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Interview with Loewe's Creative Director JW Anderson on His Plans For The Brand

Spanish brand Loewe gets a dramatic reboot, thanks to the left-field hire of new creative director J.W. Anderson.

Few would expect the geometric, hyper-modern bags on the next page to be from a 168-year-old Spanish leather goods house. Then again, few would expect the label’s appointment of the man behind them. When J.W. Anderson (opposite) was announced as Loewe’s creative director in September 2014, many were surprised. The 29-year-old Irish-born designer is best known for the abstract, gender-bending clothes he makes under his fledgling eponymous label. Bags are hardly part of his repertoire, yet bags are the apotheosis of Loewe’s heritage. Its best-selling signature style, the boxy Amazona tote, has been around since 1975 and, despite the numerous facelifts (including a patchwork Junya Watanabe collaboration last year), has stayed mostly true to its original form.

Says local bag expert Alvin Cher of Bagaholicboy.com: “Given his age and how non-commercial his own designs tend to be, J.W. Anderson seems like an odd pick. But the house has been looking very dull and keeps doing the same old bags, so any change would be good.”

Despite its history, the Madrid-based label has always been one of the quieter players in the luxury bag scene. Two years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that it remains largely unknown in key fashion cities like New York and London. British designer Stuart Vevers, who had previously turned Mulberry around, was hired in 2007 to do the same for Loewe. While he’s been credited for modernising it (the Junya project, for example, was his idea), it still lacked the excitement and presence of, say, Fendi or Celine. Last June, Vevers announced that he would be leaving for American leather goods brand Coach.

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Getting a young name well loved by the fashion press on board is almost a guaranteed way for any label to regenerate interest. Supporting budding talent seems to be the new thing among fashion conglomerates: Kering bought a majority stake in Christopher Kane in early 2013. And LVMH didn’t just make Anderson Loewe’s creative director, but also invested in his own brand. With the changing of creative guards increasingly common, and the number of new names to take over sparse, it makes sense to turn to the next generation.

To Loewe, Anderson is expected to bring not only hype, but also a new lease of life. Says Pierre-Yves Roussel, CEO of the LVMH Fashion Group: “While discussing our partnership, it became clear that his understanding of all the creative facets of a brand, and his capacity to transform tradition into an exciting vision for the present, could also make him the perfect creative director at Loewe.”

Anderson has wasted little time since taking the helm. One of his first moves was to revamp the logo with help from It design collective M/M Paris. The previously antique-looking typeface is now replaced by one that’s inspired by the bold fonts of late calligrapher Berthold Wolpe. The house insignia, introduced in 1970 and made up of four clustering Ls, has been streamlined – the result is modern, while paying tribute to the leather branding iron it originated from.

One of the hardest tasks a new designer at a heritage label faces is respecting its history while bringing it forward. Anderson’s game plan: to cleverly repackage Loewe’s past and in turn highlight its ability to connect with the times. This is seen in his debut campaign, which juxtaposes images of his modernist-influenced designs with those from the label’s yesteryear: a 1997 editorial by Steven Meisel; a group shot of all the branding logo stamps used from 1970 to 2000. If not for the dates listed as if the pictures were artworks, they could all pass off as new. In store, the slick wood and ceramic display trays are reportedly all handmade to underscore the brand’s dedication to craftsmanship.

The interior of the Omotesando boutique in Tokyo – the first conceptualised by Anderson – references the Loewe shops designed by Spanish architect Javier Carvajal Ferrer in the ’60s, yet looks remarkably contemporary. The effect is best summed up by a hashtag that’s been regularly popping up on the brand’s Instagram account since Anderson took over: #PastPresentFuture. The designer says of the exercise: “It encompasses what this brand has fundamentally been about for many years… People who were not involved in the fashion world would not know if Meisel’s image was shot today or 20 years ago. His work has got that element of timelessness and that’s something I want in my products – for them to feel timeless.”

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As modern as his designs might seem, they remain true to the brand’s roots. New styles such as the structured Circle tote and Triangle shoulder handbag (part of a pre-launch capsule line revealed in stores in July) were, in fact, inspired by archival shapes. Meanwhile, classics like the Amazona and Flamenco drawstring bag have become more relaxed and functional (the Amazona, for example, is no longer lined in leather and therefore lighter).
In each case, either the brand’s signature honey-hued suede or exotics, or one of four new types of calfskin – rare, known to age nicely and specifically chosen for each silhouette – is used. As always, craftsmanship is key. (Here’s another Spanish brand whose pieces are artisanal and handcrafted).

But the mark of a worthy successor at any brand isn’t simply to keep existing customers, but also to attract new ones – and Anderson has done so with his ready-to-wear collection. His first, Men’s S/S ’15 (revealed in Paris in June), is a thoughtful mix of his own and the brand’s classic aesthetics. For the more adventurous, there are gender-neutral ponchos, tunics and asymmetrical scarf tops. For everyone else, there are tees, trendy sweaters and fail-proof suits. Clothes have mostly been an afterthought at Loewe – the brand shows at Paris Fashion Week, but apart from special collections, the pieces were not sold in Singapore. Now, with Anderson’s clothes being as desirable as the bags and carried at the brand’s Marina Bay Sands boutique (#01-18), this is set to change.

The designer is also amping up the focus on gifts and small leather goods – think coin purses and iPad cases in vibrant colours that reflect Loewe’s refreshed DNA, or fun key rings and pins that complement the bags, with prices starting from a friendly $350. The idea is to expose the label to a new, younger clientele that could grow with it – a smart move, considering that the brand’s growth has been stagnant in recent years.

Ultimately, Anderson’s goal is to have Loewe “compete at the top level” within the LVMH group. He says: “Loewe has become my brand, but it is Loewe. I’m here as a guest and we’re rebuilding a house that has incredible craft, technology and details that I’ve never seen before in my entire life. Every day, I get up at 6am because I’m excited. And I think that’s what it should be about.”

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This feature first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Female magazine