#SuzyNYFW: A Meeting with Alyx's Matthew Williams
Matthew Williams was sitting at a table in a Manhattan studio in front of his first full collection, waiting to show his Alyx line to me. Since I knew he had worked with Kanye West and Lady Gaga as a creative director, I was expecting some cool dude whom I hoped would take his mirrored shades off long enough for me to see his face.
But what I was presented with was a polite man, looking as open and easy as his Californian origins, with hair skimming the shoulders of a fresh white T-shirt. If he had any particular characteristic, it seemed like modesty.
Could this really be the man who has so impressed British fashion photographer and image maker Nick Knight and his SHOWstudio that the fledgling designer was supported with a film and one of the most glossy and glamorous lookbooks I have ever seen?
The images, featuring a moody model pulling on a cigarette and hidden in its haze, two pairs of disembodied legs in thigh-high leather boots, or male and female bodies with a hint of clothing in narrow straps - it all added up to a mood board from a stylish magazine.
If I had had time to read it, the pages of a loooong interview looked interesting - even before I realised that these were 'kids of': Tallulah and Scout Willis, daughters of Demi Moore Bruce Willis in a long discussion with writer Jo-Ann Furniss.
I discovered that Matthew Williams's women's clothes, with jackets buckled and functional zippers, are already being sold at Dover Street Market, the coolest retailer on planet fashion.
The debut collection in the lookbook was named My First Time. And as I swivelled my chair round to look properly at the sporty clothes, I read the designer's manifesto.
"Meet Alyx: a foundation built on an undercurrent. Paris via Pismo Beach, and the chill his word ...so disquiet of the shadowy pier."
It went on to talk about "luxury subverted and imbued with subculture", and "light, shadow, matte and shine unified as objects of modern desire".
It sounded good. Poetic even. And in the images, taken on one of those up-in-the-sky Manhattan rooftops, the clothes appeared streamlined and sporty.
But the really interesting thing about Matthew Williams is that he seems to be a new breed of designer more famous for his connections than his clothes. He is a twenty-first century fashion phenomenon.
We sat down to talk.
Suzy Menkes: Why did you quit working with Kanye West? It seems like a dream job for a fledgling designer.
Matthew Williams: Our daughter will be two next month and we really want her to go to school in France. Also it has always been a dream of mine to design in Paris some day, because I'm sick of being an ignorant American who can't speak French.
SM: You may be American, but I'm sure you're not ignorant! Tell me about your personal history.
MW: Sure. I was born in Chicago and we moved back to central California where my parents are from when I was two, so I grew up in a place right between San Francisco and Los Angeles called Pismo Beach.
Fashion was something I didn't know could be a profession until I was 17 or 18, but I always loved clothes. My mom would take us to San Francisco to shop and one day I met a friend who had a denim line. I decided to drop out of college and started interning with that company, then I got a design job in New York when I was 20. That's how I got into menswear and denim.
SM: So you were 20 in what year?
MW: It was 2005 - ten years ago next month. I could barely afford rent! I just immersed myself in New York culture and that's where I started learning about womenswear, through different designers. Later, I moved to LA and was noticed by Kanye's stylist as somebody who could make clothes for him. So I made a jacket for Kanye for the Grammys when he performed with Daft Punk. I was 22, 23 at that point, and he was like: "Hey man, would you come help me build my first brand?" So I hired all the sewers and built the studio in LA. And then he started taking me all around the world with him on his quest to build his brand. I went to Japan for the first time with Kanye, to Paris and London and he was just so sweet to believe in me and take me around like that.
About a year and a half after I started with Kanye, I ended up working for Lady Gaga. She asked me to make her costumes and this was when she had about four songs - it was for her artist showcase for the record label. We were both young and excited about music and fashion - about everything. But it wasn't as much me putting my aesthetic on to her, it was more of an education process: she loved bricolage so I showed her Margiela. Then there was Bowie and all of those amazing rock stars.
SM: Who else was significant in your early years?
MW: I got to work with these animatronic builders who made all those Hussein Chalayan clothes, and I worked with McQueen right before he died. I did one of the last dresses, a ballgown that he wanted to inflate at the end of the stage and then project images of the future inside this frosted globe. Also through Gaga I meet Nick Knight and Steve Klein, and all these amazing image makers, and also people in fashion. So I spent three years working with her and I stopped right before the Born this Way album. We did the cover with Hedi Slimane and a world tour with Nick and that's where I really got a chance to get to know him and collaborate on all that imagery.
SM: So were you a designer or a stylist?
MW: My view of this whole music thing really came by chance. I always wanted to be a designer and I was on this wild ride that just kind of happened out of nowhere. When I worked with other musicians, I didn't have the same personal relationship as with Kanye and Lady Gaga, it was really difficult to recreate what I had done with them. So I took a break and didn't really know what to do. I emailed Nick and said: "Can I come to London and work with you for a bit? I want to learn how to make imagery."
After moving to London for a summer I went to SHOWstudio every day and learnt how to light. I was Nick's assistant, sat with him and watched all the retouching and then I started working on campaigns with him, like Armani and Hermès. We developed a real cool relationship.
SM: And were you still designing clothes at that point?
MW: In my head! I was very much paying attention, but through working with other brands and working with Kanye for those seven years, I knew what NOT to do. And this, now, is really the first time that I have ever done anything that is my own voice.
SM: What are the key pieces of this collection in your opinion?
MW: I think the rollercoaster buckles from Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, which I get when I take my kids there. These are something I continuously use.
SM: You seem to be interested in clean cuts with intriguing textures.
MW: I like things that are pure. All of the appliqué this season was inspired by Henry Moore's early sketches and early sculptures.
SM: I want to ask you a question about Los Angeles. I know it's not the thing to say, especially when I'm in New York, but I've sort of fallen in love with the West Coast and out of love with the East Coast when it comes to original things in fashion. I don't mean that to be a musician or a designer you've got to be from LA, it just seems to me there are people coming out from all parts of the West Coast now.
MW: Yes I think that's true. It's a lot easier to live there - it's so difficult to live in Manhattan now. You have to be from a wealthy family or have been here long enough to find your little niche. It's not supportive of young creativity and it's also not a place for fashion. You don't really hear about amazing designers coming out of Parsons fashion school. I personally applied there and didn't get accepted so I just started working. I feel like there's always amazing kids coming out of Saint Martins or the Royal College of Art in London, or the Academy in Antwerp, but It just doesn't seem like the American system is facilitating creativity.
Suzy Menkes with Matthew Williams. Picture credit: suzymenkesvogue Instagraqm
MW: To just keep building this brand slowly and trying to find my own voice: we live in a day and age where you don't have years to form a solid business and a solid infrastructure. People expect you to be fully operational, but I want to take it slow and refine the silhouettes. I really like people who have a continuous idea with what the brand represents, as well as telling a story each season. And I'd love to take over a house or relaunch a brand like Balenciaga. Maybe even an American designer like Calvin Klein. That could be cool too.
For a second collection, Matthew Williams does not think small!