Last December, the whiskey-pickled chanteuse Justin Vivian Bond and their longtime sidekick, Kenny Mellman, revived a beloved holiday tradition—well, beloved in the sadistic and demented sense that has been their specialty for nearly three decades, as the aging-into-oblivion cabaret duo Kiki and Herb—with a sold-out Christmas routine at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, called Kiki & Herb Sleigh at BAM. In addition to their catalog of unconventional carols, which this time included “Crucify,” by Tori Amos, and Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke,” Bond and Mellman decided at the last moment to sing “Send in the Clowns” as an encore, just a few days after the death of the song’s composer, Stephen Sondheim.
“That was a pretty amazing experience, because I knew that song when I was a kid, and now I’m 58 years old,” says Bond, whose alter ego, Kiki DuRane, a once famous, now failed lounge singer, shares a certain pathos with the character of Desirée Armfeldt, an actress reflecting bitterly on the disappointments of life, who sings “Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music. Sondheim wrote that song specifically for Glynis Johns, who originated the role of Armfeldt on Broadway in 1973, though it could just as well have been for Kiki, who would have been about the right age, according to Bond’s biography of the character: Kiki was born during the Great Depression, was raised in a mental institution, became a jazz act with Herb in the 1950s, and was briefly a star in Europe in the 1960s, when she took Aristotle Onassis as a lover, until tragedy laid her low. (Her daughter, Coco, fell overboard, we are told, while Kiki was having a romp on a yacht.)
“What I discovered, as far as the meaning, the intensity, and the depth of emotion and beauty of that song when I was performing it, blew my mind,” Bond says. “As an older person who’s maybe had love affairs and relationships that I didn’t give enough weight or gravitas to because I was young and stupid, I now look back on certain people and think, Well, what about…? Because I’m single now. So the line that really struck me was, ‘knowing the one that I wanted was yours.’ For me, when I was younger, that was about jealousy. But now, realizing that ‘the one that I wanted was yours’ is about somebody’s heart, I feel so foolish for not having figured that out before. What the song says is, ‘I always thought I could count on you, but I waited too long, and I blew it. And now I’m afraid I’m just going to have to keep on being this thing to people, making my entrance and being fabulous and not really ever having true intimacy.’ And that’s one of my fears, to be honest.”
As an artist, actor, and cultural provocateur, Bond (who uses both “she” and “they” pronouns) has inhabited many characters during a career that has spanned two pandemics—the AIDS crisis and Covid-19—and included movies, classical music, opera, art exhibitions, a fragrance inspired by copulating fairies, and a memoir about growing up in Hagerstown, Maryland, as a child who identified as transgender at an early age. But no project has been so indelibly raw as that resulting from Bond’s partnership with Mellman, which saw the dark satire of Kiki and Herb transported from East Village nightclubs in the 1990s all the way to Carnegie Hall and a Tony-nominated Broadway show in 2007. Nor has there been one as fraught with personal drama: Bond, at one point, felt trapped in the act, causing the duo to split in 2008 and stop speaking to each other for several years. Such is the brutal magnetism of Bond as Kiki that, whenever the act reunites, people will fly from all over the world to see it.
One of those people is Jonathan Anderson, the fashion designer who founded his own line, JW Anderson, in 2008, and who has been the creative director of Loewe since 2013. Anderson has partnered with Bond on several projects, including an advertising campaign shot by Juergen Teller last year, and a video series in which Bond, as celebrity host Sandie Stone, presents a JW Anderson collection as if for a QVC audience. (“This one is aggressively neutral,” Sandie says, caressing a tan Bike Bag, “and I love aggressive neutrality.”) “I was never in New York in the ’70s, but I feel like I would’ve met Viv then,” Anderson says. “And then sometimes, when I see Kiki and Herb, I think, If I was in America in the ’50s, I would’ve probably met Kiki.” While in Miami Beach to host a Loewe party at Art Basel, he made a side trip to New York just to see the Christmas show.
“The wit is so sharp, so fast,” Anderson says. “Kiki did a kind of impromptu jazz piece, hitting ‘Jingle Bells’ onto the side of a champagne bucket, a microphone stand, and her head, and it was so neurotic that it became romantic somehow. I admire people like this, because in a weird way, deep down, I wish I could be them, you know? There’s an intelligence to Viv that I just find so attractive. She’s done the rough-and-tumble to get where she’s at, and I think that represents me a bit. I find her to be an outsider, and sometimes I feel like an outsider.”
This was one reason Anderson invited Bond to model pieces from his past and present Loewe collections for this feature. He wanted to personify a narrative that he has told on the runway, through design and volume—“the idea of looking at fabrications and craft, and how you can distort them to create shapes that weirdly become chic somehow, like they’re sort of character-based,” Anderson says. “I thought Viv would be able to twist that into a new dimension, that I would be able to look at it and think, Oh, it’s new again.”
Anderson, 37, was raised in Magherafelt, in Northern Ireland. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father, Willie Anderson, was a professional rugby player, the former Ulster and Ireland captain, who published a memoir last year detailing his own antics and adversities. (He was once jailed for several months in Argentina over a prank gone wrong, when he and his teammates stole a flag.) Jonathan initially pursued studies as an actor, before attending the London College of Fashion. He then worked for Prada as a merchandiser, and eventually started making menswear designs that upended traditional gender boundaries. His passion for craft began when he was a teenager, during visits with his mother to the decorative arts collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he now serves as a trustee. (He also champions young artists through the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, which he founded in 2016.) Anderson has become well known for celebrating counterculture topics. His collections for Loewe have featured imagery of the legendary drag performer Divine, and illustrations by the artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz and the gay artist Joe Brainard; at JW Anderson, he established a partnership with the estate of Tom of Finland.
“Ultimately, I see myself as a queer designer, and I feel like I have a responsibility to show all aspects of society for a brand, so that it doesn’t become this very odd luxury vessel that has nothing in it,” Anderson says. “Fashion is about eccentricities. It’s about showing your influences and the people that inspire you, because life is full of all these different people.”
Anderson’s first exposure to Bond happened in the mid-2000s, when he was a student in London, where Bond was pursuing a master’s degree in live art at Central Saint Martins. “It was shortly after our Carnegie Hall concert [Kiki & Herb Will Die for You, 2004]. Jonathan was briefly dating Rufus Wainwright, and Rufus, I believe, either brought him to the Carnegie Hall concert or he introduced him to Kiki and Herb,” Bond recalls. “I just immediately took a shine to him.” Says Anderson: “I remember Rufus giving me the album of Kiki and Herb at Carnegie Hall, and I think that I probably listened to it every week. It is one of the most hilarious pieces of ad lib that there is.”
In retrospect, Bond isn’t surprised that Anderson became an internationally famous fashion designer. Bond sees similarities in their work, in the way Anderson pays tribute to artists such as Joe Brainard and Divine: “When I sing ‘Send in the Clowns,’ that’s the same thing—interpreting somebody whose work you love and who has made you who and what you are.”
After Anderson joined Loewe, in 2013, he spent a year researching the storied LVMH-owned Spanish leather goods house, which had not had much buzz since Narciso Rodriguez and Stuart Vevers had designed there years earlier. The first look of his debut show was a patchwork dress made of crudely cut suede, “because I was ripping up the fabric of the house,” Anderson says. Loewe began in 1846 as a cooperative of leather craftsmen in Madrid, but Anderson was most intrigued by a brief period in its history, in the late 1970s, after the death of General Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator for four decades. In the Spanish capital, the transition to democracy led to a movement known as La Movida Madrileña, a moment of great creativity and excitement for queer culture and underground nightlife.
“When I joined Loewe, I was dismayed by luxury,” Anderson says. “The principle of it did not work for me. The only way I was going to be able to do the job was to ask, How do you take a luxury brand and turn it into a cultural brand? If the brand existed in that period when you had this incredibly colorful queer culture in music and film, then it should be able to reflect on things that are not ultimately toeing the line. Now, with the pandemic, I feel this urge to restart or reengage. If fashion is to exist after this nightmare, it has to be about sensational ideas, because otherwise it’s just going to become racks of sweaters.”
Usually, Anderson takes a week off after each show. After his fall 2020 collection, shown in February of that year in Paris, as the severity of the Covid-19 virus was becoming evident, he went to his country house in Norfolk, in the north of England. Next thing he knew, he couldn’t leave due to travel restrictions, and he wound up spending four months there alone. “When you’re working at a job that’s going so fast, you never process anything, so this was the first time in my life that I was forced to emotionally let go,” Anderson says. “The amazing thing about the pandemic is that everything that was big became small; everything small became big. It just decimated power in certain parts of the industry, and in a way, I’m glad it did, because I feel like it’s going to help younger generations be able to build a new type of system. I think the old one was getting a bit stagnated.”
Interestingly, Anderson created some of his most conceptually innovative work during this past year. Instead of runway shows, he presented collections using posters, wallpaper prints, and newspapers. He also took a request from Bond to create new looks for a show they were preparing with the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, called Only an Octave Apart. They both wore sparkly sleeveless dresses, each with a cutout leg hole trimmed with ruffles, that came from the Loewe spring 2022 collection—Anderson’s most ambitious to date, with dresses built upon 3D metallic frames that jutted from the hips. “He did send one dress that I rejected, because it was full-sleeve brocade, and I knew I would be really uncomfortable,” Bond says. “It was beautiful, but when I’m performing, I really don’t like my arms to be encumbered.”
Anderson says it was the first time he had lent pieces from a collection that had not yet been seen, “but if it wasn’t for someone like Viv testing out the garments on a stage, I don’t think the show would’ve been what it was. It could be cinema, it could be opera, it could be fashion; it really didn’t matter. When I look back on what I have done inside the brand, I think the part that I find exciting is when I don’t get too comfortable, which is a line that actually comes from Kiki and Herb. I always say to my team: ‘Don’t get too comfortable.’ Because the minute you’re too comfortable, then you’re just going to produce the same shit.”
Strangely, throughout their friendship, Bond and Anderson had never discussed the parallels between their work, until now. “We talk about people we know,” Bond says. “We’re dishy gossip queens.” But it’s not hard to see why they would appeal to each other, through their cross-referencing of genres and cultures in their respective mediums. “Fashion is one of the most amazing vehicles to get information out to the general public,” Anderson says. “You’re making a physical thing that people can touch and feel and engage with.” Bond, whose onstage pronouncements, however skewed or slurred, are always about proclaiming a truth that seems just out of reach for most of us, is also constantly seeking engagement. “If you’re not familiar with or you’re alienated by a subject like queerness or gender or certain types of music, if you’re a person who loves rock ’n’ roll but you are freaked out by opera, the way that I interpret all that is a way for people to get at least a little bit of light, a little crack in their predetermined ideas of how things are,” Bond says. “So I guess that I’m a person who, through the way that I move through the world, gives other people an opportunity to see things in a different context.”
Hair by Michael Moreno for Oribe at the Only Agency; makeup by Stevie Huynh for Fenty Beauty at Bryant Artists; manicure by Leanne Woodley for CND and She Nails It Hydration at She Likes Cutie; set design by Mila Taylor-Young at CLM; lighting tech: Javier Villegas; photo assistant: Daniel Weiss; digital technician: Nick Rapaz; set assistants: Caz Slattery, Rusty Snyder, Kalliope Piersol; fashion assistants: Amir La Sure, Maura Kemp; tailor: Lindsay Wright; hairpiece by Steven Perfidia Kirkham.