Once a conservative footnote in European luxury fashion, Spanish brand Loewe has found itself on the backs of A$AP Rocky and Pusha-T thanks to the work of Northern Irish designer and brand creative director Jonathan Anderson. How did he do it?
Loewe's formative steps are much like those of its European counterparts, rooted in accessories rather than clothing. Founded in Madrid in 1846, Loewe spent more than 100 years dealing in leather purses and handbags, even producing them for Spain's royal family, before launching its ready-to-wear collections in 1965.
Even then, Loewe took slow steps toward international prominence, something that's hard to consider when you see it on the backs of just about every relevant rapper and sports star in the world right now. It did this without pandering to the masses, preferring to pioneer trends rather than follow them.
The man responsible for that is Jonathan Anderson, perhaps better known as the founder and designer of JW Anderson. And to understand how Anderson became the creative director that pushed the brand to new heights, it’s important to first look back at Loewe’s liberation in the fashion world.
First came the end of Franco's fascist dictatorship in Spain in 1975, and then LVMH's acquisition of the brand in 1996. Both steps helped propel the brand into the industry gatekeepers' line of vision. The appointment of creative director Stuart Vevers in 2007, fresh from giving Mulberry a facelift, solidified it. Vevers was instrumental in putting Loewe into the luxury fashion conversation on a wider scale beyond leather goods, putting more fluid and feminine garments to the fore.
By the time Vevers stepped down to head up American accessories label Coach in 2013, Anderson had already made waves with his eponymous brand in London and proved himself a commercially viable one-to-watch with a sellout Topshop collaboration, a hot collection for Versus by Versace and a well-received collaboration with Uniqlo. For Loewe, a brand vying for the kind of industry clout it had struggled to pin down in ready-to-wear, hiring someone who understood how to craft desirable luxury was imperative.
JW Anderson started out as a menswear brand before expanding into womenswear three years later, a decision Anderson made when he realized how niche luxury menswear is compared with the much more lucrative world of designing for women. Upon his arrival at Loewe in 2013, he mirrored that transition, opening up the brand to greater elegance and a more left-field approach, and establishing a new menswear line. While the former is rightfully celebrated, the latter was instrumental in giving the brand real clout.
The addition of a young, culturally aware designer like Anderson to a conservative fashion house is characteristic of LVMH, which has revitalized brands such as Celine with Phoebe Philo and Hedi Slimane, not to mention the appointments of Kim Jones and Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. Rihanna, arguably the modern era's most culturally relevant creative talent, has just been given her own LVMH label, suggesting an update to the conglomerate's youth-courting approach.
Anderson taking the reins at Loewe coincided with an era that saw enjoying fashion become, well, fashionable. Younger people started to save up cash (or beg their parents) to replicate the wardrobes of their pop culture idols, particularly the hip-hop elite. The luxury streetwear revolution was underway, making it just as likely that a young person would splash out $300 on a designer T-shirt as they would a PlayStation.
Anderson’s understanding of pop culture and the power of association has helped elevate Loewe to a new level of cool. Before Anderson’s arrival, the brand had a reputation for being stuffy and strait-laced. But he wasn’t tactless in his interpretation of menswear, as many chose to be. As great design and meme culture overlapped, Anderson’s interpretation of millennial/Gen Z fashion was more refined than his competitors, and everyone lapped it up.
Many luxury houses put out bulky sneakers and logo tees, but Anderson stuck to his guns, focusing on sartorial pieces and soft knitwear. He knew these items didn’t need to be haughty or for the stuck-up gatekeepers of luxury, bringing an edge to tradition instead. Anderson did, however, oversee a subtle update of the Loewe logo by Paris design duo M/M to align it more closely with its origins as a branding iron for cattle and leather. Loewe's signature white, known as "humo," was also added to all of the brand's packaging.
Anderson's first Loewe collections toyed with the codes of masculinity and femininity and tapped into his obsession with the beach and coastlines. He grew up 10 minutes from a lake in the town of Londonderry and spent much of his childhood on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Sailor stripes and neckerchiefs were everywhere, and the exaggerated turn-ups on his denim earned them the name "fisherman jeans."
By the time his Spring 2016 collection came around, though, he’d balanced those hallmarks with pop cultural ones, too, creating manga-print suits, Disney Goofy and Dumbo sweatshirts, and pajamas adorned with princesses. In a time when maximalism was at fashion's forefront, Anderson’s Loewe occupied its modest middle ground.
After the hype surrounding streetwear-leaning designers started to assimilate into the mainstream, influential figures such as A$AP Rocky and Pusha-T, prompted by stylists Matthew Henson and Marcus Paul, stepped into the world of Loewe as a cool crossover brand untarnished by hype and offering something refined yet contemporary.
Pusha-T was an early adopter, donning a navy knitted sweater with a safety pin motif for the cover of Crack magazine in March 2016. He was later photographed wearing one of the brand’s illustrated back-print tees, a meeting of logomania and high art. Rocky soon followed suit, donning Loewe pieces including a light short-sleeved shirt printed with bird-like dinosaur designs and an oversized leather backpack.
In many ways, some of the brand’s most famous pieces feel like a conversation between the artist wearing them and Anderson himself, a desire on both sides to be noticed without compromising integrity. Take the now-ubiquitous paisley print as an example. Worn by the likes of Rocky and Push before reaching the backs of basketball players James Harden and P.J. Tucker, it takes a piece historically worn by rappers — the paisley bandana — and creates something more refined from it.
The design, comprising sewn-together bandanas in different colors, pays homage to the origins of hip-hop fashion in a way that doesn’t feel on the nose or disrespectful. The construction is also an important factor. A pattern that could easily have been emblazoned on a T-shirt instead takes the form of shirts, tailored shorts, and trousers. Anderson, it almost seems, was future-proofing his own work.
For a generation of tastemakers wanting to wear the near-future of fashion, Loewe offered everything: recognizable hallmarks, homages to street culture, and a vision of where things would be heading next.
Anderson’s big, billowing suits — like this candy-pink tuxedo worn by A$AP Rocky at a pre-Grammys party this year — are a prime example of those pieces, pairing pop colors with on-trend silhouettes and a construction that pushes the boundaries of menswear. The dandy-like elongated sleeves and grandiose lapels of Rocky's suit border on camp, and while it would have killed at the Met Gala, it’s hardly what the masses are yearning for.
Such is the power of hip-hop. Rappers are modern fashion influencers who have broken down the exclusivist barriers of the industry, and whatever they choose to wear becomes cool instantly. Anderson and Rocky's tight-knit relationship is a key pillar in Loewe’s success. By enlisting Rocky, most recently as the face of the brand’s Spring/Summer 2019 lookbook, inspired by the colors and beaches of Ibiza, Anderson has given us a new vision of cool. It’s no longer sneakers and tees; it’s kitsch sunglasses, fine knitwear in popping colors, and beach towel print sun hats.
For any other brand coming up in the era of peak streetwear, such daring would be considered risky. But Anderson didn’t pander to anyone. He did something different, recontextualizing menswear in the process. Looking back, it’s strange to think that Loewe was once an austere brand. But Jonathan Anderson, one of the fashion industry’s greatest talents, added art, beauty, and a dab of populism, and now everyone wants a piece of Loewe — not just Spanish royalty.