Jonathan Anderson: defining the future of fashion

A man hiding behind a sculpture.

The British designer has long harboured a love for past idols. He discusses with friend, writer and drag performer Amrou Al-Kadhi how clever clothes can make contemporary icons of us all

By Amrou Al-Kadhi   Photography by John Balsom    Grooming by Paul Donovan    Set design by Lianna Fowler    Backdrops by DROP Backdrop    Tuesday 1 September, 2020

‘I always want to feel like I’m championing the underdog.’ Designer Jonathan Anderson takes a sip of his black coffee in an office that feels more like a drag queen’s messy wardrobe. The atmosphere of his workspace is remarkably unpretentious, brimming with a wit and playfulness that is somewhat atypical in fashion environments. It is arguably this spirited attitude to clothing, and what that offers the wearer, that helps to explain the meteoric success of this exceptionally talented designer.   
One of the most feted British fashion designers, Anderson has carved out a much lauded and duly awarded career – notably the first person to ever receive both Womenswear and Menswear Designer of the Year in tandem at the British Fashion Awards. As Creative Director of namesake label JW Anderson, as well as Spanish luxury house Loewe (where he was appointed Creative Director and has remained since 2013), Anderson envisions pieces of design that outlive trend and cultural fad, defining a moment and then transcending that moment. Last year, a Vogue headline relating to Anderson simply read: ‘He’s Really Good at this Stuff’, cutting straight to the point. In every sense of the word, Jonathan Anderson is – though he’ll not use the phrase himself – a modern-day fashion icon.
A man reclining on a yellow chair.
I remember vividly my first interaction with Anderson’s clothing, something that I have come to realise is symptomatic of being a customer of his. I was a 20-year-old university student when some friends told me they were heading to London for a sample sale of some ‘major new designer’. I was sceptical, having always thought of fashion as a sphere that excluded gender-fluid people like myself. What an unexpected joy it was to enter Anderson’s sartorial nirvana, where binary fashion rules were thrown out the window and clothes were solely designed to empower those who wore them. I came across a navy-blue cashmere kilt from his eponymous label that reminded me of the skirts male Sufi Muslims wear to dance and fuse their souls with Allah – an item so elegant and defiant that I knew it would give me strength whenever I wore it. And it did.   
What I’m saying is par for the course; Anderson has long been celebrated by the media as the designer who ‘revolutionised gender’ in fashion. But, to my surprise, this is not something he was ever actively seeking to do. ‘I was obsessed with Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith,’ he explains. ‘There’s this picture of her wearing a white shirt and him wearing a white shirt, and they meant two different things. And I was just like, maybe it’s not about gender, maybe it’s about a shared wardrobe – anyone can use it. If you like it, just wear it. However, the minute you put it on the body, people want an explanation.’    
A blurred image of a man.

'I feel like fashion needs to realise that T-shirts don’t grow on trees, people make them, there is a process, there is talent and it’s a talent worth meriting'

For a long time, it seemed that the fashion press was hellbent on narrativising Anderson’s work through the lens of a gender crusade – and this certainly makes sense, considering the growing visibility of trans and gender nonconforming identities in the media over the past decade. But viewing him through this narrative is anachronistic – indeed, rather than ‘exploring gender’ via his clothing, Anderson designs in a manner completely liberated from gendered assumptions. As he says, ‘if you like it, just wear it.’ It is this resistance to reductive narratives that has allowed the designer such consistent success – the clothes outlive tried and tested fashion ‘stories’. In the same way that cultural icons can be enjoyed by everyone, Anderson is the architect of the accessible fantasy, offering it up to all no matter your identity. His vision of fashion does not discriminate in the old ways.     
Take, for instance, the JW Anderson 2013 fall collection (his second ‘real men’s collection’), which featured male-presenting models in dresses – as well as what Vogue so succinctly described as ‘frilled knickerbockers’ –  with hands placed in pockets high up and on the front of garments in a colour palette of peach and baby blue. ‘I was obsessed by this idea of the early Chanel miniskirt of the 1980s, and where they had the hands placed very high,’ Anderson recalls. ‘It’s an idea of silhouettes, like power dressing.’ 
A man with his arm around a sculpture.
But Anderson was keen to update the silhouette of this iconic piece of fashion history and give it resonance for contemporary bodies. ‘The garment dictated the pose. So, no matter if you had the most butch guy and you put them in it, the clothing dictated where they put their hands.’ Ingeniously, as with the original Chanel silhouette that inspired it, the clothing was designed to turn anyone who wore it into elegant, poised perfection. These historicisms in his collections nod to not only an archive-like library of references and knowledge, but also a celebration of iconography from the fashion greats who came before.   
It is this respect of clothing as something that belongs to us all that’s at the heart of Anderson’s designs. Nowhere is this more present than in the SS21 collection of his namesake label released during lockdown. While many brands have responded to the pandemic with dread – believing the global halt to be incompatible with the rapid consumerism of the fashion industry – Anderson and his team have embraced the current situation as a chance to rejoice in the power of making clothes. Brimming throughout the collection, which explored ideas of childhood, playfulness and masculinity on mannequins bedecked in masks, is the feeling of tactility. Pillow sweaters, cropped trousers and trenches looked as if each piece was entirely woven with the loving hands of craftsmen, every stitch a reminder that a designer has at one point held the item.
A male model walking down a catwalk.

Jonathan Anderson (Getty)

A model and a young man jumping in the air.
This love of craft runs deep. Anderson prides himself in taking things slow and doing them well – a trait that is well-matched with the current state of the world. Craft is so important to him that in lieu of a show, Loewe brought its men’s SS21 and women’s pre-season collections into pandemic-hit journalists’ homes in the form of an archive box, divided into sections that told the story of Anderson’s process. The scrapbook-style presentation invited recipients to move around the images, offering them the agency to build their own fashion show.  

‘I think people want to know where and how things were made,’ Anderson tells me with conviction. ‘Everyone’s like, “fashion’s going through this existential crisis” – no, the world is going through the existential crisis; we’re trying to discover where we will land. I feel like fashion needs to realise that T-shirts don’t grow on trees, people make them, there is a process, there is talent and it’s a talent worth meriting.’
A man sitting back on a chair.

‘Everyone’s like, “fashion’s going through this existential crisis” – no, the world is going through the existential crisis; we’re trying to discover where we will land’

Anderson’s studio feels more like an art collective than a fashion brand – a comparison that is fitting, given his deep obsession with modern and contemporary art. In an interview with legendary fashion journalist Tim Blanks, Anderson even described himself as a kind of ‘curator’, someone who assembles talent and skillsets, and creates a community for them to operate within. His immediate team is small and devoted, and he doesn’t find them through regular fashion channels. ‘For me, I don’t really care where anyone has worked before. I feel like when I meet them, I know very quickly if it’s going to work,’ Anderson explains. ‘I always do this thing where I ask people to show me 50 images that they think are relevant. Usually if I see one image I’ve seen before, I never hire them. I just think then you’re not going to challenge my eye.’ Anderson actively encourages disagreement, empowering his collective to put their own voices into the designs.