He’s described as cerebral and talented, sometimes even as the most cerebral and talented contemporary designer of them all. Season after season, the 38-year-old Northern Irish designer scores hits with collections for his own label and for Loewe. In this disconcertingly candid interview, he tells us about his complicated career path and simple methods.
By Marc Beaugé and Gino Delmas, in London.
The two portraits were shot by Scott Trindle for JW Anderson.
Translation from French by Helene Tammik.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 8.
Somewhere in London's Shoreditch district, an unremarkable modern building sits unnoticed among big housing projects. In front of it stands a group of young women, fashion school students judging by the looks of them, smoking cigarettes and checking their cellphones. Inside, a pink neon tube hangs on a black wall, lighting a modest banquette. There's nothing here that says prestige or glory. Quite the opposite – at JW Anderson, everything’s nonchalant and laidback, starting with the designer himself. The man who designs car dresses and strawberry prints that the fashion world raves about receives us in a meeting room, wearing a plain blue mouliné sweatshirt and worn jeans. He thanks us for coming, then adds, “Because I knew you were coming, I've spent a bit of time reflecting and remembering the past.”
L’ÉTIQUETTE. Do you remember how you dressed as a child?
JONATHAN ANDERSON. I went through lots and lots of sartorial phases, not all of which I’m proud of. I’ve just remembered a terrible phase of neon cycling shorts and printed T-shirts, often by Katharine Hamnett. That was in my early teens. Then I really got into looking fashionable, which was pretty strange for a kid growing up in Northern Ireland in the early ’90s, especially if, like me, you lived on a farm surrounded by thousands of chickens, sheep, bulls and cows. [laughs]
É. Can you describe your look in those days?
J.A. I used to go to TK Maxx and dig through the sale bins, then buy the stuff no one else wanted. That was when Patrick Cox shoes were all the rage, and I remember a square- toed pair that looked like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. I also remember a pair of tiger-print velvet pants by Jean Paul Gaultier Jeans. I was obsessed with Gaultier because my school library had a book about him. It was the only book about fashion in the whole library. And I remember saving up all my money to buy a pair of Gucci jeans, which I washed on a cycle that was too hot, so they shrank before I even got to wear them. The kids at school were always telling me I looked like an idiot. That was quite hard to deal with every day. You could say that Northern Ireland was a fairly austere country back then.
É. Were you aware of the troubles going on around you?
J.A. Oh yes. Once our school bus was hijacked by armed men. Another time, when I was going to see my grandparents, I came across a guy who’d just been shot at in his car. And then there was the time a man in a motorcycle helmet came into the pub where my brother worked and shot someone who was sitting at the bar in the head. That’s what things were like then. In the morning, my father would check his car before he started the engine, and we had to go through checkpoints to get to school. There was always a sense of under- lying violence, but life carried on.
É. Do you think that climate has left a mark on you?
J.A. I think it made me fairly tough. Whatever happens to me, a part of me knows that things could be worse. It’s like wearing armor. Sometimes I can be very hard on people on my team when they complain because I think we should always keep things in perspective.
É. Your father is also known for his strong character.
J.A. My father, Willie Anderson, was a champion rugby player. One morning, when he was 18 or 19, he woke up and decided he wasn’t going to be a farmer but a rugby player, even though he’d never played in his life. He trained hard and ended up captain of Ireland [Ireland and Northern Ireland have separate national soccer teams, but they play as one team in rugby]. He’s a very determined, highly competitive man. He’s never been afraid of adversity.
É. He even spent time in prison.
J.A. It’s a pretty incredible story. My parents met just before my father left for a tour of Argentina with the Barbarians, a team made up of the best British players. You have to remember that there was a lot of tension at that time over the Falkland Islands, it was just before the Falklands War. So, my father went over there with the Barbarians while my mother stayed home. And one evening when he was clearly drunk, he climbed up a flagpole and took down the Argentinian flag. Given the prevailing climate, it was a very bad idea. He was arrested and spent three months in prison over there, in a tiny cell. It was really dangerous for him because the Argentinians were very hostile. He and my mother wrote to each other during those three months and ended up getting married when he came back home.
É. Did you ever play rugby?
J.A. Yes, and I have a very bad memory of the experience. It was a catastrophe.
É. When did you start to break free from your home setting?
J.A. In the early ’90s, my parents went on vacation in Ibiza because it was cheap. They passed a house with a “For Sale” sign on it in San Carlos, on the north of the island, and bought the place on impulse. We began spend- ing our vacations in that little house – my parents, my brother, my sister, as well as my friends. Ibiza was amazing back then. It was nothing like today’s whole vegan vibe, it was much trashier! [laughs] That’s when I discovered club culture. I especially remember the Manumission parties, organized by this couple from Manchester who’d end up having sex onstage. I saw some crazy things in Ibiza, like neon Speedos and women with their boobs out on the beach. [Laughs] I felt great there. I’m happy I grew up in Ireland; the education system is really good, and it’s a healthy life, but I always felt a form of social control there. You know, people peering out the window through their curtains to see what you’re up to. Ibiza was just the opposite, a place of freedom and discovery. Like Washington, D.C. was, a bit later on.
É. Why did you go to Washington?
J.A. I’d done a lot of drama when I was younger and had gone to the National Youth Theatre in London. When I was 19, I decided I was going to be an actor. I headed off to Washington, D.C. to live the dream, as they say. While I was there I found a whole new identity. I realized I was gay for a start. Then I became totally obsessed with James Dean. I can still see myself sitting in an empty movie theater with a Marlboro between my lips, watching James Dean onscreen and wearing exactly the same clothes as him: red jacket, jeans, white T-shirt.
É. Were you a good actor?
J.A. I was a very bad actor. I didn’t have a clue. Going to Washington was actually more about getting the hell out of Northern Ireland.
É. When did you catch the fashion bug?
J.A. In Washington, I met this incredible guy, an African American who was nearly six-foot seven, a giant drag queen. He was in charge of costumes at the theater. I spent lots of time with him instead of going to rehearsals, and he taught me everything important about American designers. He ignited that passion in me. When I ran out of money, I went back to Ireland and ended up living in Dublin, in this apartment that my father had the use of through the club he coached. I found a job at the department store Brown Thomas. I lied and said I’d worked at all these big American stores. Back then, there was no LinkedIn or Instagram where they could check; you could just make up anything you liked. I sold menswear. That was when Tom Ford was at Gucci and Hedi Slimane was at Dior. Prada was a big deal, and Dolce & Gabbana was also flying high. Our main customers were local footballers. When they came to the store, we’d encourage them to spend, and they’d buy a D&G sweater and flared leather cowboy pants. They were the only ones who couldn’t see what a totally gay look it was. I was earning money for the first time.
É. How did you spend it?
J.A. On going out. We’d take clothes from the store, wear them out clubbing, and then put them back on the shelves the next day. We weren’t stealing; we were borrowing, like today’s influencers. [laughs] And then, as time went on, I began to do visual merchandising and to dress the store mannequins in special looks. The manager would get really annoyed because they didn’t like my taste at all. One day, a guy from Prada happened to come in. I’d set outa brand corner where I’d mixed the Prada Sport line with the main line, which no one was doing in those days. He was a bit taken aback, but he loved what I’d done. He put me in touch with one of the brand’s big shots, who told me to call her if I ever wanted a job. But I didn’t follow it up.
É. Why not?
J.A. At that point I wanted to study fashion. The problem was that none of the schools was interested in taking me on because I didn't have the right background. I ended up at a London university that was running a new course in menswear design. I needed money to pay for my studies, so I finally went to see my contact at Prada. I remember that the day I went for my interview with her, I was wearing pale-blue Marks & Spencer pajamas and army boots. She said, “You’ll fit right in here. You can start immediately if you like.” [laughs] So that's how I began. My job was to take delivery of the merchandise, put it out in the store and dress the windows. It was there, in that setting, that I realized I could do it, that I belonged in that world. I just about scraped through my degree and began to design and make things by myself. I got a £15,000 loan from the Bank of Ireland, which I don’t think I’ve ever paid back. I left Prada and launched my own label in 2005, when I was 21.
É. What were you making?
J.A. Accessories for shitty stores. My best friend – who still works with me – and I mainly knitted scarves and accessories. We also made brooches. Well, we’d stick a feather on a knitted sweater and then sell it like that. It was then that we designed a leather laundry bag, which Marc Jacobs copied the following year for a Vuitton show. That was a really horrible period. Total chaos. Nothing went right. I never ever want to see the pieces from those days again. In addition to the label, I was working on short-term contracts. Lee Jeans got in touch and asked me to make accessories for them at Lee Gold Label in Belgium. I agreed to do it – I was saying yes to everything at that point. I remember going to VF Europe, their parent company, and ended up spending a month in India to make accessories. It was surreal.
É. Do you think your unusual career path makes you a better designer today?
J.A. That first label went bankrupt, technically, although it didn’t really mean anything because we didn’t have any assets or employees. I wasn’t even paying myself a salary. I just remember the computers were seized by a bailiff. He also took the fabrics and the orders. In some ways it was a nightmare, but I’m happy to have gone through that. I learned from those mistakes. And it helped me understand that I needed to work even harder and that the collections had to get better if I wanted things to take off. That’s what gradually happened; my work became more polished. Around 2010, I did a whole paisley collection, which caused a bit of buzz. Interview magazine photographed it and suddenly British Vogue and Anna Win- tour knew my name. And then, a few collections later, there was that menswear show that literally changed everything.
É. The 2013 show.
J.A. Yes, a menswear collection with dresses, ruffled shorts, riding boots and bandeau tops. The show itself was pretty minimal. We didn’t have much money, so we only used three fabrics, mainly a thick felt used for duffle coats. We bought the boots, cut them up and then stuck ruffles to them four days before the show. It was incredibly badly done. When the collection went to a museum a few years later, we did it all over again properly because the production standards were embarrassing. But it was great to look at during the show.
É. Did you realize the collection would make such a splash?
J.A. No, I just saw it as a normal show. But the next day, the Daily Mail was scandalized. They said we’d humiliated the models, fashion, masculinity as a whole. When you look back, it’s crazy how far we’ve come in less than a decade. You wouldn’t be able to write that today. But for its time, the message was very brutal.
É. What exactly was the message?
J.A. At that point, I wasn’t trying to challenge traditional masculinity as a whole. I was simply obsessed with a picture of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in which they’re both wearing a white men’s shirt. That was the show’s message – a gender-fluid, shared wardrobe.
É. Why did that idea interest you?
J.A. I remember as a kid I asked my mother to buy me my first down jacket. I’d been yearning for a Helly Hansen, a fantastic reversible one that was yellow on one side and navy blue on the other. But she kept telling me it was too expensive, so she got me a puffer jacket from some random local store, a horrible unbranded thing. I’d wear that goddamn jacket, and the kids at school would all say, “You’re wearing a girl’s jacket.” I didn’t understand. Not until the day someone explained to me that the zipper’s on the other side on women’s jackets. It stuck with me. Another time, my parents had come across some Jack Wolf fleeces on sale. One was small and blue; the other was neon pink and massive. Of course, I got the pink one and was teased mercilessly at school. So, I came face to face with gender prejudices in clothing long before I was even interested in clothes. That’s what I wanted the conversation to be about.
É. How did your parents react to the collection?
J.A. They were happy. They’ve always been incredibly supportive. They come to all my shows, and my father loves badgering the celebs in the front row. Their only request of me is, “Don’t ever ask us for any money!” [laughs]
É. At that point, your work and your set-up still seemed very makeshift.
J.A. My business management was a total mess. These days, when a young designer starts out they already have a chief executive, a five-year plan and a communications team. I know if I was starting out today I’d be all over the place. I’d put my face everywhere, and I’d probably have an OnlyFans account, too. [laughs] But I missed out on all that by a few years. In those days, I improvised. I had no plan to speak of. You have to remember that although I did launch my own label, it wasn’t because I had any particular vocation or ambition – it was simply that none of the labels wanted to hire me.
É. When did things finally start falling into place?
J.A. It was around the time Christopher Kane decided to leave Versace Versus, and I’d met with Donatella Versace about replacing him. It was a massive amount of work. The pay was peanuts, but I was desperate, so I went for it. I designed the collection with Donatella in three weeks, and then came the show in New York in front of 1,000 people, including Lady Gaga. It was a weird collection with bags made of sticky tape that you could cut and fasten to your neck, but it worked. During that same period, Kering and LVMH were looking to buy up young designer labels. One day I was washing the dishes in my underwear in my London apartment when I got a call from France. I didn’t recognize the number, so I almost didn’t answer. “Hi, it’s Delphine Arnault.” She told me that LVMH wanted to invest in my label. I could hardly believe it. Then a few days later, the creative director at Loewe suddenly quit. So she asked me if I’d like that job as well. That’s exactly how it happened. I went to visit the factories in Madrid and fell in love with Loewe. It wasn’t an easy label. I couldn’t even pronounce the name at first, but I’m still here eight years on, and I think we’ve done some amazing things together.
É. How do you go about designing?
J.A. It’s very simple, I start with the body. When we begin a collection, on Day 1, we bring in a model, and the team discusses what might work. For Loewe, the model is a woman. For JW Anderson, it’s a man. But the process is the same. We try things out there and then, testing cuts and fabrics. We’re trying to bring a fantasy to life. Just the other day, I heard George Lucas saying that his job was to lay his fantasies onto actors so they’re transformed. I thought that was a great way of summing up the creative process. I take a person I don’t know, put clothes on them and try to bring a fantasy to life. Sometimes, a model will look at me and won- der, “What are you doing to me? What’s this you’re making me wear?” But when it all comes together beautifully, it’s fascinating, it’s an act of creation. I think that’s what our job is. To create somebody, then sell that person to customers.
É. And where does your inspiration come from?
J.A. Honestly, from everywhere. For instance, the strawberries in the Spring/Summer 2022 collection are from a painting of a squirrel with an upturned bowl of strawberries by the English artist William Sartorius that I saw at Bonhams. It’s as simple as that. I saw the strawberries and wondered what would hap- pen if a tracksuit had strawberries printed all over it and you turned up in that at the airport, so it became a garment. These things just pop into my head.
É. Are you more of a fashion thinker or a doer?
J.A. People overthink fashion. You can think and think, then end up with highly complex pieces that bore everybody. I’m just looking for things that excite me. Does that table excite me? Does that person excite me? When you’re young, you go to nightclubs and that’s where you find excitement. As you get older, you find other pastimes. Right now I’m really into the Flemish primitive painters, from 1530 to 1650. You know, those wonderful paintings of a woman sitting by a window, or a man smoking a pipe. I find them so modern. And I’m a big reader, mostly books about economics. During the pandemic, I read a lot by the economist Maynard Keynes, who was a member of the Bloomsbury set in the early 20th century. Those are my sources of excitement. I’ll have a go, try things out. I take risks from one collection to the next. To be honest, I think I might be more successful and sell more if I was more repetitive in my collections and in the things that I find exciting, if certain garments reappeared from season to season, I’m sure they’d have become more mainstream. But I just can’t. Once I’ve seen a look on the catwalk, I never want to see it again, it’s over. I want to see what comes next, immediately, because I’m sure that there’s always something new and better around the corner. From a commercial standpoint, it’s something of a failing of mine.
É. You give the impression of someone who’s in a hurry.
J.A. I’m comfortable with having a competitive nature. I follow what others are doing. I watch their shows. When I see a good one, it makes me want to best it for the next season. And when I see a dud, I don’t go easy on the designer. [Laughs] That’s just how it is. If I was a painter, I’d hate to see another artist do a great painting. I think I get that from my father, who’s insanely competitive. Have you seen the YouTube video from 1989 where he faces down the New Zealand team during their pre-match haka? It’s had more than four million views, which is more than I’ll ever get. [laughs]
É. You watch all the shows; do you find today's fashion exciting?
J.A. I think it was more exciting 10 or 15 years ago. You had Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Prada, Miu Miu and so on. Every season was a thrill. But the industry has changed. In those days, a label that turned over €100 million was a heavyweight. That’s tiny by today’s standards. You need to make €1 billion to be a real player. It changes everything. Taking risks becomes impossible. Sometimes in a meeting, somebody’ll pass me a list of influencers we could work with. I find the whole thing absurd. It doesn’t leave any room for new young designers to emerge. You can’t be curious anymore; curiosity has become too risky. These days, everything we do is closely watched. People track our mistakes and slip-ups. It’s a straitjacket. I love referencing things that have gone before in catwalk shows. The whole history of fashion is built on designers referencing each other. Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress was a historical reference. There are lots of other examples like that. But these days, you have people who chase down those references. Sometimes I’ll hear things like, “That looks like a dress from 1974,” and it sounds like an accusation. But I know that Titian painted Adam and Eve in the 16th century and then Rubens reproduced the same painting the following century, and I’m totally comfortable with that.
É. You’re talking about Loewe and JW Anderson, but most people will know you as the guy who makes capsule collections for Uniqlo.
J.A. If that’s the case, then I’m happy with that. You know, I totally get that not everyone is going to muster their confidence, step into a fashion boutique and spend over €1,000 on a bag. Uniqlo is well-made and affordable. I wear loads of Uniqlo myself, actually a lot more than I wear JW Anderson or Loewe. I put out 12 to 15 collections a year, and I don’t want to have to pull together another one for myself, so to save time in the mornings I’ve decided not to think about my personal style. Uniqlo’s ideal for that. They couldn’t make it any simpler. It’s like Gap was in the early ’90s.
É. Do you enjoy designing simple clothes?
J.A. Of course. One of my first jobs, when I was starting out, was with Sunspel, an English cotton jersey specialist. I was making white T-shirts, polo shirts, underwear, extremely simple things, but good quality. It was really absorbing. When you’re a designer, you obviously dream of inventing something like jeans, the white T-shirt or the Oxford shirt, because that would mean that you actually exist in people’s lives. It was brilliant seeing the tartan-print puffer jackets I’d designed for Uniqlo on the street. A few years back, I also designed a pair of shoes with a notched sole in collaboration with Converse. They were a smash, one of their biggest sellers. I loved seeing them all over the place, worn by so many different kinds of people who didn’t necessarily have any idea who I was. I’m a lot less stoked about it now because Converse has decided to make them without me.
É. Do you think any of your designs will live on?
J.A. The men’s ruffled shorts from the 2013 collection have a chance, don’t you think?