Hosted by Highsnobiety’s Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency spoke with fashion designer Jonathan Anderson, creative director of Loewe and JW Anderson.
As creative director of his London-based namesake fashion label JW Anderson, and at Spanish luxury leather goods house Loewe, Jonathan Anderson has been on the front lines of the European fashion scene for over a decade. And unlike many of his peers, he’s been able to innovatively adapt to the ever changing landscape of luxury while keeping an ear out to the desires of the young, yet highly influential, generation of fashion shoppers that dictate the market today.
Whether it’s sitting A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean, and photographer Tyler Mitchell front row at his Loewe shows and strategically launching youthful sub lines Paula’s Ibiza and Eye/LOEWE/Nature, to rethinking the entire show concept with his ‘shows in a box’ for both his brands and curating an entire art exhibition, Anderson continuously pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a creative director at a fashion house today.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Season 2, Episode 5. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: Jonathan, where are you at?
Jonathan Anderson: I've been going to Paris now for the last week-and-a-half since they've allowed me back in the country. Let's see how long that lasts. It's good to be back in the office. I've been working throughout the whole process but it's nice to be touching things again.
During this time, a lot of people are asking what a brand is and what meaning it fills in their lives. Then this idea of creative directorship is equally evolving.
You know, I think it's kind of a generational move. I think it's probably influenced from a period that happened in menswear. One of my first jobs was working in a department store called Brown Thomas. And when I was working there, it was the birth of a moment. You had Hedi Slimane at Dior, Tom Ford at YSL and Gucci. I think those two individuals really changed the way in which brands were being dealt with. If you look back at Gucci, advertising was incredibly conceptual. It was a huge moment for the brand. And then you had Hedi Slimane rebranding Dior Men's, which was derived from this idea of music. And I grew up in that period of working in a department store at that moment and I think it’s probably influenced a lot of people subconsciously. [For] the next generation it was about how it could be taken further into the 21st century.
Once upon a time this idea of what a brand was, and I'm talking about decades ago, was just about having a great product. Then this idea of content came around, then this idea of retail and community and then values were added, and now it's all of the above. Why did it evolve like that?
We’re living in the period where brands cannot just [be] what they used to be. We want them to stand for more and we want them to do more, ultimately. It has to be more than just a luxury commodity. It has to be about why do you put that outfit out? It’s about the make, it’s about branding, it’s about culture. When I joined Loewe, I really struggled with the concept of luxury. I didn't really agree with the principal of luxury because I think luxury has lost its cache. What I thought was that we were living in a moment where it wasn't really about luxury, it was more about how culturally important brands are to where you live or where it's based and the people that are employed in that. That's why everything that we did in the beginning was to go against that. I wanted everything that had the idea of a [traditional] luxury brand to be removed.
First of all, I think for brands to work today it’s by product. You can’t live in some sort of weird utopia where you can do whatever you want and that's it. There has to be an end result within the product and it has to have functionality, it has to have desirability, it has to be well made. There has to be a narrative. For me my whole thing with Loewe before I joined is that I felt like it was a follower. It was following trends and reproducing functionality so it was just product for the sake of product's sake. But then I had this thing where I was like, "I have this amazing brand at my fingertips that really [had] this history of making. We've got an incredibly old atelier that's been going for hundreds of years and it's a generational thing." So for me it was [about] focussing on the idea of ‘make’.
In society we've gotten to a weird point where we don't actually know where things come from anymore. We’ve nearly [gotten] into a situation where it's easier to follow than to lead which I think is a very interesting concept in this period. It's like we don't want leaders, we just want followers and maybe that’s to do with social media.
I'm fascinated about this idea of influence lately, and if we talk about product in that aspect, when is the right time to create something completely from scratch and when is it the right time to continue a narrative a bit longer?
Well I think it's looking around you and looking at societal, political and art movement shifts. I always think it subconsciously informs you in the way in which you should tackle product. Sometimes I feel like I need to digress or look backwards to the archive, the history of the brand to maybe sometimes see within culture that there is a return to a type of nostalgia. Maybe there are patterns that emerge. Sometimes it's about accelerating and at the same time, putting on the breaks. It's a bit of a balancing act I find.
In a way creative directors are almost becoming curators today. That's obviously what you've been doing at Loewe and at JW Anderson from early on. This art side and looking at craft. How does that curation fit into this holistic vision, as at the end of the day you are selling fashion.
My relationship to craft and art is weirdly conflicted in my own work because I feel like there’s part of me that deep down wants to run away from the idea of fashion [as] I’m more [romantic] towards art. I think it's probably because I don't make it and just have fun with it. I do sometimes have this weird psychological thing when you make something, trying to wear it is quite difficult. It's nearly like an actor looking at a film that they're in. It's a very odd psychological confrontation. For example when I did ‘Disobedient Bodies’, it was about looking at creative output rather than hierarchy. What's happening in a generational move is we're all about stripping away hierarchies. Things can't intercommunicate. We don't want boundaries in gender, we don't want boundaries in the art world, we don't want boundaries even in politics.
It’s funny you say that because still I feel people strive towards this idea of moving up and wanting to be better than they were before. It comes back to this whole notion of luxury, right? That it should improve your life. So on one side we have this stripping down of hierarchies which I think is a very true point. But on this other side, we don't really want to let go of hierarchies fully.
Yeah, because I think it's like the nextdoor neighbor syndrome. It's what does the neighbor have, what car do they have? Unfortunately it’s been there since time memorial, this idea that we want more. It's an interesting concept ultimately because I think it has to do with the addiction of aesthetics. I know for example when I log onto an artist or a log onto a ceramicist, I want to make sure that I am building the best of their work and I want to make sure that my collection is rounded and better. But I think this is where over these last couple of months I have started to question the fundamentals of the idea of ‘want’ ultimately. I think in a weird way, I've struggled with this idea of wanting things. I do think less is more now and it’s not about competing so much [but] about really finding individualism within the brand.
It’s better that you have authenticity now in terms of product and it's maybe not about wearing a very big logo, which is driven by I'm sure many things, about shouting louder. I think that so many things are so loud at the moment because I think politics is loud. I think that you've got to get through the threshold so I think that’s why in a weird way the idea of huge logoing and 101 branding has had this resurgence because it’s something which is happening in mainstream media. You've got to scream louder to be seen and there are no frills on that. You have a logo on a T-shirt, therefore it means something because ultimately it's just words. It's not about material.
I think if we’re to head into this new decade in a different way, we need to ask why, what and where because we cannot end up in a situation where we forget the humanistic point of making clothing. I think this is something which has become a very big concern. I've really haven’t been thinking in terms of creativity recently, I've been thinking of how do you build a brand in the next 10 years?
In a weird way, I think the pandemic has been fantastic for that because it gives you time to think of extractions. There’s a very harmonious feeling of “I don't care about the system, I don't care about being able to predict the future,” because fashion is ultimately always about future play. It used to be a period where people used to be like, “yellow is the new color of the season or it's about this sort of length.” When I look at how people have been thinking during this moment of realization, pandemic or not, it’s that [they] don't want to predict the future. I want to live in the now. I think for me, what has been so amazing about designing in this period is that you work on the immediate now and the future will follow. What will happen, will happen.
People want something that's culturally relevant right now.
Yeah. I think there are different ways to look at it. The biggest thing that I’m starting to realize is that there are trends that are happening that are showing more than ever that both Western and Asian culture are buying in an incredibly different way. Like incredibly different. And I think this is probably happening in the car industry, it’s probably happening in luxury travel, it's happening in art. I follow auctions on a daily basis, it's the phenomenon of codes, it's outrageous.
We are not very efficient in Europe and America. Our efficiency levels are pretty appalling that's why I’ve always enjoyed going to Asia. In Asian culture you're seeing the birth of new museums in China from very young collectors and there is an awareness of a cultural landscape in terms of the idea of consumption of art for example. Which is another type of luxury good because it's something that technically is at a different demographic. What’s interesting is the speed in which that's moving and the speed in the way in which art and fashion have collided. It's the idea that you can buy bags at auctions, the idea that you can buy art at auctions and jewelry at auctions. It's becoming more of a blur and in a weird way. In the West we went through this period in the 90s. I think what’s interesting in Asian culture is that they see fashion more as an investment than they do so in the West. We see it as more disposable.
This idea around meaning around product has changed so much. From buying it for its functionality, and then desire, followed by because it was scarce. Now it’s about buying into something that’s a direct reflection of how you curate your life. Fashion as much as furniture and art does.
Fashion has become this very odd thing where now we need to be able to put the bag on a chair, or the jacket in the wardrobe and we want to be able to show that we have the wardrobe and that we have the chair. I see it sometimes on Instagram, it's interesting to watch trends within furniture design and how it morphs. At one point there was a huge resurgence in French furniture like [Jean] Prouvé. And there was so much of it that they could build a market from it and what I'm finding really interesting now is that I think someone like Axel Vervoordt working with someone like Kanye on a house is that the whole thing has become actually quite interesting to now [own something like] a Korean minimalist paint jar, or a Welsh stick chair from the 1800s because it’s about connoisseurship. I always think when you see auctions of Supreme and you see these auctions of these fashion crossovers, it's like for me in a weird way when Damien Hirst did his massive auction and then the economy crashed. It’s when the initial collector sells, it usually ends up that there’s a change because they sell it at the peak of its market.
With art, I've never bought in this way but I’m fascinated by it in terms of consumption. It’s better to sell a Basquiat when there is a Basquiat show because it’s at its time. And the people who ultimately are there at the very beginning, they’re the early adopters and then you have followers. So in a weird way, when I see Supreme having auctions of things and it's being sold, I find it interesting in terms of the idea of value in clothing or value in fashion. Sotheby's and Christie's are [now] selling trainers. This is a very new phenomenon but what it does do is it benchmarks products. It keeps value high. It's about the secondary resale market. This is incredibly important because ultimately it means that it's like if you buy a car, the minute you drive it off the lot you've lost the value in the car.
What does it mean for the fashion industry next?
What I hope to see in the next while in product is the idea of longevity and authenticity. We're going to speed up things. If a brand doesn’t have authenticity, it will disappear. There’s definitely something happening with the younger generation which is reverting back to the idea of lifestyle and not in terms of fashion, in terms of home. This idea that you can't just only have the T-shirt. You've got to be able to have the wardrobe for the T-shirt. If you collect trainers, you've got to be able to show the system that holds the chain of trainers. And the whole thing just becomes this completely different ballgame.
Now what does that mean long term? I don't know. We could probably see a contraction, we might step back to 2016 in terms of turnovers for a bit. But I don't think for as much as some parts of the world can step outside and go consuming again. I do think there's a point where people are going to start to buy things which are incredibly well designed, they know exactly where it comes from, they know exactly who is the creative under the brand and if they stand for something. One of the most crucial things is going to storytelling. There will come a moment where I think there will be a kind of connoisseurship that I can see is happening. You can see it in trainers for example, there’s a connoisseurship and connoisseurship is a really good thing as long as it’s informed. If you're going to be a connoisseur in something, you need to get your knowledge. But I think what’s fantastic at the moment, people are really on the hunt for the correct information. People want honesty.
I asked some of my followers yesterday on Instagram, what really drives desirability for you? And the two biggest answers that came out of that were authenticity and was the creative behind the band. And I think if you look at the bigger picture, it's not just the creative director, it's about who made your product.
Exactly. It's really fascinating, at Loewe and JW we've been doing it for many years. We've done a lot of studio tours and how to make a bag. When I first joined, I was so obsessed about how many pieces were in the Puzzle bag or if we were making fabrics in Africa or Japan. I’ve always had this obsession about something being made or how you grow something. I think we want transparency within it so that you see the inner workings of what is entailed in making a product because it informs us on the purchase because we want to stand with something and don't want to be tricked.
I think for example, the contemporary market is going to go through a very odd period because if you can't talk about ‘make’ then you need to talk about what you were doing. That’s why Patagonia is such a fantastic brand because they're part of the contemporary market and they are price driven but they have the most beautiful ethos and authenticity. It's like Patagonia with a Vuitton bag can mean something. It tells someone who you really are.
Patagonia is a good example as they speak to many different people without actively marketing to different audiences.
The whole thing is you can't target anyone. This is the key. If you want something to be a success, the minute you target, it doesn't work that way. Desirability can be found in the strangest places and they're very odd phenomenons. I know for example when I joined Loewe, we started Eye/LOEWE/Nature. The reason behind it was I think when I was a child, I used to wear fleeces. My parents used to take me to Decathlon. My dad was a rugby player for the Irish rugby team so I wore hand-me-downs of sportswear. I was surrounded by sport and in a weird way I think in the beginning of my career, it was a rejection to sportswear because literally my entire family was involved in sport and I wasn't. I wanted escapism.
I actually technically wanted to be an actor at one point. I went to drama school but it was about escapism and looking at the moment when I joined LOEWE, I started to realize that I needed the nostalgia of being younger and being in a very serious job. My whole point of doing Eye/LOEWE/Nature was ‘what is my brother going to wear.’ And then the second part of it was we've been doing it now for six years and it's been a slow burn because if you're trying to categorize it as a trend, it has to become the most important trend. [But] it’s what we live and breathe [and] my whole thing was [that] I refused to be in a situation where we use the environment as a publicity offer.
So what’s the objective of Eye/LOEWE/Nature?
[Luxury brands] aren’t perfect, car companies aren’t perfect. Travel companies aren’t perfect. We ended up here after a 100 years of an industrial revolution and growth model around the world. The planet has exploded in terms of population. And so for me, I wanted to do this project as a kind of lab. This idea that we’re going to look at long term solutions. Whatever we find in the research process as this project builds and builds, we take those elements and then they're inserted once they have been think tanked. So by doing this in Eye/LOEWE/Nature, we have learned massive things in the last six years which have been implemented in the [main Loewe] brand. I don't need a mission statement, I don't need to say we're going to be carbon neutral by tomorrow. Every single brand has a responsibility to get there in a realistic time period because if we say, "We're just going to sort it out tomorrow as a product." It can be sorted out tomorrow but it might not be long term. We have to start thinking about long term solutions. It is not going to have an immediate effect straight away.
And the consumer at the end of the day will choose where they want to spend their money.
I think it's going to be about editing. You're going to curate the world around you in a very different way. Each brand is going to be able to give you certain parts of the pie and we have to stop relying on brands giving you the entire thing because that’s impossible. The caveat to all this is, we can’t force it. We're so about having the need to have a solution tomorrow like ‘Is there a fashion show tomorrow?’ I've done so many interviews recently and people asking me ‘Are you going seasonless, are you doing this, are doing that?’ I have no idea. My priority right now is to make sure I continually exercise my creative right within the brand to continually stimulate the team to make sure that we do not drop the rhythm.
I have a responsibility to the store staff that they have something exciting to be able to talk about and that we have a point of view and at the same time, I want to keep making sure that the business is profitable so that we retain jobs.
What should change?
My worry with fashion and many forms of art is that we’re rushing to the end solution before we have actually tackled the problem. I think it’s about think tanking the problems as they arise and then from that, we’re going to be able to see what the future is because if we dip into say a U-shaped recession or an L-shaped one at a worst case scenario, things can be different in terms of what people's needs are in the end. I think it's the most important moment for fashion to be quiet and to reflect.
My grandfather used to tell me that you always need to thatch your roof. So in Ireland you have houses made of straw. The roof is made of straw and it balks so you have to fix it all the time and this is a moment to do internal fixing. Don’t fix the industry, fix your own problem and then the solution will come. I think it's what everyone's been doing.
Everyone is sitting at home, they've tidied they're house, they've cleared the drawers, they don't want more. In a weird way, everyone has thatched their roof. And the other part of it is that my dad always tells me a story about the idea of sharpening the saw. These two brothers, they go out into a forest and they're cutting trees into lines and one of the brothers at lunch time takes a break and the other brother is like, ‘I'm going to continue cutting because I want to cut more trees.’ And they come to the end of the day, the brother has his lunch and then goes back and starts cutting trees and they compare the trees and the brother who's worked all day says, ‘Well how did you cut more trees than me?’ And then the brother turns around and says, "Well I sharpened my saw.’ So through this process, I'm so excited to see what product design comes in the next two to three years because I think it can be incredibly exciting.
Jonathan, thank you so much for taking the time today.