The Art of Craft: A History of Loewe
In their 1996 publication Beautiful Necessity: Decorating with Arts & Crafts, writers Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto describe the importance of allusion in design: “Once we have breathed life into a house, we give it a spirit, we make it our own.” The writers are referring to homes and furniture that were built in the style of the Arts & Crafts movement, an art period that flourished throughout England and America between the late 1870s and 1920. The movement emphasized the process of hand craftsmanship as important and pushed back against the cold, impersonal characteristics of industrialism by focusing on the artist’s hand in creating new pieces. It also sought to elevate hand craftsmanship as a studied form, one as favored as the fine art shown in respected institutions like the Royal Academy of Art.
For those in the movement, inspired by the philosophical writings of John Rustin and spearheaded by artist William Morris, this act of creation was held in high esteem. The finished pieces became offerings laced with care, skill, and time-honored tradition- incomparable to those produced by a machine. There was inherent respect paid to the materials used, a desire for the natural imperfections that emerged in the form, and a commitment to producing something worthy of being used by someone. The work of the Arts & Crafts movement focused on impeccable versions of items we interact with every day: tables, chairs, ceramic vases, and lamps. It also held tightly to the community, as many of the pieces were made in co-ops and workshop spaces that allowed artists to commune with one another and encouraged the exchange of information on new techniques. Though the crafts movement is not often discussed through the lens of fashion, its main themes are well embodied in luxury clothing and accessory design. This is particularly true of the European house of Loewe.
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The story of Loewe is built on a history of craftsmanship. For the reasons listed above, their artistry has become synonymous with luxury. The Spanish house was founded in Madrid in 1846 as an artist collective that specialized in the creation of small leather goods like tobacco cases. While it would take quite some time for the brand to enter global status, their work was marveled by many in the region. Towards the end of the 19th century, German craftsman Enrique Loewe Roessberg arrived in Spain, where his technical abilities with leather were well served in the group. He eventually joined forces with the workshop’s owners and helmed the operation, giving it his name. The brand’s oeuvre would go on to catch the eye of King Alfonso XIII and his wife, Queen Victoria Eugenia. In 1905 the Spanish royal couple honored the house of Loewe as the official suppliers to the Royal Court. Their precise leather work was welcomed by women in the court seeking elegant handbag options; the pieces were often finished in exotic skins including iguana and crocodile. This designation made Loewe’s work even more desirable and can be seen as a catalyst for their distinction as a luxury fashion house.
The brand’s ready-to-wear business began in 1945 through the appointment of designer José Pérez de Rozas. As Loewe’s creative director until 1978, de Rozas’ work proved foundational in establishing the spirit of Loewe: a brand rooted in its Spanish heritage and one that championed a democratic sense of design. During his tenure, Spain was engrossed in political and economic upheaval. The aftermath of civil war resulted in the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, leaving a bleak outlook on the country. General Franco’s insistence on Spanish neutrality during World War II kept Spain isolated, which served both an advantage and disadvantage to Loewe. While the isolation kept the designs of the house from being influenced by other labels, it also meant that they were not readily available to those outside of Spain. Roessberg’s great-grandson, also named Enrique Loewe, has surmised that de Rozas’ work would otherwise have been viewed on the same scale as the largest names in fashion. It makes him a sort of quiet legend, one whose work speaks for itself more than through the fanfare of others.
A shining example of his ability comes through the creation of one of the brand’s signature bags: the Amazona. Debuting in 1975, the release of the bag followed the death of General Franco and signaled the desire for ease of life. The bag’s satchel design proved roomy enough for daily essentials, while its wrap-around zipper ensured that those essentials would be concealed elegantly. Its reinforced corner patches were both an opportunity to solidify the functionality of the bag and shed light on the supple calfskin leather of which it is made, continuing to speak to the brand’s mission of beautiful craft. Even with the changes that later designers have made to the bag, its position as a top performing silhouette over 40 years after its initial release is a testament to de Rozas’ timeless sensibilities. He would also be remembered for his visual merchandising abilities as much as his design talent. Given the circumstances of his home country, his elaborate window displays provided a fantastical refuge from the harsh reality outside. His work continued to parallel the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement through a strong focus on the natural world. His color palettes were routinely made up of shades found in the environment and his love of animals was incorporated into the displays. In the present, Loewe’s playful use of animal figures to create bags can be seen as a reference to de Rozas’ legacy.
In 1996, Loewe was bought by luxury fashion group LVMH. The move saw the fashion conglomerate add to its already growing roster of heritage labels specializing in leather goods at the time, including Louis Vuitton, Berluti, and Celine. The acquisition also proved fruitful for the brand, as it provided exposure. While the label had previously held runway shows and presentations in conjunction with new collections or store openings, backing by LVMH allowed for the appointment of new designers to further the brand’s sartorial offerings and emphasize its high fashion appeal. Since its acquisition, Loewe passed from one designer to the next—Narcisco Rodriguez, José Enrique Oña Selfa and Stuart Vevers—transforming and developing with each, before meeting it met its current director, Jonathan Anderson, in 2013.
American designer Narcisco Rodriguez was the first choice after the acquisition. Having graduated from Parson’s School of Design, Rodriguez’s prior work at pioneering labels like Anne Klein (under the direction of Donna Karan) and Calvin Klein furthered his education in the functionality of sportswear separates. His design skills gave way to creative appointments at TSE and Ceruti before his landing at Loewe. Vogue deemed his minimalist pieces for the label “quiet, understated luxury,” which harkened to the ethos of the brand.
Following Rodriguez’s departure in 2001, LVMH hired designer José Enrique Oña Selfa. The Belgian raised designer, who is of Spanish descent, came to the label having spent significant time studying with Olivier Theyskens and producing work under his own namesake label; his sensual pieces were carried by major department stores like Bergdorf Goodman. Selfa was known for a sort of romantic style that mixed the best of Belgian and Spanish influences. His womenswear spoke to the passion of the Loewe brand, using their signature supple leather fabric on trench coats, A-line skirts, pants with a soft flare, and daring dresses.
The torch was passed once again to Stuart Vevers in 2007, signaling Loewe’s arrival as a major player in the fashion arena. Although his name was relatively unknown at the time, Vevers’ work as the go-to accessory designer for labels like Givenchy, Luella Bartley, and Mulberry developed a reputation for strong bag design. He was honored as the 2006 Fashion Accessories Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council and also served as a bag designer under Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, points that no doubt intrigued executives at LVMH. His undeniable designs for these brands, popularized during the rise of the “it” bag, even inspired a nickname. Vevers’ understated history and penchant for developing covetable product with a classic spin were reminiscent of Loewe’s first creative director and spoke to its “brand first” philosophy. De Rozas actually proved to be an incredible inspiration for him: Having been introduced to his work while studying the archives, Vevers was immediately drawn to the elegant simplicity of the details that de Rozas used in his bags (Vevers would mimic some of these details in his own updates of classic designs like the Paloma and in the creation of new styles like the Calle.) The industry paid attention to his work as he set out to leave his mark on Loewe, in large part because he was the first designer since de Rozas to oversee all creative aspects of the business instead of focusing exclusively on women’s ready-to-wear. Despite all his effort, it would still take several years for the brand to hit its stride in developing a singular design language.
Enter Jonathan Anderson. In 2013, Anderson was named Vevers’ successor and has been propelling the brand forward since his appointment. His appreciation for craft, in particular, the Arts & Crafts movement, makes him an incredible choice to head the house of Loewe. It has served as a platform for him to truly get at the root of the house, allowing its past to inform the present in a way that appears more organic than some of his peers. The designer is known for his mash up of ideas that are nevertheless exacting in their interpretation (critic Tim Blanks has described it as “precision and chaos.”) His time at Loewe thus far has seen a throwback to 80s silhouettes, references to sci-fi films, and a punctuation of primal forms—themes that are often at odds in the best way possible. It is a sensibility that Anderson has been honing under his namesake label, J.W. Anderson, where his gender-bending menswear collections first launched him to fame—and which he continues to produce alongside his work at Loewe.
Anderson's background serves as a sort of precursor to this zig-zag of ideas. Born in Northern Ireland, Anderson studied theater in London and then in Washington, D.C. before moving back to London to study fashion design. He also received an informal education from celebrated artist and fashion coordinator Manuela Pavesi while creating window displays for Prada. Each of these instances are well represented in his work for Loewe, where his commitment to the visual presentation and staging of his ideas are as informative as the designs themselves.
For all his ideas, Anderson’s work is also a study in teamwork. His collective approach to the production of Loewe is similar to the founding of the house as an artist’s workshop. He tends to rely on his fellow creatives to expound his vision for the brand: In the past, he has gone so far as to consider himself less a designer than a business person. Frequent collaborators include stylist Benjamin Bruno, casting director Ashley Brokaw, and photographer Jamie Hawksworth, each of whom has produced work for Loewe and J.W. Anderson. This continuity and sense of togetherness seems to be telling of Anderson’s interests, like his appreciation for zines and other art literature, as well as his love of collecting craft. It is fitting that one of his most important inspirations is the aforementioned crafts pioneer William Morris, whose views on quality and accessibility have heavily influenced Anderson’s take on luxury in the modern age.
It comes as no surprise that one of his most pressing initiatives upon joining Loewe extended far beyond the material product and instead looked to further its cultural impact. In the late 80s, the house founded the Loewe Foundation, which nurtures talent and builds educational programs around fields including poetry, dance, and craft, all in an effort to uphold Spanish heritage. Anderson boosted this prize-winning initiative through the inauguration of the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize in 2016, an international competition held annually in an effort to support makers of handcrafted goods, not unlike those preserved by the crafts movement. The prize allows emerging artists a chance to be seen on the world stage and the opportunity to receive funding to continue their practice—the latter of which is Anderson’s way of giving back after his own good fortune led him to receive the British Fashion Award for Emerging Talent in 2012, an important distinction for the once “fledging” label.
Anderson has said that “for something to be contemporary, it needs to reflect both the past and present.” Nowhere is this sentiment upheld better than in his design for the brand’s ubiquitous Puzzle Bag, a silhouette that is constructed from over 40 individual pieces of the label’s sought-after leather and can be flattened completely. Its beauty lies in the understanding that the piece is put together by an artisan’s actual hand at Loewe’s workshop in Madrid. Though new technologies have no doubt helped in the mass production of such items (a point that ironically spelled the demise of the crafts movement), the Arts & Crafts period viewed craftsmanship as not simply a skill, but as the art itself. It is the spirit that breathes life into Loewe, also proving to be the foundation upon which a house is built. A focus on workmanship champions the subtle side of luxury—extending the attention to design, materials, and honoring the individual artisans creating the pieces, rather than celebrating the brand alone. Appreciated by the likes of actresses Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren long before it was available to the masses, Loewe’s craftsmanship continues to be its calling card, as it is introduced to a new generation through Jonathan Anderson. The future is bright for the heritage label, even if we are still learning to say its name properly (for the record, it’s pronounced Lew-ay-vay.)