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J. W. Anderson Workshops, Shoreditch, London

J. W. Anderson Workshops, Shoreditch, London

Barcelona, 2015. When Jonathan Anderson won both male and female designer of the year at the British Fashion Awards last Autumn I was in Barcelona writing about Margot House, a hotel inspired by the Wes Anderson creation Margot Tanenbaum. (Herself something of a muse for young designers). The building looks onto the Spanish heritage brand Loewe where Jonathan Anderson has been creative director since 2013. The day after the announcement a buoyant Loewe employee steered me through its hushed and hallowed rooms, past the iconic luggage from its archive - the Amazona, the Flamenco - to the Anderson accessory that propelled the luxury store into the 21st century: the Puzzle bag. Anderson has hinted that when it comes to modernising an established brand you begin by erasing the familiar.  At Loewe he did this by changing the HQ, the logo and the coat hangers. The Barcelona outlet is part of the city’s famed ‘block of discord’, where Gaudi’s Casa Batlló is as stately as a gallion alongside the equally iconic Casa Lleó-Morera on the Passeig de Gràcia. The thoroughfare is the equivalent of a Madison Avenue or Avenue Montaigne and exactly where you’d expect to find a flagship store dedicated to the eponymous J.W. Anderson label that garnered these awards.  Instead the designer has opted for a 250 sq ft shop leased by the neighbouring Ace hotel on Shoreditch High Street in London’s east end. 

Shoreditch, 2016. Jonathan Anderson is the reason I’ve returned to Shoreditch. Jonathan Anderson is the reason I’m writing about fashion. And yet fashion is where I came in - on these very streets. Over time, in broadsheets, a book and broadcasting my subject became class, race, the London of the past and the city that replaced it. Often using the personal as the cue to the bigger story…..the history. And so, standing here now, the personal becomes the cue to a view on fashion, these streets, this city - again - past and present; a palimpsest of styles, memories and experiences. How could it not?  I’m no longer a participant, but a window shopper, a witness, a bystander, watching from the wings. The clothes here are above my price range; below my age range. I’ve seen more than fifty summers and now settle into all things navy by way of a uniform. Something the late Jean Muir wisely opted for early on, accessorised by her slick bob and Bette Davis eyes. (Jonathan Anderson too, in shetland wool crew necks and jeans, never seems to wear what he designs). Bespectacled, bald, swamped in navy blue, with the epilogue of my story closer than the prologue, I’ve arrived at the the point T.S. Eliot reached - Jonathan Anderson see himself as a modernist too -  having asked: ‘What was the value of the long looked forward to?'  Here I am in the ‘deliberate hebetude’ of the poet’s Autumnal serenity, frequently mistaken for Gru from Despicable Me.

So here is the Jonathan Anderson Workshop - as the Shoreditch store is named -  with its slatted rainbow walls and a cube wardrobe at its centre. I select one of the many stand out pieces from the spring/summer 2016 menswear collection: a mock neck jumper in what in less enlightened times would be described as ‘flesh-coloured’, emblazoned with a Teletext-news-type motif. (The perfect outfit for Kraftwerk circa Computer World).  It’s an idea of fashion’s future dispatched from the distant past, long before the past exhausted its fanciful notions of the future. ‘Fashion is never meant to make sense in that moment,’ says Jonathan Anderson. ‘You're ultimately designing for the future.’ Actually, Anderson breaks this first law of fashion, using his imagination on the past and the present as well. The store, like his label’s website, and his social media outings (‘I love the immediacy of Instagram. My feed is really my train of thought.’), is a mood board of moments in a history that he never witnessed - he was born in 1984 - that summon inspiration.  The antiquated informs his output as much as the modern. He rifles through the decades ‘trying to expel things to get to a new point’. It’s evident by the archive magazines he collects:  Playgirl (1970s), Interview (1980s), The Face (1990s).  Similar publications, along with book selections are displayed here. 

Equally, the store is a showcase for his collaborations. In the past, he teamed up with Larry Clarke using actors from the director’s films as models for the book ‘The Smell Of Us’. Recently the publisher Luis Venegas selected pieces from the Anderson oeuvre for ’The Rain In Spain Stays Mainly In The Plain’.  Currently, there’s the hoodie and t-shirt clothing range carrying the archive images of Ian David Baker,  from 80s gay pin-up magazine Mister  and gay Pride marches. Anderson has said that he admires the hedonism and the freedom of the 1970s in particular. This is the restricted view of the decade from the vantage point of the present, by those that never experienced it. Yet, the figures and the physiques of those featured in these images bring to mind those days when heels were higher than expectations; when stick-thin boys on high-rise estates were feminised by feather-cut hair and high-waisted flares.

The J.W. Anderson menswear collections allude to the nascent years of that decade when pop and fashion blurred gender lines - all be it cosmetically - and flirted with sexual fluidity. The sparkle had dimmed by the fag end of the decade, when the summer of 1977 both re-booted the early-Seventies swagger and buried it by way of bin liners, bondage pants, and the rise of tribal‘street-style’. Anderson laments the passing of the personalised approach to fashion that has dominated in the intervening years; evident in mass-produced casual clothing, omnipresent heritage brands, and the designer kit bought by those wealthy enough to own a stylist. He has said that we are living in a cultural world rather than a luxury world ‘where we have to create more experiences. The luxury environment just isn’t personalised anymore’. 

His clothes bring to mind the time when fashion - in postcodes like this - was, for some, not simply about cracking the shackles of sexuality, and gender, but class too. Glamour was not quite the pursuit, even when parked between inverted commas. Camp’ missed it completely. Although Susan Sontag’s interpretation of that concept came close: ‘esoteric, elite...... something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques’. Anderson has taken that coded, esoteric sensibility and tailored it to the  21st century where, by making good use of current technology, he reaches out from the margins to the masses.  He says that he sees no difference between Instagram and the dating app Grindr. In January at the London Collections: Men, Anderson’sshow was streamed live on phones and tablets, for the reputed millions that have downloaded the Grindr app. It was an attempt to 'try and break down the rules in terms of who receives the information first. So it’s about taking information directly to the consumer. And they experience it at the same time’. 

Here and now, examining his retro-futuristic Teletext knitwear, I recall the chiselled ruby slippers and cropped, cuffed pantaloons from his spring/summer 2016 collection, and then history intervenes; I’m reminded of Arthur Morrison’s slang description of east end gangsters when writing about these very streets in the 1890s:  ‘the original out and out downy benjamins, or the celebrated bang-up kicksies, cut saucy’. He was writing in the decade my grandmother was born in Shoreditch.  In 1977, aged 16, I rolled up on these streets to study bespoke tailoring,  having escaped the social engineering of a dystopian south London comprehensive, sans qualifications. I needed a job. Preferably, an apprenticeship. This street, this neighbourhood, maybe even the site of the Ace hotel itself, was central to the clothing industry with its buttonholers, overlockers, and specialist tailors supporting an ailing trade with skills and crafts that were fast disappearing. That year, in their first ‘Dirty Words Pictures’, Gilbert & George documented the delapidated streets, the deserted factories and workshops where 1970s storms and local lads had taken out the window panes. In those shadowed doorways the graffiti that provided the titles for the pictures themselves: Queer. Cunt Scum. I arrived at the east end outpost of London College of Fashion where Jonathan Anderson would graduate decades later, in 2005.

Shoreditch, 1977. At the London College of Fashion the design course was the domain of the privileged, the pedigreed and the qualified and in the heart of the west end. The tailoring course was for those that had escaped the factory floor and the ever-expanding dole queue. The classes were dominated by west London black boys in their late teens, hooked on lover’s rock, patois, Farah slacks and pith helmets in salt n’ pepper tweed. The ones on my wing hated honkies and homosexuals (Queer cunt scum), and reminded me daily when sewing machines fell silent, and the whisper of stitching, punctuated by the kissing of teeth, marked time.  So, what did the brothers like?  The 24-inch flare, the cross pocket and the trouser yoke. It was an attachment suited to the window in the week devoted to a design lesson, during which we were encouraged to adapt the detail on men’s suits.  So a lapel would expand or retreat, a patch pocket would disappear from the breast, a ticket pocket would appear on the hip. I saluted the range of skills on offer but felt short-changed by the lack of scope. I longed for the moment when radical menswear design would collude rather than collide with this traditional craftsmanship.  (Bringing forth a cascade of other freedoms and breakthroughs.) The Long Looked Forward To.  Something that Jonathan Anderson would address in recent times:  'How do you harness craft and how do you articulate it in a way that does not feel nostalgic?’ Anderson’s modern interpretation of pattern cutting is where the lines between male and female are truly blurred. It’s an approach that reverses the muscularity of other designers that have changed the male silhouette by exaggerating the maleness of the physique, squaring the shoulders, raising the crotch and lifting the rear. Something that Anthony Price did brilliantly in the 1970s.  He was inspired by the illustrated gay clones of Tom of Finland. Anderson has opted for neutral shapes, flat chests, skinny hips; an emasculating look, cut for women and worn by men. ‘There was no gay fantasy there’, he has said.  No surprising that he confounded critics and accolytes alike by winning both male and female designer of the year. 

Shoreditch, 2016.  Back at the beginning, in his 2005 graduation show insects featured heavily, and were encased by accessories. A move as inexplicable as the dayglo snails that appear in his last collection. Some ideas are not easily explained; references are not easily traced. The familiar becomes alien when it’s subverted by a change of context, an odd juxtaposition. Men’s fashion is at it’s best when it demands a double take. Jonathan Anderson put it this way: 'There will always be something a bit wrong, like a really nice paisley shirt but with a rubber collar. It’s not quite fetish, it’s just a little bit sick’. We’re  not dealing in replicas or originals but a fusion of the two. Anderson says he doesn’t reinvent clothing, he reinvents the edit. ‘If you are going to design something, I don’t think you can be the archetype for it. Ultimately you are going to get old, and your clothing is going to get old with you'. Ever the renegade, the contrarian, he declares that he’s not a designer. Circling the compact interior of the Shoreditch workshop you see - as you do on his label's official website - everything that he might be already, at 32: collaborator, creator, curator and editor. Ultimately he would like to be an artist, but he knows it’s a transition fashion people fail to make, even in an erstwhile cockney neverworld of Shoreditch, where entire buildingshave been colonised by former Young British Artists.

This is why the store is not a pop-up shop but a nod to the short-lived Omega workshops of the Bloomsbury set, and where future installations are planned.  Fashion is keen on being ‘art’, literate, relevant, and political at the moment.  Let’s get serious. Historically, the attempts at ‘politics’ in an industry so dependent on the three Cs - consumption, consumerism and capitalism - have always been more risible than the outfits: from Katherine Hamnett in the 1980s to Vivienne Westwood’s pet causes in the present.  Last season's trend for blurring the genders on the fashion front was more natural, and suitably shallow. That is, once you overlooked the pretentious analysis supplied by big name brands at fashion week, as dandy highwaymen and Baudlerian flâneurs sauntered down the runway for Gucci, Burberry and Prada in pussy bows and doily tops. The approach was at its best in the hands of Jonathan Anderson, the first on his block with the news, reinventing the edit back in 2008 in the debut collection that launched his label. 

That was the season of his silk shorts and blouses. The approach had moved up several gears by 2013, with tube tops, Roman centurian skirts, knee-high riding boots. For the first time in the history of men’s fashion the hairy thigh became a must-have accessory. Then, last year’s spring/summer 2016 collection transcended all previous sartorial statements: cuffed trousers, chiselled court shoes and retro-futuristic knitwear, cut saucy.  Here was everything I wanted menswear to be back in 1977. And so for me, in that collection, the present and the past came together perfectly, beginning with the runway soundtrack. Anderson chooses his team, his collaborators well. The duo responsible for bringing sounds to the visuals are ’sound designer' Michel Gaubert and Ryan Aquilar. They chose the one piece of vinyl that remains in my collection even this late in the day:  the mesmeric spoken word album ‘Private Parts’ by the avant garde American composer Robert Ashley, recorded in 1977 with ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny on piano. It begins: ‘He took himself seriously’. At his spring 2016 womenswear show in London,  Jonathan Anderson opened the proceedings with something forgetable by Rihanna and something memorable from the lips of the writer Fran Lebowitz from the Martin Scorsese’ documentary about her career:  ‘You would be very lucky if in your whole life, you saw the work of one genius’.