The one percent of the one percent have always been aggressive in exerting their power—it is they who elevated dressing as a domestic ritual and legitimised fashion as the snob’s art form. Here, history is synonymous with authenticity, and the Spanish, who have surrendered their pride to exalted French glamour—Balenciaga is the country’s most stinging loss—continue to boast that Loewe bloomed from their very own earth. “There’s so much goodwill for Loewe in Spain,”says Jonathan William Anderson, the London-based designer who, in 2013, succeeded Stuart Vevers as Loewe’s creative director. “They see it as their only luxury brand, so they’re very protective of it.”Loewe was acquired by French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 1996; LVMH acquired a 46 per cent stake in Anderson’s company just two years ago. Vevers’ first catwalk presentation proposed aphotic fantasies of Gothic excess that displaced the little black dress and consecrated the leather black dress. He was inspired by the work of German photographer Chris von Wangenheim, in particular, a 1977 shot of Christie Brinkley and a shadowy mare that had originally appeared in Vogue—eroticised mammals, both leggy, of two very different kinds. This season, Anderson described his woman as “someone who wears the trousers,”though she won’t be able to conquer the feat without a dash of impiety.
Loewe (pronounced low-ay-vay) doesn’t loll on manic cheers of devotion, certainly not to the extent of its flashier siblings—Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and, perhaps now, Céline. The name isn’t easy to pronounce, the company suffers an atomised archive, and its biggest market outside Spain is Japan (a quick Google search for Australian stockists diverted me to a home electronics company of the same name). Loewe was established in 1846, in Madrid, with two royal marriages approaching. Isabell II of Bourbon, at just sixteen years old, was set to wed her distant cousin, the Duke of Cadiz. That very same day, the teenage royal’s younger sister, Princess Maria Luisa Fernanda, two years her junior, married French noble Antoine d’Orléans, Duke of Montpensier. A group of artisans exploited the momentous double wedding to hawk their wares, and, in 1879, were joined by Enrique Loewe Roessberg, a German craftsman who lent his name to the company (he is erroneously dubbed the founder, though, born in 1842, would have possessed audacious sleight of hand to yield a carving knife at four years old). In 1905, Loewe was declared the Official Supplier to the Spanish Court, then under the auspices of King Alfonso XIII. Loewe launched a small apparel line in 1965, just months before Yves Saint Laurent launched Rive Gauche. The ready-to-wear department was fully realised in the 1970s, and designers including Enrique Õna Selfa, Narciso Rodriguez, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld—the first German since Loewe Roessberg to spearhead creative operations—have fattened the archives.
Fashion technique requires an adroit grasp of a needle, thread and scissors, though there’s an element of natural magic involved in the craft. Divination, the foresight to determine elements that carry the most marketing potential, marries the designer’s artistry with their augury; clairvoyance, an intuitive understanding of consumers’fickle desires; and, of course, conjuration, to make it materialise. A ShowStudio panel, hosted by Complex editor Daryoush Haj-Najafi, with seats occupied by writers, consultants and stylists, convened in January to dissect the Loewe autumn/winter 2015 lookbook. In one image, a model yawns into the distance. In another, he pushes up his glasses over the bridge of his nose. An old man, with an umbrella that seems to jump in and out of frame, interrupts the hazy ennui, and, in another image, like a shaman who wandered fortuitously out of damp shadows, he blows a cloud of smoke into the model’s face, as if casting him into corporeality. Mimma Viglezio, a fashion consultant based in London, advances the idea of “men as flowers,”and, were it the case, you can almost see the model’s feet growing roots, holding Loewe bags like petals attached to his flimsy anatomy.
Yet, the leather goods have been thrown to dubious history. Many pieces had been lost, until Sylvie Grass, then Loewe’s director of corporate communications, embarked on an extensive trip to fill the trophy cabinet. According to Sarah Harris of British Vogue, a mission to hunt down Loewe’s lost treasures had been instigated in 1996 (following LVMH’s acquisition), but plans were suspended until 2006, when Grass was hired for the job. She spied eBay auctions and flea markets for Loewe’s tanning insignia, and was lucky to find a pink bag from the 1950s for just £50 (almost AU$100)—a period of incredible growth for Loewe, in collaboration with famed architect Javier Carvajal. “Loewe has a special relationship with the European aristocracy and royalty, so I requested meetings at many of their homes,”Grass told British Vogue. “More often than not, these wealthy families have Loewe that’s been passed down for generations, they just don’t recognise it.”Grass unearthed a jewellery box dating back to 1905; a black goatskin vanity case, which belonged to a Spanish duchess, was offered to the company by the noble’s granddaughter; a crocodile skin travel case from the 1940s is now secured in company vaults. A bag of remarkably peculiar construction was tested by the director of Barcelona’s leather museum, and the hide concluded to be elephant skin. “This would never happen today—there are so many regulations,”said Josu Aboitiz, then Loewe’s international PR director.
Spanish imagery is deeply Catholic, and though ecclesiastical lines might have inspired some of Balenciaga’s greatest work, for Loewe, there seems to be nothing dowdier than solemnity. J.W. Anderson has expressed intentions to make the brand “less serious,”to feel “fresher and sharper,”and to move it “away from the cliché.”For his first accessories campaign, he gained permission to reprint several beach scenes from a 1997 Italian Vogue editorial by Steven Meisel, titled, rather conveniently, “An Interpretation.”In one juxtaposition, Maggie Rizer’s windswept, freckled face sits alongside the Flamenco bag, in trademark Oro (“gold”or “sand”in Loewe parlance) suede, with new typography by design collective M/M (Paris). His confidence—the purists would say insouciance—is bolstered by his desire to break the shackles of Loewe’s bourgeois complacence. “To restart a brand, you have to make people forget what it was,”Anderson told W Magazine. “So I wanted to change everything: the space, the logo, the hanger.”Anderson’s trips to Ibiza, where he carried his own Amazona bag (first launched in 1975 and still Loewe’s best-selling bag), inspired the use of seaside imagery, and the dusty white of Loewe packaging alludes to the Portland stone used to build the British Museum in London. For his first women’s wear collection, presented last September, Anderson sent models out in leather dresses with flaps of suede wafting from the neck to the knee. Knives were used to abrade the legs of his culottes, ridged knits drooped to the left to mock the central axis of the spine, and chequered cap-sleeve T-shirts had their lattices warped across the stomach. His sophomore collection, presented last week, was a triumph of epicene sensuality, flattering our cosmic awareness of space and age, via the space age, replete with tinsel skirts and planetary parure.
There’s danger in allowing Loewe to rest—indeed, sleep—on its laurels, a fate little better than simply allowing it to sit with ankles politely crossed on the dais. It’s hardly coincidence that Stuart Vevers, an ex-Mulberry creative force, and winner of Accessories Designer of the Year at the 2006 British Fashion Awards; and Lisa Montague, CEO of Mulberry from 2003 to 2009, were hired to propel the brand. Leather goods make up the lion’s share of this royal trade. But the potential of the ready-to-wear division doesn’t escape Anderson, who says, “Ready-to-wear is the character. If you do not believe in the character, you do not buy the bag.”Market sources estimate that Loewe generated US$323 million in the year ending September 2014, a figure that Anderson wants to multiply fourfold. For this young designer, who, in his own words, “came from nothing,”leading the next years of growth for a legacy so lofty has little precedent of success—perhaps, not since David conquered Goliath. Judith Thurman, staff writer at The New Yorker, once wrote, “You invert an hourglass when the sand runs out, and the fashion world inverts the social hierarchy when the trappings of privilege lose their glamour.”Last season, Loewe released an archival photograph of Steven Meisel locking lips with the late Sean Bohary—the image is on display at bus stops across Paris and London. In his first royal mandate, J.W. Anderson has brought the treasures of the palaces to the provinces.