JONATHAN ANDERSON has ignited a radical — and extremely fast — transformation at Spanish house Loewe. Vincenzo La Torre meets the designer in Paris to find out how he did it
From its acquisition by luxury conglomerate LVMH in 1996 until last year, the Spanish leather-goods house Loewe, founded in Madrid in 1846, was a one-trick pony. Its signature item, the Amazona bag, represented the maison around the world and functioned as its de facto cash cow. In spite of its storied past and unique position as Spain's only luxury label with worldwide renown, Loewe was considered a sort of stepchild among its more successful siblings in the LVMH portfolio, brands such as Céline, Givenchy, Fendi and Kenzo, which while priding themselves on their illustrious history have managed to attract consumers thanks to talented designers and savvy marketing teams.
Loewe was clearly in need of a shake-up, which finally came in September 2013, when British designer Jonathan Anderson, a rising star of London Fashion Week known for his androgynous and directional collections, was appointed creative director. Placing a hot young designer at the helm of a legacy label is nothing new, but the powers that be at LVMH, including Delphine Arnault, the daughter of LVMH owner Bernard Arnault, clearly had big things in mind for Loewe and showed their commitment to Anderson by also investing in his label, JW Anderson.
The then-barely-30-year-old designer didn't waste any time to radically reposition Loewe, starting with a new logo, created in collaboration with art directors Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag of M/M (Paris), and a surprisingly artsy advertising campaign, which juxtaposed images from an old Steven Meisel shoot published in Vogue Italia with current photographs. It was quite a change for a house long associated with Spanish royalty and whose past campaigns featured supermodels such as Stephanie Seymour or actresses like Penelope Cruz holding giant handbags in glamorous, old-school settings.
Anderson's revamp of Loewe extended to redesigning its boutiques, opening its first US store, in Miami, and relocating the design studio-cum-showroom from Spain to Paris's Left Bank, where Anderson travels frequently from London to oversee his team.
When we meet Anderson in his office overlooking a quaint square a short walk from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, he's taking a break from the hectic comings and goings in the showroom downstairs, where editors and buyers have come to take a closer look at the Autumn/Winter 2015 collection, shown the previous day in the Unesco headquarters in the city.
The deceptively boyish-looking Anderson is extremely determined and focused, with a strong vision and clear expansion plans for both Loewe and his own label. Explaining that he believes that Loewe's under-the-radar positioning in the fashion industry is “actually a kind of gift”, Anderson makes clear that although he did look at the archives and delved deep into the brand's history, looking back is not his thing.
“It's a beautiful brand that has huge potential,” he begins, after he takes a cigarette break. “But it needed a fashion-cultural approach to it. I didn't know very much about it; it wasn't on my radar. But when I went to the factory I kind of fell in love with it. When I met the master craftsmen, I thought they were fascinating and I was really inspired by their loyalty to this brand. I just think that they wanted more excitement, more of a challenge. Their attention to detail and the product that they could make...the product was really good but I just felt that the design...The leather, though, is incredible. I just feel it needed a push, a different viewpoint ultimately.”
What Loewe doesn't lack now is a strong viewpoint. As soon as those campaign images — both vintage and new — of youth on a remote beach turned up online and in glossies, it was evident that we weren't in Andalucía anymore. Anderson wasn't afraid to bid goodbye — at least for now — to classics such as the Amazona, starting from a blank slate and giving much-needed attention to the long-neglected ready-to-wear, which until his arrival had been almost nonexistent at Loewe, functioning only as a canvas for the arm candy. Although the ad campaign was a social-media success, one can't help but wonder if it raised some hackles among the management ranks at LVMH, what with his lack of in-your-face product placement.
“What it does is sell you a character,” he explains. “That's what advertising is for. You don't need to be told that a woman is going to hold a bag, because humans are smart enough to know that you hold a bag. What you want to do is sell someone a dream. Ultimately, as long as it looks good, it evokes something, then it's as commercial as you want it to be.”
As befits a designer raised in the 1990s, Anderson doesn't see “commercial” as a dirty word and believes that creativity means little without business savvy, which is why he's been involved in every single aspect of the brand's new image.
“That's very much how I work,” he explains. “I always see things that way. I care about the paint that's on the wall. I like the marketing aspect of it. I never wanted to be a designer but a creative director, which is a fundamental difference. That's what I wanted, this type of mechanism.
“Just designing a dress doesn't really excite me. I like to make the environment that the clothes and bags are going to sit in. It's a different method and a different path, and I have to do what I feel it's right. I'm not here to make people believe I'm one thing and not the other. I'm fundamentally the creative director of two brands.”
While press and buyers have praised his efforts so far — his first bag, the Puzzle, is a hit among boys and girls alike and is already outselling the Amazona — the designer has been criticised for departing from the heritage of Spain, which many see as integral to Loewe. He's quick to counter that sentiment.
“I think that's a very boring, nostalgic thing to say,” says Anderson. “If you look at something like Balenciaga, it's from Spain, Givenchy is from France, but they don't represent the country at all. It's about the craft. I don't work for the Spanish tourism board but Loewe. I'm not here to represent Spain but Spanish craft, and if people feel that I should send flamenco dresses down the catwalk, then far be it...”
Truth be told, while his designs feel utterly contemporary, Anderson is definitely paying homage to Loewe's deep connection with leather, which is the label's main strength.
“I like leather, I even use it in my own brand,” he says. “I feel it's a modern product, very dynamic in its approach, and it will always be modern because you can change it all the time and do so many things to it. And Loewe is Spanish — it's the best nappa you can get. It's as Spanish as the brand will ever be. What's incredible is that it ages so well. It always gets better as it gets older.”
Anderson has his work cut out for him. In spite of its big presence in Spain and Japan, Loewe is virtually unknown in the US and has only a smattering of boutiques elsewhere. These would have been major issues only a few years ago, but in this era of whispered luxury, Loewe seems to be the perfect candidate for a successful renaissance.
“The great thing about Loewe is that it's very agile,” says Anderson. “We're at a point where we can change with the wind quite quickly because we don't have so many things holding us down, like hundreds of stores. We have 170 years to reposition, but I think ultimately it has to feel new. When brands start celebrating their birthdays, it's over. It's the most boring thing. If I hear again about the birthday of a brand, every six months, or the anniversary of a bag, a designer...There's nothing worse than a retrospective; they destroy you.”
Whether or not in three decades Loewe will be celebrating its 200 years in business, there's no escaping that it's an example of how a no-holds-barred approach and a strong vision can change the perception of a brand almost overnight. It's certainly a lesson that all those executives and creative directors trying to revive moribund houses right and left should take to heart.