‘shop’ called Andersons, with help from their mother.

His ability to sell a collection’s narrative, his storytelling, he attributes to his Irishness, calling literature the country’s greatest export. He shares his mother’s love of Seamus Heaney, one of whose readings he was taken to as a little boy.

He doesn’t see himself as a fashion designer. “I consider someone like Azzedine Alaïa a designer, I’m more of a Creative Director in that I embrace the idea of a team, an insular group of people I trust in and who advise me. I don’t do advertising but I will guide it, for example. It is sort of like conducting an orchestra.” His maternal grandfather, the former head of a textiles factory, taught him about manufacturing but also how to get a print right, sitting and perfecting it.

Their trips to car boot sales taught him to date and appreciate ceramics, as his grandfather sought out Staffordshire, Prattware, early British Delftware. Anderson doesn’t believe you are born with taste but that the eye can be trained, which must be part of what makes him a diligent study.

Anderson brings ceramicists like Joanna Wasson into his fold now too, through collaboration, boosting their craft while growing his brand.

Cultural conversation

As Kanye West is forever trying to explain to bemused DJs, fashion is DOA if you are not connecting. A voracious appetite for art and culture that’s common to designers he loved as a merchandiser helps keep JW Anderson consistently relevant. Not long before Anderson was photographed, in studded hobnail-boots, as a meteor British Vogue “would put money on” in 2011, I welcomed Raf Simons to the Swiss Textiles Fashion Awards’ tenth anniversary in Zurich.

Arriving from the airport in studded Prada loafers, a backpack over his shoulder, he wanted not a seat but directions to the nearest museums and galleries, so he could make efficient use of the short time before the evening’s events. Yes, all of them. Dior and I shows Simons’ marriage of graffiti artist Sterling Ruby with haute couture, a previously unimaginable fusion. Anderson demonstrates the same compound eye, drawing inspiration from endless angles.

A rare break in St Ives became a day at Barbara Hepworth’s home and then a fascination with the artist and Henry Moore that became the Hepworth Wakefield’s Disobedient Bodies exhibition in 2017. He recently launched a clothing and bag collaborative with disruptive artists Gilbert and George that totally chimes with his desire to keep JW Anderson “a cultural agitator.” Much like knowing a subject so well he could build a case for it in his sleep, intensively researching his “obsessions,” lets him show customers how great they are in cultural and wearable ways.

Part of that world

Innovative and especially gender-fluid work will always rub some journalists the wrong way, but one of the great perks of brand-building now is that you can grow your base and present your product directly, in a context of your own creation. JW Anderson fashion shows did something like this before Instagram, often including relevant artwork. A minimal set, inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Quad and Japanese Zen gardens, gave a cohesive look to February’s show, in which models circled a piece of grey carpet set with rocks rather than streaming before us, défilé-style.

JW Anderson maintains two Instagram accounts, both vibrating with his passions du jour. Screens serve as a tech-age shop window, and both the launch of the brand’s e-commerce store, in 2014, and social media help the brand know and influence customers, taking them inside a world of their creation and, as Anderson told Lou Stoppard in 2015, “getting a flock of birds to move in the one direction.”

JW Anderson’s own store on Shoreditch High Street is both comfortable and engaging, distinct from the more untouchable Knightsbridge homes of other LVMH brands. The name ‘JW Anderson Workshops’ hints at a curatorial approach to merchandising pioneered by Adrian Joffe at the Dover Street Market, where products by established brands are mixed with young creators in a personable space. Exposure to art, books and projects, to exclusive designs as well as JW Anderson’s catwalk collections, makes it a wonderful place to visit. Even if you buy nothing it leaves you with something.

Endless potential

In September 2013 luxury conglomerate LVMH took a stake in JW Anderson and made him Creative Director of Loewe. Spain’s oldest luxury house was established in Madrid in 1846 as a leather workshop and later became the official leather supplier to the royal family.

Model on the catwalk at the JW Anderson London Fashion Week SS19
Model on the catwalk at the JW Anderson London Fashion Week SS19

Loewe was purchased by LVMH in 1995. Anderson called it “the Oxford University,” of luxury houses in a statement, in keeping with a man constantly learning from established names while he creates what they’ll be selling next season. He left Sunspel in 2014 but not before JW Anderson collaborated with them on a collection of perfect basics that illustrated all he’d gleaned.

Anderson’s hectic schedule is now roughly divided between his own London label and Loewe’s ready to wear business, based in Paris. He tries to take Augusts off, as he returns from the break “feeling ten years younger.” Logistics part-motivated the transfer of JW Anderson’s men’s show to the Paris schedule this year, though he was back in London in for a packed women’s presentation at Yeomanry House, where longtime fan Anna Wintour sat front row. His career still seems filled with potential. Marc Jacobs, who left Louis Vuitton the richest luxury brand the world just before LVMH signed Anderson to its sister brand, grew his own eponymous brand to the point of IPO rumours while there. Anderson is so driven there seems no apparent limit. “I’m addicted to working, to moving things forward. Ultimately you are the one who sets the pressure and it’s high if you want to be the best in your field. And I do.”

For more spring fashion and beauty features, pick up your free 64-page glossy magazine, IE Style, in Saturday's Irish Examiner.

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