Current fashion wunderkind J.W. Anderson’s collection of classics for Uniqlo pushes the creative into uncharted territory. By Alice Birrell.
Fashion wunderkind J.W. Anderson’s collection of classics for Uniqlo pushes the creative into uncharted territory.
Above the teeming summer masses skirting the River Thames, Jonathan Anderson is ensconced in the upper reaches of the Tate Modern’s newest wing. He is seated in a jutting corner enclave with the ninth-floor windows of the brick Blavatnik window flung open to the occasional bluster. A cabal of representatives from Japanese retailer Uniqlo, with whom he’s just unveiled a 33-piece collaboration to an assembly of press, surrounds him. Rather than the sharply dissonant, jigsaw aesthetic Anderson is known for, every piece is streamlined, subdued, classic. The project caught out the designer as much as the result did the media pack.
“It’s quite scary, because Uniqlo has already created all of this,” he says, alluding to staples like neutral T-shirts, denim, cashmere jumpers and tailored separates just shown in the airy gallery-turned-showroom a few floors down. “It was this kind of very tall order for me of actually focusing on every single detail,” he explains of the brief to create British classics from Uniqlo, a brand that is known for providing affordable but high-quality fashion.
Imagining Anderson daunted is hard. Once an unknown London College of Fashion graduate from Northern Ireland, and now head of a LVMH-backed namesake label he founded in 2008 that is a London fashion week must-see, Anderson’s trajectory is one of fashion’s speediest. In 2013, he was appointed creative director of LVMH’s languishing Spanish luxury house Loewe, a label he’s since resuscitated with a culture-rich bedrock that reflects his unbounded curiosity. He now juggles two demanding remits: one churning out edgy nongender-definitive clothing for East London types (J.W. Anderson); the other intelligent clothing for Loewe’s top-tier clientele. For one of fashion’s fastest movers, a cotton T-shirt would surely be a breeze.
“It ended up me kind of, in a weird way, designing for myself for the first time,” he says, leaning back in a wooden chair in jeans, a T-shirt and black Nikes. That meant trying things on, which he never usually does “because I’m very tall”, he says with a half smile, ash-blue eyes glinting, and by picturing shopping for a jumper but buying something else. “What would be that other thing?” he says he posed to himself. “I wanted to create a few of them.”
Half an hour earlier, the answer to that question was displayed on a gaggle of models – boys and girls – who lined up in all-over tartan versions of Uniqlo’s ubiquitous Ultra Light Down puffers, proportions blown up, wrapped in rugby-stripe scarves in primary colours made with Uniqlo’s insulating Heattech. Fair Isle intarsia knits and moss Barbour-esque quilted jackets were in the mix as well as herringbone overcoats ready to launch to millions of Uniqlo customers, including Australians, this month. By tapping into the pragmatism of heritage utilitarian garments, Anderson was reacting to the multiplicities of today. “We see so much on a daily basis; we are bombarded by imagery, so ultimately things just have to be kind of simplistic and easy.”
But Anderson’s ascent hasn’t been as simple and without controversy. For his autumn/winter ’13/’14 collection, he sent men down the runway in ruffle shorts and tube tops, drawing ire from some of the traditional fashion