There is an unnerving busy-ness to Jonathan Anderson: his daily schedule planned six months in advance, the small mountain of iPhones beside his coffee and the way his conversation slips from business ethics to the history of Japanese ceramics in the same sentence. But this is how the 32-year-old fashion designer, who oversees his own label as well as the Spanish luxury brand Loewe, thrives: leaping from one idea to the next – from Paris to London to Madrid, to his country retreat near Norfolk. He spends a lot of time mid-air. You get the sense he would really, really like a cigarette.
He is at Tate Modern today, caffeinated and well-lit in this small room up near the roof. Earlier, as a Uniqlo exec presented Anderson’s first collection for the brand, the designer stood slightly hidden in a crowd, and blushed to be described as “an artist”.
Anderson, who last year put on an exhibition of fashion, art and sculpture at the Hepworth Wakefield, doesn’t even call himself a designer. What is he then? A rare pause. “What I think I ultimately do,” he says, taking a huge sip from his tiny coffee, “is curate. I’m curating people, curating campaigns, curating stores, curating collaborations. It is about taking all these components and arranging them in a way that makes sense. It’s like doing brain zen: you have to arrange objects into a certain configuration that feels… right.”
He’s as notorious for his near-obsessional collecting of art and craft as he is for the “challenging” (he called them “ugly”) gender-unspecific clothes he first showed in 2008, including the 2013 bustiers for men, worn with ruffle-topped riding boots on hairy legs. But listening to him talk, even in this PR-ed environment, even about things as mundane as sock design, it becomes clear that both are part of some larger vision, some grand project of living, created through careful juxtaposition of teapot, or sleeve, or antique nutcracker. “I do have a compulsion about owning certain things,” he says, “because I have to look at it to actually work out why, or how.”
Like what? What things?
“I’m obsessed by damask napkins at the moment from the 14th, 15th, and 16th century in Great Britain and Ireland.” His grandfather worked for a textile company in Northern Ireland that specialised in camouflage and at home his grandmother would turn the camouflage scraps into ornate bedspreads. “So I think there’s always been this obsession with fabric. There is something that is so magical about it because it lasts for ever.”
His 33-piece collection for Uniqlo is made up of cable knits and Highland tartans, with a few rugby stripes, too (a nod, perhaps, to his brother and dad, both former professional players). There are no feathers, there’s no chainmail, in fact none of the kinky details he made his name with. Instead there are clothes that will remain wearable long after the autumn ends.
“If you design something, it is the person who wears it who will make the clothing,” says Anderson, who claims to own 100 Uniqlo T-shirts. “That’s what I get from Uniqlo: when you wear their clothing, you make it.” One of the simpler pieces he’s designed for them is the white T-shirt he wears today, printed with a sketch of a man’s profile, in a jaunty hat. “It’s a drawing by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a French immigrant who came to Britain.” A Brexit-heavy moment of eye contact. “I remember seeing it and thinking that what was incredible was the singularity of the line, and the humour. When we started the collaboration I thought we needed something from the past to bring it to the future.” He thinks for a second. “Whether or not a customer knows it’s a 100-year-old drawing by Gaudier-Brzeska, it’s emotional, it’s personal to me. It adds a layer of mystery.”
It was his Hepworth show, he says, that changed the way he worked for ever. “It was a real discovery to look at, say, a William Turnbull [sculpture] beside some knitwear.” Both, he says, teach you about how bodies move. “And as much as it was an emotional roller-coaster doing that show, it has really helped me on everything I have done going forward.” It made him realise that, in designing clothes, whether a man’s bustier or this white T-shirt, the exercise is the same. “What we put out is an artform no matter what it is – there are fundamentals. You are changing the body, and you have a responsibility.”
Which is a fairly big idea for a £14.99 T-shirt. But, he says: “I believe luxury does not exist.” He utters these grand statements as throwaway comments. “I believe that we have a cultural responsibility in terms of our stores, in terms of how we communicate, because ultimately we’ve got to help each other to try to ‘democratise’ fashion in such a way that it can be accessible on any level.” Hence his hop from the £1,000 JW Anderson handbag to the £35 Uniqlo jumper.
He carefully unwraps a Tate-branded chocolate on his saucer, and savours it with nostalgia. “Growing up in Ireland, I remember going to Dublin to visit a Vuitton store and I came out with a brochure. Then I went to Prada and I came out with a magazine, and I felt like I was part of the brand. All those things matter. And, of course, I can’t afford a Rembrandt, but I can still come to the Tate or Hepworth, and I can still enjoy it.”
Uniqlo x JW Anderson is online and in store from 19 September (uniqlo.com)