Photography by Tara Darby
Words by Kate Finnigan
Jonathan Anderson calls out for coffee, lights a cigarette and lets me squeeze in next to him at his desk, on the top of which lies a loose-leaf block of A4 pages bearing a girl’s face and the shadowy outline of her body. Next to this are four large, wooden, carved penises.
“My big willies,” Anderson says, airily, and we move on. But there, distractingly, they remain, next to the sheaf of ghostly girls.
Anyone familiar with the JW Anderson womenswear label will know that a strong mix of masculine and feminine is what it is all about. Girls and boys, they’re its yin and yang. The first womenswear line (A/W 10) came about because girls liked the cut of his menswear, and now one can’t imagine his brand existing without that masculine edge – whether it comes in the form of a stompy boot (a favourite accessory across both his women’s and men’s collections), a sharply tailored trouser or a man-sized knit.
“She’ll always have that boyish element to her,” says Anderson, who, at 27, slight, with piercing blue eyes and lightly freckled, pale skin, retains his own boyish element. “I think my coming to womenswear via menswear means we’ll always have that. Women look more sexual in a way when they’re a little bit boyish. There’s more of a sexual ambiguity to it. We have gone shorter for S/S 13, but I think that’s more like Scout short; it’s still a boyish silhouette.”
It is a meltingly hot August morning and the Northern Ireland-born designer, winner of a Topshop- sponsored NEWGEN award this season, is in one of his two studios in a building in Dalston. Busyness is in the air. Anderson is halfway through the new spring collection. On the wall to the right of his desk are drawings of the same ghostly, bob-haired girl who
is stacked on the desk, now wearing the looks he’s completed so far. In the first 16, she is fully clothed in Anderson’s neat, precise drawings. In the other 16 or so, she is still waiting for him to throw her a killer get-up.
Another wall of images rises behind Anderson’s desk. This turns out to be his S/S 13 mood board, although he doesn’t call it that. Perhaps it sounds too amorphous (“articulated” and “sharp” are words that Anderson uses a lot). The three deep lines of colour-copied magazine spreads are so uniform in size, and so perfectly aligned with each other, that I have to check it’s not a permanent gallery.
The girls in the pictures are fresh-faced, with natural shiny hair – very Nineties. “It’s just a feel of a person. She’s extremely free and cleanly beautiful,” he says. “It’s early Kate Moss [one of the images is a spread featuring Moss in an old Italian Vogue story by Steven Meisel and Joe McKenna]. There’s just something about the atmosphere of the images.”
The neatness of that atmosphere seems to have been distilled into Anderson’s new collection, although he prefers to keep his references abstract. “In the past four seasons, I’ve never gone out to have a distinct kind of theme,’’ he says. “It’s been about garment technology and design, because I think if you start looking at themes, it becomes about costume. That doesn’t turn me on at all. Way back, we were about styling, but now we’re about garments. It’s a lot cleaner. We’ve stripped it back.”
Anderson isn’t afraid to say that the spring collection is a “progression” of his Resort 2013 offering: there’s a lightness and femininity to it in terms of colour – whites, pinks – weighted with dark pinstripes, tiny black-and-white dog’s tooth and a small black-on-white graphic flower print. He develops all his own fabrics and this season has used laminated nylons and metallic materials, “so there’s a bit of gloss to it” and “these weird spongy fabrics”, as well as classics like the dog’s tooth and the taffeta (“I think taffeta needs a comeback,” he says).
For the designer, this “getting a bit technical” has been fun. “It’s things appearing under things or out of things,” he says, referring to bandeau strips of fabric that pop up on dresses and at the waists of jackets, and taffeta pockets that unfold out of trouser waists. “We’ve got a lot of ruffles, which we had in the Resort [collection], but they’re now injected into knitwear.” A ruffled bustier and ruffled culottes carry on the dabbed paint print from the Resort pieces, which also appears on a spongy-printed trouser suit.
“That full look, the two piece, is quite a signature for us. In a weird way I think it was something that we started with the paisley for S/S 12.
“We do have some singular looks – they’re more like jacket dresses, though,” he continues. “I’m not a dress person. I think separates are more real and more modern. We do daywear, not evening. I don’t believe in cocktail dresses. Daywear not only has an element of conceptualism, but also an element of reality.”
That’s as tricky to pull off as it sounds. “Daywear can be as conceptual as you want, but people have to be able to wear it. I project a full look and it’s great if people can wear it that way, but you also want people to be able to extract a look – wear a ruffle knit with jeans. But if you play it safe with daywear, it just looks generic – that’s the biggest trap.”
This collection, Anderson admits, has been a tough one. “I haven’t got writer’s block, but I’m trying to take in the atmosphere of the buyers, the press and still do what I want to do,” he says. “We’re using a lot of super- fine wool and kid mohairs that are very light, almost transparent. And there’s a pinstripe that we used in the previous collection, but in a very open weave.”
Nice as this sounds, it has presented its own problems. “I would love it if there were no seasons and you could use any fabric, but LA, Washington, China, Korea, they’re much warmer, so clothing has to be a lot lighter if you want to sell it. These fabrics don’t give you the articulation that you get in a heavier, more charismatic fabric; but this is what design is about: you rise to the challenge.”
With four annual womenswear collections, two men’s, the creative directorship of heritage brand Sunspel and a new collaboration with Topshop under his belt, Anderson has certainly been piling up those challenges. But then he has big ambitions for his label. The Topshop project, which has just arrived in store, sounds as if it’s something of a protoype for the ultimate JW Anderson vision.
“The idea was to do this rat’s nest of everything we’d done before and make them into little iconic objects. We’ve got blankets right through to chairs to books. It’s about what would JW Anderson look like as a store concept? How could you buy into it?” he says. “It feels as if conceptualism can live on the high street just as much as it can in the luxury market. It’s more exciting, in fact. I think the next generation is all about how many ‘non-friends’ you have on Facebook. It’s about how much you have; it’s about mass.”
He has a lot of respect for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, “because to get a brand to be relevant for the world is really difficult. Calvin Klein, particularly, sold you an idea and still does today.
If I could grasp a hair of that… Branding is so important. I think for clothing to be successful you have to feel that the name is more powerful than the human being behind it.”
Anderson, who spent two years in America studying acting, before switching to fashion, has had lessons in branding from the best. When he was a student at the London College of Fashion, he worked for Prada as a visual merchandiser under Manuela Pavesi, the brand’s visionary fashion co-ordinator. “She’s the most inspiring, sharp individual I’ve ever met,” he says. What he learned from her he believes is, “the idea of contradiction. She could twist things into modernity, putting wrongs with rights. I saw her recently and I tried to explain to her how inspiring she had been. She gave me a goal. I don’t want to be her, but I want to be that articulate to obsessively work things out until you have a strong point of view.”
In fact, people find his strong drive “tricky”. But it can’t be helped, it’s in his DNA. His father played for the Irish rugby team and is “extremely driven”. His mother is an English and drama teacher – hence his theatre years. “I’m a hybrid of the two, but that drive really comes from my father,” he says. “I know that ultimately ‘it’ will happen. We will become a brand. When we will solidify as a large brand, I don’t know,” he shrugs, “but if I did know it would be boring.”
JW Anderson Women’s S/S 13 collection is being shown on Monday at 8.45pm in WC1. Stockists: Browns Focus, Dover Street Market, Harvey Nichols, Matches, Net-A-Porter, Selfridges
Kate Finnigan is Style Director of The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine