Inside Loewe's Past, Present and Future

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© Loewe, courtesy of Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid

The luxury Spanish house celebrates its 170th anniversary with a new Madrid exhibition, and it makes for an engrossing trip through its rich archives

A few steps from Madrid's Prado Museum lies the elegant Real Jardín Botánico, in which a restored 18th century greenhouse is currently home to Loewe's garden of earthly delights: a two-week exhibition entitled Past, Present, Future, dedicated to the Spanish luxury house. This year marks the 170th anniversary of the LVMH-owned brand, which, under the three-year-long stewardship of Northern Ireland-born designer Jonathan Anderson, has seen the mens and womenswear label undergo a major revamping. Embracing the momentum of its evolving identity, Past, Present, Future, which also coincides with the reopening of its flagship 'casa' in Madrid, is not only a glorious visual feast, but also a masterful lesson in rebranding by the label's 32-year-old creative director, whose other brainchild is of course his eponymous label J.W. Anderson. Here, under the roof of the handsome conservatory, nature, art, fashion, design and architecture coalesce in ways that affirm Anderson's oft-vocalised ambition that “Loewe should be a cultural brand”.

Spanning two rooms whose ribbon windows overlook the botanical gardens, the exhibit begins with a floor-to-ceiling moodboard of images sourced from the Loewe archives – correspondingly brought together in a 600-page tome edited by independent magazine publisher Luis Venegas. Photographs of ceramics and textiles from the international Arts and Crafts movement – which began in Britain and spread throughout Europe and North America in the early 20th century before its reinvention in Japan (where, notably, stand-alone Loewe stores can be found) – jostle with recent campaigns shot by Jamie Hawkesworth; nonchalant Loewe-clad models illustrated by Kelly Beeman; 80s era-defining shots by Steven Meisel; nostalgic photographs of Spanish high society; as well as images of artworks by the likes of British artists Anthea Hamilton and John Allen, presumably belonging to the Loewe Foundation collection (a selection of which is now annually exhibited at Art Basel Miami thanks to Anderson's direction); and product shots of what Anderson calls his “new classics” – items such as the brightly coloured leather elephant purses, whimsical cat pendants and “Puzzle” bags that easily lend themselves as new Loewe icons; among much more.

The accessories are perfect examples of Anderson's renewing of a Spanish heritage label initiated by a cooperative of fur and leather artisans in mid-19th century Madrid. As if inspired by Japanse avant-garde sci-fi origami, the leather Puzzle carryalls fold flat thanks to his off-kilter pattern-cutting. Taking centre stage, such accessories are also exhibited in an acrylic vitrine that runs the length of the room. Like a cabinet of curiosities, it additionally showcases the numerous iterations of the label's emblem (most recently recreated via a continuing collaboration with design studio M/M Paris), modernist furniture, archival Loewe pieces and contemporary artefacts, including light bulbs and disposable razors. As the exhibit makes clear, the London College of Fashion graduate has injected a clever dose of humour and childhood insouciance into what was strictly a grown-up label before his arrival. Now, Loewe is as age-defying as it is gender-blurring, with both mens and womenswear collections borrowing from male and female tailoring. Interestingly, moreover, while leather will always be important to the fabric of the house, now there is far less fur than in Loewe's Euro-glamour days preceding Anderson's appointment.

The British designer's selective cut, edit and renewal of Loewe's heritage linchpins is what makes him a canny curator not merely in Past, Present, Future but as the label's creative director at large. Drawing inspiration from myriad sources to recreate particular house classics and rejuvenate the brand, Anderson has equally built a team of collaborators to help him do so. M/M Paris, Benjamin Bruno, Jamie Hawkesworth and Steven Meisel are a key handful of those with whom he repeatedly works. Significantly, the second, final room of the exhibition is dedicated to a photographic series by one of his leading inspirations, Meisel. Taking cues from the mid-century British florist and author Constance Spry, Meisel photographs elaborate floral arrangements with the dignified exuberance of Dutch Renaissance still-lifes – each arrangement a different colour for each calendar month. Had the curatorial text not given it away, you wouldn't necessarily know the images were part of Loewe's current advertising campaign. At once evasive and allusive, the series neatly indicates a simple and effective approach for the future of the brand: cut out what you don't need, and bring in what you do.

Past, Present, Future runs until December 9, 2016, at Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid.