Designer JW Anderson: Ireland's overlooked star wows world
Despite being largely ignored in the country of his birth, feted designer JW Anderson tells Jessica Whyte how he is still proudly flying the Irish flag
JUST who exactly is JW Anderson? If you type his name into Google, you are bombarded by search results from Vogue, The Times, The Telegraph, Dazed Digital and even T Magazine of The New York Times; which have all been heralding the talents of this Irish designer.
In the lead-up to London Fashion Week this past September, it struck me how virtually nothing had been written about JW Anderson in the Irish press, apart from his inclusion in pieces such as my own London Fashion Week report. Was there a specific reason behind it or had we simply overlooked the fashion industry's most celebrated rising star who is Irish born and bred?
A tall, wiry character who looks as if he has leapt straight out of a Quentin Blake illustration, Anderson has delicate, elfin features and a huge pair of eyes that dart about in every direction. He's enthusiastic about being interviewed by someone from home. "I can't believe you are here from Ireland," he says with a beaming smile. "Thank you so much for coming to the presentation and for taking an interest in my work."
I get straight to the point and ask him why do you think we in Ireland know so little about him? He lights a cigarette and with a genuinely perplexed look and says: "I don't know. I really don't know."
When told that a number of Irish journalists believe that he did not promote himself enough on the home-front after leaving Ireland, he replies: "But I did. I approached nearly every governing body and potential sponsor in Ireland. None of them wanted to know."
He then outlines his career trajectory. "There were no courses in Ireland that specialised in menswear so I had to [leave Ireland]. I didn't have much choice. Also, the problem with the industry at home is that there is no way to take the designs to the main stage. I decided to study abroad so I could showcase my work on an international platform."
Jonathan William Anderson hails from Co Derry, where he grew up in a village called The Loup. His father Willie Anderson is a former Irish rugby player, who, according to Jonathan, was "a bit of a maverick back in the day". His childhood was underlined by an obsession with clothes -- he recalls memories of redrawing entire Alexander McQueen looks from the catwalk as a young boy.
But before settling on a career in fashion design, he tested the waters of acting. In 2001, he moved to Washington DC to study at the Actor's Studio, where he discovered a love of stage costumes. He decided to return to Europe to do a degree in menswear design.
So what is it exactly that JW Anderson does as a designer? After graduating from the London College of Fashion, Jonathan showcased his first collection off-schedule at London Fashion Week in September 2008.
In February of this year, he was awarded the prestigious NEWGEN award by the British Fashion Council to showcase his autumn/ winter 2010 menswear collection on the official London Fashion Week schedule.
Due to an overwhelming demand from stockists, he also launched a capsule womenswear collection, and a jewellery and accessories line for both menswear and womenswear. It is difficult to fathom how he has managed to make all of this happen at just 26 years old.
Does he have a style mantra when it comes to dressing men and women? "It's all about borrowing," he insists. "Things that can be borrowed from a man to a woman and a woman to a man. It's taking something that has an emotional meaning and wearing it -- like your boyfriend's T-shirt. Above all, though, I am all about telling stories -- the Irish way of telling stories -- through clothes."
Asked where exactly the Irish element comes into play with his collections, he says: "Everywhere. Where do I start?" His assistant brings out some photographs from the womenswear lookbook and he talks me through each piece.
"The lace pattern on this top is a replica of an 18th-Century lace tapestry found in a bog in the west of Ireland that is now housed in the Ulster museum," he enthuses, pointing to a breathtaking pink sheer top, "and all these knits are hand-woven in Aran ... honestly, I have thrown more money at Ireland than anywhere else. Did you know that just over 75 per cent of our product is made in Ireland?"
He then says that this season, Oki-ni.com, his chief menswear stockist, sold 30,000 pieces of JW Anderson product in just minutes.
"Thirty thousand in 10 minutes," he says. "We have tripled our profit margin in the last year."
In light of everything he has achieved so far, does it matter to Anderson whether or not he is considered an Irish designer by the rest of the world?
He eyeballs me through his psychedelic purple lenses. "Of course it does," he says. "I am from Ireland and am extremely proud of that. I see myself as an Irish designer and want to be known in the industry as an Irish designer. That is very important to me."
That said, JW Anderson is, nonetheless, virtually unknown in Ireland -- so would he ever consider reconnecting with his homeland? "Do you know something?" he says. "I would love to do a re-show of my collections in Ireland, but ... " he trails off, shrugging his shoulders.
The fact is, not so much as a button of his is stocked in Ireland. Internationally, his stockists include Harrods, Liberty, ASOS.com, Net-a-Porter MAN and Oki-ni.com.
Unusually for a person who is succeeding outside his native land, he is passionate about Ireland's legacy
"I believe that people only ever focus on one aspect of Irish fashion, which is what Irish people wear in Ireland, when the Irish have made an even greater impact on Western fashion through our history of emigration," he says, reaming off lists of examples and reference points.
"Take the photographer William Gedney, whose work was the basis of my inspiration for the collections this season. He photographed all over the US, so many of the people he photographed were families and workers that had emigrated from Ireland. Their layered, beatnik style was hugely influential to how Western fashion developed in the States -- I think that's really cool."
Though I strain to see where the Irish influence lies in the psychedelic colours of Anderson's spring/summer 2011 offerings, he insists that the Irish link is there. "[In Ireland], we are very good at taking muted tonal colours and putting them together. I suppose that's what I take most from [Irish dress], but this season I've used that as an undercurrent and put masses of colour on top."
In an effort to maximise the development of his brand, Anderson uses every medium, including film and online social networking sites. In the lead up to each season, he works on the collections and the films simultaneously from the same inspirational source.
"The films are a moving mood image that I use as a way of bringing my designs to everyone around the world, by posting them on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and my blog," he explains.
For this season's womenswear collection, he has produced a fashion film, The Devoured and I -- now available to watch online -- but for next season Jonathan says that his sights are set even higher.
"We are currently working on a guerrilla marketing campaign for next season, where the aim will be to project an image or campaign on to a major building in every country in the world," he explains.
As I leave, I am eager to find out just what stories he is in the process of weaving for his next collection. "I can tell you I have already started," he laughs, "and I think for my womenswear collection I am going to do something inspired by Veronica Guerin. She is someone that inspires me so much."
Anderson is undoubtedly a star in the making, a young designer who is single-handedly redirecting the world's attention to Irish textiles, Irish craftsmanship and Irish culture. JW has a very bright future ahead. Just Wait. Just Watch.