Though the work of Northern Irish designer JONATHAN ANDERSON may be an acquired taste, there’s no denying his UNIQUE VISION, TECHNICAL BRILLIANCE and ground-breaking approach to fashion, says PENNY McCORMICK …
Jonathan Anderson loves Constance Spry. I’m delighted by this discovery, (though in hindsight it makes perfect sense), when I visit the impressive Casa Loewe in Madrid’s Salamanca district. Spread over three floors in a 19th-century building, the flagship store not only unites men’s, womenswear and accessories, but holds a mirror to the diversity and depth of Anderson’s inspirations and interests. Coming across as a control freak, which belies his casual appearance, he says, “I was involved in all aspects down to small details, technical things and every material used,” of the project which took several years to complete. One of his first requirements was to incorporate a flower shop (Loewe Flores) with a separate entrance, inspired by Spry, from which customers can buy (in addition to showpiece leather-bound hoes and other gardening tools), bouquets in her inimitable style. Anderson had his team scour the internet for original Spry pseudo-classic vases to sell, as well as commissioning a limited-edition calendar by Steven Miesel. No, not of nudes, but of still life floral compositions; the images striking in their classicism.
If we can claim the venerable Spry as the first Irish reference point within the store (she lived in Castlebawn and worked in the Dublin Red Cross during World War I), art connoisseurs will recognise a piece by the young Northern Irish sculptor Siobhán Hapaska, commissioned by Anderson and acquired through the Loewe foundation. Walking around the airy store, it is punctuated with art (by Sir Howard Hodgkin, Edmund de Waal, Richard Smith) which is all part of Anderson’s masterplan. “All I wanted from the beginning was to turn Loewe into a cultural brand rather than a fashion brand, and I feel like I’m going through that process.” Indeed he has said that his ideal customer is an art enthusiast, though this doesn’t detract from the retail offering. It’s hard not to be drawn to the wall of Puzzle bags, (I lust after the snakeskin version) for instance, or admire the rugs underfoot (by Jason Collingwood). Inviting rather than intimidating, with unexpected details (pottery by John Ward) the shopping ambience is a refreshing change to other stores at this luxury price point and the mix of limestone, wood and neutrals enhances the feeling of serenity.
Clearly this has much to do with Anderson’s character and youth (he’s 33), and experience in visual merchandising. He worked for Prada on the visual merchandising team in London, while studying at the London College of Fashion, and cites Manuela Pavesi – former right-hand woman to Miuccia Prada – as a major influence on his aesthetic. In the past he has also admitted that humour is a part of his design arsenal (check the sou’wester hats in the AW17 collection or the show invite on Irish linen with the words “You Can’t Take It With You,” for evidence) while his inspirations have run the gamut from Rasputin to ravers. His graduate collection (in 2005) featured resin insect necklaces, Aran knitwear and see-through underwear. Anderson has admitted it was “shockingly bad.” Hard to believe, given his success and subsequent sell-out collaborations with Topshop, Aldo, Versus and contracts with Sunspel and Swarovski, with whom he made crystallised shoes.
In little over ten years the former Derry native has been hailed in fashion circles as nothing short of a wunderkind; he was the first designer to win both womenswear and menswear designer in the same year at the British Fashion Awards (2015). He’s known primarily for his signature asymmetric cuts, intarsia knitwear, pleats, a prevalence of paisley prints and, let’s face it, the occasional ugly shoe. Then of course there are the headline-grabbing collections. So far, he’s put men in halternecks, dresses, lace shirts, leather togas and platform heels and is quick to cite Jean-Paul Gaultier when critics scratch their heads in disbelief at his experimentation. While he debuted his menswear at London Fashion Week in 2008, his first standalone collection for women was presented in AW11. By his own admission, Anderson hates the unisex moniker; “I find it very difficult to see the boundary between womenswear and menswear. I’ve never gone out to do something controversial, I find it mundane that people think that; there are a lot easier things out there to provoke a reaction.” Alexa Chung, Rihanna and Rita Ora are high-profile fans while he is found in all the best places – Liberty, Brown’s, 10 Corso Como, Opening Ceremony and Brown Thomas. He recently styled his outlet in Dover Street Market as a playground; his It Pierce bag nonchantly displayed on the steps of a slide.
Of course the infusion of capital from LVMH (in 2013) has done his eponymous brand no harm at all, while his appointment as creative director of Loewe in the same year was possibly one of the most inspired fashion hires of all time. The so-called “Spanish Hermès” had been languishing discreetly in its butter-soft leathers until Anderson entered stage right with a new look and a new logo. Anderson tells me the new branding is his “greatest achievement” to date. “It was about removing all the layers so we came up with a much simpler version.” Steven Miesel photographed his first campaign for the house and it referenced Anderson’s favourite 1997 editorial in Vogue starring Maggie Rizer and Kirsten Owen. This season sees the illustrations of Kelly Beeman take centre stage. Anderson’s endorsement has metasized her popularity and he undoubtedly has an alchemist’s touch. Loewe’s profits are up 300 per cent since he took over the reins. “For me the creative process is this giant patchwork of information. Today’s creative director has become more of a consumer of imagery or information in search of the new, weird and wonderful,” is how Anderson defines his role. Mission accomplished, I’d say, though I am impressed by how he maintains this level of creativity across two brands and three countries – he lives in London, (where his studio in Dalston is a former crack den), and commutes between Paris and Madrid.
Anderson credits his mother, a literature teacher, and his roots, for his narrative starting points. See former collections with names such as The Devoured and I and The Saint and the Assassin. Other sources he acknowledges are photographers William Gedney, Karlheinz Weinberger, the Irish designer Digby Morton and artists Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland. If these references are esoteric, it’s reassuring to know that Anderson’s original childhood plan was to be a vet, before treading the boards for a brief time in Washington DC. His father, international rugby hero Willie Anderson, was bemused, no doubt, by his son’s love of fabric. “I was obsessed with making pom poms and knitting. I used to make them into chicks and weird animals,” Anderson has said of his childhood years. Cute and cool at the same time: only Anderson can pull off this rare mix.
But back to the clothes. Anderson’s top picks this season are, “The needlepoint dresses and the arygle knit, plus the new versions of the iconic Barcelona, Hammock and Puzzle bags”. When I ask for styling tips he offers down-to-earth advice, “Do whatever makes you feel happy.” And as for selecting the perfect dress, “It has to be something you feel confident wearing and it has to be something that you feel represents you.”
With an impressive archive at his fingertips, Anderson admits his starting point is, “Where will the Loewe woman go next? How will she survive”? I doubt there is much cause for concern over her survival with Anderson’s vision. To purloin Spry, who famously advocated, “Do whatever you please, follow your own star; be original if you want to be and don’t be if you don’t want to”, Jonathan Anderson has followed his own star thus far and will be in the fashion firmament for a long time to come.
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