Given the year that passed and the gateway timing of this season’s London men’s fashion shows – post-Brexit vote, days before Donald Trump moves into the Oval Office, and during this warm, wet January – there has doubtless been pressure on designers to create collections that reflect this sociopolitical context while managing to cheer us up. And perhaps a crushing pressure on JW Anderson, arguably Britain’s most pioneering and internationally beloved designer, who routinely breaks boundaries like they were twigs.
The show itself, held in a labyrinthine parquet-floored room, in which models darted from corners and then vanished behind the next while brushing the knees of the audience members with various knitted trimmings – had a non-hierarchical, interactive mood, promoting the sort of community you want on a damp Sunday morning when in dire need of a visual boost.
And fortunately, Anderson has not buckled under the pressure to spark joy, with this autumn/winter 2017 collection being one of his most reference-dense, bright and – at times – daft or highly sophisticated offerings to date. Some of the styling was so complex – herding (at one count) seven different fabrics together including disco sequins and a orange scarf which made the model resemble Mr Tickle – that you could accuse Anderson of showing off. Still, the oversized knits, tailoring, colour and texture were a welcome distraction from the last 12 months.
Anderson’s debut collection was shown three years after he graduated, in 2008. When he started, critics were confused. Some reviews were dire and he would have been forgiven for giving up. But in the last seven years, despite shifting his attention to Loewe, the Spanish luxury house where he is also creative director, and working on various collaborations (recently some nice nude shots of beautiful men with the photographer Alasdair McLellan), he has become a nonpareil designer and one of the most recognisable.
His high-end-meets commercial look is now fixed as the Anderson aesthetic. This is thanks, also, to working with the same team who know him inside out and who understand this aesthetic, which is revised each season but is always hinged around the technical, the prints, references and the styling.
His wild catwalk looks are often the sum of simple, accessible standalone items. In his latest show, the hemming together of crochet, shearling, comically long scarves and – perhaps the only bum note – strange flappy slippers was a lot to digest. It’s not beautiful, rather at times inflated and excessive, but when you unpack it, piece by piece, his designs are accessible, wearable and beautifully crafted. It is easy to be distracted by the giant grey coats with contrasting cream knitted sleeves, and miss a pair of perfectly cut black tailored trousers underneath.
His itch for detail was keenly on show: raw hems, slim neckerchiefs, serpent scales on the back of trench coats and, barely visible, small square applique panels with red and white ballot box crosses stitched into the crochet. Anderson’s famous Pierce bag was revived again, this time swinging in multicoloured crochet. Navy leather piping was slotted neatly on to a shearling jacket. The prints were fun if inexplicably chosen – finely drawn versions of Studio Ghibli-style landscapes printed on to shirts and imagery from medieval French stained glass windows printed on to raw cut denim.
The most marked shift was his move away from any gender blending, which Anderson is renowned for. In this instance the feel was more gender neutral, with the colours spirited, and the crochet explosive in RB Kitaj tones. The closest thing to a skirt was a crocheted apron worn over trousers. Anderson referred to the models as “lads on tour”, although this tour felt more like a gap year in east Asia than a jaunt to Ayia Napa.
Anderson is one of the few designers who is recognisable by the way he curates a look, for his open references – if much of this collection is comparable to Christopher Kane and Raf Simons that’s fine with him – and his decision to sidestep trends and go his own way. Perhaps, then, the sign of an excellent creative director.
Speaking backstage, the Northern Irish designer spoke at length about the various, conflicting ideas behind the show, citing artists David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield as influences and the importance of “British street craft” – pointing at the crochet – which he feared had been lost.
But it was his thoughts on layering that seemed most pressing: “I wanted to make layers upon layers, as a sort of defence mechanism,” he said. “The oversized element … it creates a slouchy protectiveness. It’s knitty, cosy, the idea of a familiar feeling … a motherly vibe.”
He described the overall look as being “lost in a womb of fashion”, a turgid description perhaps but one which quite accurately tied the themes together, reminding us we may still need some protection from events this year too.
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