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Jonathan Anderson on Building Culture Into Brands, Fighting for Creativity

Keep pushing forward, and do not fear pop culture. Instead, use it as inspiration and a way of connecting with new audiences, said Jonathan Anderson.

“I always look at how people are interacting with the culture around them to understand what I need to show, or question, as a designer. I don’t think we should be scared of culture,” said Anderson, who was in conversation at the WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit with Miles Socha, WWD’s editor, international, in a talk called “Artistry in the Time of Technology.” Later that evening, Anderson also was presented with the WWD Honor for Womenswear Designer of the Year.

“I don’t get everything right, but I am not going to be dictated by the culture to not do something, because then you don’t find new ideas,” Anderson added.

Anderson had a lot of time to think and act during lockdown, and said he’s entrenched “in this idea of looking at how different generations are interacting with the world around them” and what that means for fashion, art and craft.

“Look at younger people today, [it’s clear] they need to be engaged, they need to know why, what and how did you end up there? How did you make it?” Anderson said.

Pondering cultural trends, and channeling current ideas and questions into his collections, has long been the designer’s modus operandi.

When he took up the role as Loewe’s creative director nearly a decade ago, Anderson said it was important for him to build a “cultural brand.”

That is why Loewe sponsors museum shows and hosts book launches and events that have a connection to art, craft and objects made by hand.

To wit, Anderson attended an event to mark the unveiling of Charles Gaines’ new public artwork, “The American Manifest: Moving Chains” in Governors Island last month in New York. The evening was cohosted by The Loewe Foundation and Creative Time, the nonprofit arts organization.

Last December, Loewe cohosted an event to mark the release of the German artist Florian Krewer’s book during Art Basel Miami.

Anderson said those events may not look like they have anything to do with Loewe bags, “but ultimately, it’s about celebrating people doing things with their hands, which I feel that is what Loewe does. I think sometimes when people go into a luxury store, they feel like the bags just appear, but there is an amazing group of people who make them” and it’s imperative to highlight that talent, he said.

In 2016, Anderson started the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize to recognize excellence, artistic merit and innovation in modern craftsmanship. The prize is also a tribute to Loewe’s roots as a 19th-century collective craft workshop.

He has other reasons for focusing on art and craft at Loewe.

Anderson said sometimes the idea of luxury “can be quite frightening” to some “and I feel like craft is a very good way of breaking down the realities of it, and showing the process. I think the more that we understand how things are made the more we can ultimately” see their value and merit, he said.

The designer is also an “obsessive collector” of ceramics, so much so that his parents are afraid to visit his home for fear of breaking something. Anderson said focusing on craft and handmade objects at Loewe is a way of putting a personal stamp on a brand that does not bear his name.

Anderson also uses popular culture to inspire his collections for Loewe and for his own brand, JW Anderson.

He looks at classic Loewe designs through different lenses and, in the case of his signature brand, he tries to embed his consumers’ current interests and passions into the clothing and accessories.

He believes the worst thing a designer can do is to stand still, although it’s challenging to keep pushing forward. He said the line between creativity and commerce is a fine one and he walks it every season.

“With the kind of social media environment that we’re in, I think sometimes people are scared to take risks because they’re worried that they’re going to be shut down. But if we don’t keep trying to reinvent ourselves, we could end up with a product that [has] no newness within it,” he said.

Anderson said his ultimate aim is to deliver the unexpected and keep consumers on their toes.

“I’m always trying to work out what the customer is not going to expect from us. For me, it’s always about trying to outdo yourself as a designer. You’re trying to keep yourself entertained all the time. You’re trying to work out the next chapter so that the brand doesn’t become stale. Some brands are about building continuity but I am not a continuity person, I like it to be different each season.

“I think if you can get the balance right, the customer will follow and they won’t get bored. So, in a weird way, you have to kind of put the gas on and then take it off,” he said of his design process.

He’s also willing to fight for his designs and redesigns. Anderson talked about his reinvention of the Loewe Puzzle Bag, which started life as a menswear accessory. When he arrived, he moved the zipper from the bottom, added a handle and turned it into a bag for men and women.  

The updated Puzzle was unpopular at first and the Loewe merchandisers didn’t like it.

Anderson said that, in the beginning, there was always some problem with it and it risked being removed from the Loewe offer. “And then, suddenly, it just started to work. I think, sometimes, for a bag to work in the marketplace it doesn’t happen overnight. You can usually tell within 24 months” if it’s going to work.

Today, the Puzzle is a bestseller and a brand pillar.

Anderson added that he’s since made shoes with surreal heels featuring broken eggs or melting candles and they’ve worked commercially, too. “I think, when ideas are abstract enough, and they have a practicality to them, the products are like catnip,” he said.

The designer also talked about how he balances digital with physical and his feelings about the metaverse.

Physical stores, he believes, are windows into the designer’s mind and the brand’s culture. Anderson said that stores need to be dynamic, varied and they need to tell stories.  

They show “how you want to see the brand. They show your interests. You hire amazing people to tell the story and I think it brings you closer to the consumer. That’s why each store we do is completely different, depending on the city.

“We’re opening a store in L.A. in a couple of weeks and it will reflect what’s happening in L.A. or reflect the artists who are based there. Or the store’s [design] might have to do with the plants that we put inside, so that when a customer walks in it doesn’t feel like a repetitive thing,” he said.

“When stores are really good, then I think you sell more because then people feel they are in your world. It has to be believable,” Anderson added.

As for the metaverse, Anderson said he’s undecided.

“Some days, I’m kind of like, ‘Great. The metaverse is going to be a wonderful place.’ And then there are moments where I think it’s a crock. For me, I like to be able to touch things, to be able to go for a walk, to see people and to engage with an idea of reality.”

He believes the pandemic gave outsized importance to the digital world because everyone was stuck at home and people had the time and space to explore it. Once everyone was allowed to go out again, it didn’t seem as important.

Anderson believes the metaverse will ultimately be about “escapism,” and there are so many things to do in the physical world right now “that may be easier, and more rewarding. But it’s hard to tell and I could be completely wrong,” he said.

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