The legendary fashion house’s seventh designer shares the source code behind its reinvention.
Matthew M. Williams is not a rock star. He rubs shoulders with them, designs louche, angular garments for them, and even has their tattoos — partial sleeves snaking down his arms, a cross that splits the nape of his neck — but his energy is altogether gentler. I reach him on Zoom almost exactly six months after his first day as creative director of Givenchy, where he is responsible for overseeing, well, everything: women’s & men’s ready to wear and accessories.
Williams is warm and affable despite a relentless slate of responsibilities that also includes his label 1017 ALYX 9SM, ongoing collaborations with Nike, press calls like this, passion projects such as his work with artist friends like Playboi Carti, and, of course, raising his kids. A 15-year veteran of the fashion industry — with no formal training — Williams’ appointment at Givenchy is the culmination of a lifelong dream to acquire the keys to one of the world’s great luxury houses and all the resources that come with it. Having spent the last five years living in the heartland of Italian manufacturing, Williams is laser-focused on the details: material, silhouette, construction, finish, and the mood they evoke when combined multiplicatively. He comes alive when discussing his designs. At one point while showing me the finer details of his first sneaker for Givenchy, the Giv 1, he holds the shoe aloft with both hands and sings, emulating a heavenly chorus, before bursting into laughter.
Less than a year into his tenure, on the eve of debuting his second major collection, Williams’ Givenchy is still finding its form. “To be able to spread that focused, concise vision across the brand is gonna take time,” Williams says. “It’s a step-by-step process, and right now I think we’re laying the groundwork with the fashion. There’s so much to do and so much to explore. And I’m exploring by doing.”
Before Givenchy, Williams made his name with the LVMH-prize nominated 1017 ALYX 9SM, most readily associated with its hallmark piece of hardware: a quick-release buckle lifted from the restraints on a roller coaster. Williams even loaned it to Dior — another jewel in the LVMH crown — for Kim Jones’ first season with the brand. Williams’ absorption of the buckle was a remarkably savvy piece of branding: all the associative power of a logo with terse functionality baked in.
Naturally, Williams played a similar gambit at Givenchy, though this time with the humble padlock. “It was inspired by the love locks I saw on the bridges of Paris,” says Williams. “It’s also quite an iconic symbol, an emblem that I feel like is relatable for everyone.”
Proving his point, I mention that it first reminded me of a punky, hardware store chain choker finished with a padlock pendant. “I didn’t really feel like it was related to another brand,” he continued. “It’s something that we could really take ownership of, especially the way that I wanted to dive into it. It seemed like a great place to play with multiple materials and textures.”
The first real, product-oriented imagery to come out of Williams’ Givenchy last September was created with his longtime friend and collaborator, the photographer Nick Knight, and focused on the locks: inscrutably ornate, hyperreal, gleaming gold embossed with crocodile print and the Givenchy wordmark and its 4G sigil, looking like puzzles to be solved. In Williams’ first two collections, we saw the locks and their components repurposed as fastening mechanisms on overcoats, as charm on handbags, as earrings. It’s already proving to be as adaptable a motif as the buckle.
The Antigona bag, first introduced in 2010, is Givenchy’s hero handbag. One of Williams’ first orders of business was to put his own spin on the model. The lock appears, of course, but so does a chain cut with custom G-shaped links. On the bag he shows me over Zoom, the chain is made from Gs formed into cubes. Even on a screen, each link’s heft looks appealing, totemic, begging to be rolled around in one’s palm.
“I don’t know if you realized they were Gs,” Williams says. It’s hard to miss this detail, and cute that he pointed it out. He sounds like a proud dad.
As he ascended through the fashion industry, Williams was often lumped into the “streetwear” category, though his work at Alyx has probably more to do with contemporary tailoring. This is an avenue he’s continued to explore with Givenchy, pulling out motifs from the house’s expansive archives that meshed with his aesthetic: “There are a lot of amazing open backs with encrusted embroideries that felt like something Hubert [de Givenchy] would do in the past,” he says. “Dramatic shoulders, dresses that are light as air. Monochromatic color palettes.”
A boxy, croc-embossed blouson — look 50 from the Spring 2021 collection — clearly bears Hubert’s influence. The encrusted embroideries he mentions are a thread running through the work, from garments to accessories to footwear — and are striking, looking sometimes like the studs on a beat-up, custom Perfecto jacket, sometimes like the glittering interior of a geode.
Adam Wray: Your Givenchy will need to be able to speak to people all over the world, across demographics, in a way that ideally lives above language. What travels across cultures?
Matthew M. Williams: Emotion. Emotion is a universal language that everyone can feel.
AW: What was your emotional palette for the first couple collections?
MMW: You can’t describe emotion. You just feel it.
The only real luxury is time — that’s as true for its producers as its consumers. Williams has often expressed a desire to work at the extreme edge of fashion, and now he has access to the industry’s finest craftspeople, some of whom began working more than 30 years ago alongside Hubert de Givenchy himself. What seems to impress him most is the tempo at which his new atelier is able to operate.
“It’s been more than I expected,” Williams says. “I can see a lot of things in a couple of weeks that would normally take months to see, develop, touch, and feel.”
The sneaker has joined the handbag as a basic unit of contemporary luxury, nestled in the sweet spot between aspirational and accessible. A purchase that most can’t make lightly but is still within reach. The Giv 1, from the Spring/Summer 2021 collection, is like a super-luxe Air Max 97, built from layered, concentric panels, resting atop a sporty air bubble. The model Williams shows me is all black in a mixture of materials where croc-embossed leather takes center stage.
“It has this air bubble going all the way through,” Williams explains, marveling at the complexity of its construction, “and all these different injection points for the tread, the TPU molds, and other materials. I know it sounds like a simple description, but it’s kind of complex and bugged-out when you look at it. I’m just really, really pleased with how these came out.”
New chapters at luxury maisons now tend to begin with a purification ritual: the purge of the Instagram feed. Scroll back to the beginning of Givenchy’s and you’ll find two black-and-white portraits of its most recent creative directors, posted upon their departure.
Williams’ first collection was rolled out — alongside a gorgeous lookbook art-directed by Peter Miles and shot by Heji Shin — via a social campaign: #GivenchyFamily. It was a supercharged influencer campaign in the midst of a global pandemic, an effective way to debut a new collection and reach new market segments. The campaign saw models, musicians, actors, and celebrities of all ages, nationalities, and levels of notoriety showcasing looks from the collection. The cast spanned megastars like Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott to Hollywood veterans like Laura Dern and Julianne Moore, as well as Gen Z celebs like Chinese musician and fashion icon Fan Chengcheng and ambiguously famous Kardashian associate Fai Khadra.
“They’re all people that I knew or was really inspired by that I reached out to,” says Williams. While it’s certainly possible these are all friends or acquaintances — except for virtual influencer Lil Miquela, who cannot, strictly speaking, have friends — there had to be at least a little strategic thinking behind such a roster. Williams and his CEO, Renaud de Lesquen, were hired for their potential to grow Givenchy’s sales, and today, that means eschewing Eurocentric comms strategies of yore and meeting potential customers wherever they are. The campaign’s execution was charming, all the same, with each individual putting their own spin on Covid-era content capture — some sharing a single, candid still, others delivering short videos.
MMW: “I care about this company deeply already, and I’m really putting my heart and soul into it. When I do something, it’s always 1,000 percent.”
Discover more from Matthew M. Williams’ debut collection for Givenchy here.