Jonathan Anderson is a busy man. The 32-year-old fashion designer from Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, puts out 12 collections a year as both head of his own label, JW Anderson, and creative director of the Spanish luxury brand,Loewe. He is constantly jumping on and off the Eurostar, splitting his week between London and Paris, where each label is respectively based. So when theHepworth Wakefield gallery in Yorkshire asked him to curate an exhibition, he probably, for the sake of his schedule, should have politely declined. But as someone who collects himself, and who is passionate about modern British art (specifically, Barbara Hepworth) the collaboration seemed like a natural fit.
The gallery’s location was also a major draw. “I’m glad to be putting creative energy into something that is about getting people out of London,” Anderson explains. “We are not trapped – go out and there are amazing things to be seen,” and off he goes in his dizzying way, jumping from one thought to the next. He enthuses about how this politically turbulent moment is the best time to be creative; he tells me that photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, a long-time collaborator, has taken pictures of 123 Yorkshire schoolchildren wearing garments from the show, for an accompanying book, before finally pausing for breath and concluding: “It is quite petrifying doing something like this, because it opens you up to both the art and the fashion worlds, who are equally critical. But I’ve come to the point where it’s not about that. It’s more about the idea of all of this, in Wakefield.”
The show, Disobedient Bodies, aims to create a discussion on the theme of the body, more specifically the ways in which each artwork, each piece of clothing, can reimagine, subvert or “disobey” the body. There are more than 100 works by more than 40 artists and designers, ranging from Hepworth to Issey Miyake, Sarah Lucas to Yves Saint Laurentto Naum Gabo and, of course, JW Anderson and Loewe. The pieces will be paired and grouped to make the viewer think about how they relate to each other.
“So there will be a gingham look by Comme des Garçons on the floor by a Brancusi head, and a Jean Paul Gaultier cone dress with a Henry Moore reclining figure,” Anderson explains. “We’ve got vases by Sara Flynn, with a collection I did many years ago that was all made out of black neoprene. It’s about taking the same material and reinterpreting it over and over.”
Not that he wants to prescribe what these conversations are about. “It may be obvious to me,” the designer says, “but at the same time it might bring up another question in someone else.” Ultimately, he wants to spark a strong reaction: “I want people to either love it or hate it.”
Anderson has form when it comes to provocation. Often described as one of the most exciting designers working today, his clothes are avant garde, and often set the tone for the rest of the industry. His collections sample everything from 19th-century leg o’mutton sleeves to 1980s power earrings; his references have included everything from J-cloths to eastern European disco to tea strainers (as buttons). Somehow, he makes it sell: he once turned a pendant necklace in the shape of a spoon into a must-have.
Anderson’s own designs work perfectly in a show devoted to, as he puts it, “challenging the DNA of the body”. In 2013, Anderson sent male models down the catwalk in strapless tops and frilly shorts, making him a hot contender for theDaily Mail’s award for stupidest outfit at London men’s fashion week. He laterdescribed it as one of his most important collections: “It was about gender confusion. That’s an issue that’s around us, and I believe as a designer you have to reflect what’s going on.”
Anderson’s creative passions have led to a large personal collection of modern art, ceramics, fabric, glass and furniture. He also established Loewe’s art collection when he became creative director, displaying it throughout their stores. And he has always collected fashion: 70% of the fashion pieces in the new exhibition belong to Anderson. Others, such as a 1952 Christian Dior cocktail dress, have been loaned by fashion houses excited to be a part of Anderson’s vision. He has an extensive Issey Miyake collection – the lantern dress in the show belongs to him, as do the Helmut Lang harnesses. For him, these are milestones in fashion history. “Those harnesses were such an incredible moment. It fundamentally changed the way we saw the male body, because it had been reduced to line.”
When it came to planning the exhibition, Anderson was never going to show these pieces in a conventional way. There will be a playful installation at the centre of the show, made up of giant jumpers so big that you can stand inside them: a sort of chic soft play. The exhibits will be within touching distance where possible, to make the visitor feel as if they are part of the conversations. “I am hoping when you have an Arp and a Christian Dior dress and a Sarah Lucas and a Hans Coper all together, it might conjure up something,” Anderson says. “Because, ultimately, we don’t need to know about the history of sculpture or fashion. We just need to know: ‘Do I like it?’”
He has found the demands of working with priceless art within the confines of a gallery challenging, saying it’s “probably one of the hardest things I’ve worked on. You are dealing with an institution, and it has got to be educational, and you’ve got to have barriers. And plinths.”
It was also a challenge for the gallery: Anderson’s final lineup was only pinned down in mid-January after Anderson spotted a piece in the new Rick Owens collection that he had to include. Andrew Bonacina, chief curator at the Hepworth, tells me that he usually knows what is going into an exhibition at least six months in advance. “The idea of ‘disobedience’ that we’ve used in the title can also be applied to how the whole show has come together,” he laughs. “It has tested us, but I think for that reason alone, it’s a really exciting venture.”
The experience has had a big effect on Anderson: “I’ve struggled [in the past] with the idea of fashion as art,” he confesses. But now he realises that “when you see a Helmut Lang sweater or T-shirt on a post against a wall, it holds up just as much as any sculpture”. So has he changed his mind? “Kind of, yeah,” he chuckles. “I don’t know for how long – but yes.”
The process also helped Anderson remember his passion for his craft. “I’ve definitely discovered my love for fashion again. During the last two years, I’ve found it very difficult. There is a lot of pressure. Because where do you put fashion? It is a tremendous juggernaut of commerciality: there are too many garments in the world.”
Was the darling of the British fashion world getting a bit bored? “Sometimes you fall out of love with what you do,” he admits. “Some days, you wake up and wish you worked on a farm.” But now he has been reminded what it is all for: “I’ve realised that when fashion is really good and really challenges and takes a risk, it is incredibly artistically powerful. It makes people dream.”
• Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates The Hepworth Wakefield runs from 18 March-18 June.
Photographer’s assistant: Charlie Allan. Hair and makeup: Rose Angus at S Management using Bumble and bumble, and Bobbi Brown. Model: Mouna at Storm.