Matthew Williams wants his clothing to have a life of its own

For Document’s tenth anniversary, the Givenchy Creative Director shares the ways in which he navigates the science of fashion and how the cities he’s lived in inform his work

The ritual of getting dressed and going out—the nightclub being a site of congregation and transformation—defined Matthew Williams’s career in fashion. Growing up in Pismo Beach in the ’90s, Williams drove up and down the California coastline to attend hip-hop shows and DJ sets. As a teen, he spent the summer training with professional soccer teams in Europe, where he heard techno music for the first time. Prior to founding 1017 ALYX 9SM, he designed stage costumes for Lady Gaga and Kanye West.

Over the past couple months, Williams has been memorizing the soundtrack to Sing 2—somewhat involuntarily. Since he was appointed to the head of Givenchy and moved to Paris, the American designer has spent his precious downtime on domestic pleasures: cooking, reading, gardening, and watching his kids perform karaoke on a monumental Brutalist sofa that Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy made for him as a housewarming gift. Even in the age of staying in, live music is central to Williams’s world. (The couch, he jokes, is also very motivating in terms of his career at the French luxury fashion house: “I definitely want to stay here as long as possible so that I don’t have to move it anywhere.”)

Williams was revealed as Givenchy’s new creative director in June 2020, succeeding British designer Claire Waight Keller in what the press widely interpreted as a bid by the house to recapture some of the streetwear-steeped, urban goth appeal of Riccardo Tisci’s 12-year reign. And sure, Williams has the high-profile friends and the cult following, but while social media is permeated with his immaculate leatherwork, it’s taken the self-taught, soft-spoken designer a while to warm up to posting his life on Instagram. (The back of his head, featuring a black cross tattoo that stretches down the nape of his neck, is photographed just as frequently as his face.) At its core, Williams’s clothing is personal, emotional, and collaborative. Take the hardware that has already become emblematic of his fledgling tenure at Givenchy—a padlock inspired by the thousands of locks left by lovers on the Pont des Arts in Paris. A perfect marriage of utility and luxury, ‘The Lover’s Lock’ served as the starting point for Williams’s first collection. It has so far manifested as a closure on an otherwise classic double-breasted blazer, an industrial embellishment on a reinvented and re-proportioned Antigona bag, and a single earring that dismisses gendered notions of jewelry. Williams collaborated with two of his closest friends, Nick Knight and Playboi Carti, to produce a campaign video for the new motif, in which Carti pronounces Givenchy in a variety of both standard and unconventional styles. In that vein, for Williams, the most exciting moment of designing a collection is when his clothes go out into the real world, taking on a life of their own—there are no rules, and every way is right.

“My instinct is to feel like something that I’m making is desirable or exciting or challenging,” Williams says. “That idea of things being personal is exciting. Because everyone’s life is interesting, everyone has a story to tell, and it can be a constant source of inspiration.”

Hannah Ongley: So you recently returned to Paris after the Met Gala. I just looked at Rosalía’s gown; it’s so beautiful. Tell me about your collaboration with her.

Matthew Williams: We’ve been friends for a while. I reached out and invited her to come to the Met with me. I really love her spirit and her energy; she’s a beautiful human.

There’s a theme for the Met every year, and this year was the Gilded Age, so we looked at different paintings and color palettes and materials that went with the theme, like corseting, and I reinterpreted some of those codes in my own way with the atelier at Givenchy. RosalÍa was really involved in all of the design choices. She’s wearing the dress, and we wanted her to feel beautiful and comfortable, so it was a collaboration between us both and I’m pleased with how it turned out.

Hannah: And how are you liking Paris so far?

Matthew: I’m really enjoying getting to know Paris. It’s my dream to be able to work at a place like Givenchy, so I’m enjoying the process of creating. Then, on the weekends, I get to explore the city. There’s so much great food, and [so many] places to see, and things to do. It’s such a lovely city to be based in.

Hannah: What was it like to host your first live show with an audience for the Fall/Winter 2022 collection? With your background in designing stage costumes, the live element seems integral to your career in fashion.

Matthew: It was nice to have people around to give energy for the show, and to be able to celebrate after. When you’re shooting videos, the collections run into one another. There’s not, like, an end and a celebration for all the hard work. Having others see the clothes in real life—there’s nothing that beats that.

Hannah: When you had your first show for Givenchy, you sent pieces to a group of 50 or so of your friends—celebrities and influential people—and invited them to photograph themselves wearing and giving their personal take on the collection. How do your relationships inspire your work? And how do they carry the brand’s legacy into the modern age?

Matthew: I think that’s what’s exciting about that project—everyone interpreting the clothes in their own way. That’s the reality of the world, you know? I have a concept in mind when I put the clothing together in the shows or the shoots, but when they go out into the real world, they have a life of their own. They get worn and mixed with other designers’ clothes. It’s exciting to see how people interpret and embody the mood. I think being in dialogue with people who I’ve met over the years—musicians or artists or athletes or other designers—is a great inspiration for me.

Hannah: What sort of music are you listening to at the moment?

Matthew: I listen to a lot of rap music. I also listen to singer-songwriter stuff. I love this artist named Ethel Cain. I listen to her a lot; her music is really beautiful. I listen to techno, club, house music, too. I like this group Overmono—it’s kind of a ’90s UK vibe. I also listen to grime, reggae—I listen to everything. I don’t discriminate; I try to explore and understand. But, when I’m alone, I’m listening to music all the time, just walking through my house. I’m actually listening to music while we’re doing this interview; it’s hard to concentrate on the questions. [Laughs] I’m kidding.

Hannah: You also seem to have a keen interest in the science of fashion, having worked with 3D printing and blockchain technology. How does your work at Givenchy allow you to further that interest? And since you have access to the brand’s extensive archives, how do you approach blending history and technology?

Matthew: Givenchy has such a rich history and archive to pull from. So, in all the collections, there are odes and nuances that come from shapes or silhouettes. Then I translate [them] in a modern way, with a modern technique—whether that’s applying eveningwear silhouettes to an outerwear piece, or using elements of dresses in jersey, or finding new ways to do exciting embroidery techniques. It’s always a rich pool of inspiration for me.

“I have a concept in mind when I put the clothing together in the shows or the shoots, but when they go out into the real world, they have a life of their own. They get worn and mixed with other designers’ clothes. It’s exciting to see how people interpret and embody the mood.”

Hannah: What are some of the technologies you’re exploring now that you’re particularly excited to be working with?

Matthew: The TK-360 that we just launched, which is a fully-knit shoe. We created a knit that you can walk on as your sole. That actually launches today. That was a construction and development that took a really long time, and it’s unique to Givenchy.

Hannah: How do you typically discover those technologies? Do you look at the garment or the sneaker first, and think about how to evolve it? Or are you constantly researching new technologies and thinking about how to incorporate those into your work?

Matthew: So, for instance, the TK started as a swatch. There was a little piece of material that had some TPU yarn on the top of the knit that was used for soccer cleats, to give more control when you kicked the ball. And I was like, ‘What if we beefed up that yarn and that technique and we made it the sole that we put on the bottom of the shoe?’ The technicians were like, ‘Hmm, let’s try that,’ and so we started to see how that could be possible. A lot of times, new materials or technologies get developed, but it’s up to a designer to see how they can be used in an interesting way. [Often], it’s just a little swatch that evolves and grows into something that’s an actual garment or shoe or whatever. Even the Met Gala dress started from little swatches and then was sketched and expanded into a full garment.

Hannah: I’d love to talk about New York a bit, because you seem to have a personal connection to the city—obviously, in the name 1017 ALYX 9SM, 9SM being 9 Saint Mark’s Place. Why is New York meaningful to you?

Matthew: It feels the most like home out of every city that I’ve lived in. I lived in New York for 10 years; I have so many people who I love there. Walking the streets, going to the places that feel really familiar, looking at strangers on the street—it’s all inspirational. I like taking the subway. I don’t really know how to describe it; it’s just a place of inspiration. Saint Mark’s, where ALYX started, was such a great place to spend time in at the beginning of the brand. It always feels alive in this little section of New York; it feels unlike any other spot.

Hannah: How does living in Paris influence your work as a designer, in comparison to working in New York?

Matthew: Well, obviously, the museums and the architecture are inspirational. But, I mean, a lot of my time has been spent in the studio at the atelier. And then, with COVID, I spend a lot of time alone. I’ve taken up things that are inspiring, like gardening. I spend a lot of time with my plants. And cooking. I’m getting more into cooking; I have a cooking lesson in a little bit.

“I lived in New York for 10 years; I have so many people who I love there. Walking the streets, going to the places that feel really familiar, looking at strangers on the street—it’s all inspirational.”

Hannah: Nice. What are your favorite things to cook?

Matthew: Vegetables. I baked a cake for my kids the other day; that was nice. I’m learning how to sous vide, and that’s pretty cool.

Hannah: What’s that?

Matthew: It’s where you have the vacuum-form bags, and you basically put the fish or veggies or whatever in the bag. You have this machine that makes the water boil—not really boil, but at that exact temperature; it doesn’t waver from that temperature and it cooks the food evenly, and you can even marinate things inside of the bag. It’s really nice.

Hannah: Do you make clothing for your kids? What are they into at the moment?

Matthew: Well, my daughter Alyx just started her own brand called the New York Dreamers [laughs]. It’s fruit-influenced, so there are strawberry bags, cucumber prints. I was like, ‘You should try to get a job at Loewe,’ because it was just perfect—animal and fruit and flower-inspired? Amazing. Then my youngest one, she’s very into rainbows, so everything has rainbows all over it. They have strong opinions on what fashion they should be wearing. And even if I make something for them, they just mix it with other stuff. They get themselves dressed. Same with my son, even though he acts like he doesn’t care about fashion. He’s 13, but when I went and saw him last, he had fully rhinestoned his sweatshirt, but it was like a skeleton. So he was wearing the sweatshirt, and the ribs were in the place where his ribs were, and he had done it all by hand with, like, thousands of rhinestones. I was like, ‘Come on, bro. That is an aesthetic choice. You like clothes, man.’ [Laughs] He’s funny. All my kids are really unique and creative in their own way.

Hannah: Are there any forthcoming collaborations between Givenchy and New York Dreamers?

Matthew: [Laughs] I’ve got to speak to my CEO. But it is so cute; she’s got a lot of ideas for the brand.

Hannah: What else is inspiring you now?

Matthew: Just living. The sun, the wind, the stars. My children. A black hoodie, a pair of jeans. Everything.

Lighting Director Romain Dubus. Digital Operator Henri Coutant. Retoucher Stéphane Virlogeux. Lighting Assistant Corentin Thevenet. Photographer Studio Manager Evelien Joos.