portrait and interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
all hardware GIVENCHY S/S 2021
i met matthew williams some time around 2010 on new york’s wild nightlife scene. since then, he’s had a thriving career as an art director, designer, and dj, creating his own brand, 1017 alyx 9sm, before being appointed creative director of givenchy this summer. to mark his new position at a major paris house, he agreed to be shot naked for our love issue, wearing just a few pieces of his new jewelry. welcome to paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m so happy to be doing this interview with you at such a major moment. Across your career — from working with Lady Gaga and Kanye West to starting your own label and arriving at Givenchy — you’ve experimented with so many creative formats. You are an art director, you design objects, and you collaborate with a lot of brands. So, how do you relate to a designer label? It seems that your personal identity, in the same vein, is very open.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Well, my creative aspiration was always to be a designer. I’ve been working in fashion and making clothing since the age of 19. And then I got into music by making costumes for artists. That’s how I met Kanye and Gaga. I made stage costumes for their shows, then they asked me to work on other things like photos, art direction, stage sets, and stuff like that. So, in a way, fashion led me into art direction. And then, when I was just beginning my brand and putting out work for the first time, I had to do shoots and video and communication for the clothing. And I was always really inspired by designers who could also take photos or do films. I had worked with a lot of great photographers when I was doing art direction for the artists, so I wanted to try my hand at that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You picked up a camera?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, to shoot my own clothing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you did the campaigns for your own brand, 1017 ALYX 9SM?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah. For the first three years, I shot the lookbooks. I was Nick Knight’s art director at SHOWstudio for a while.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I forgot that. In London?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. And we still collaborate on lots of shoots and projects. He’s so open and does so many things. He does sculpture, video, and image.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And interviews.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It was very free. But I think that, from when I started wanting to be a designer to now, it’s such a different time. I never knew the faces of the designers whom I loved.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was 15 years ago?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. Back then, you wouldn’t know what a designer looked like. You’d just know the clothes that you liked or the brand or whatever. And now it’s changed: everything is so much faster. This idea of creative direction and art direction and community and the speed of everything — it demands being more fluid. It’s hard to keep up with the pace of today, just focusing in the atelier 24/7.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — But it’s still super important. I think you can tell the people who are more versed in that or not. You know what I mean? I still want people to appreciate the clothing for the silhouette and the cut and the material development, and all that is still just as important as other forms of communication. I’d like to think that I’m a designer, and that people appreciate both.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It must be a dream come true for you, in a way — starting in fashion in New York in a more alternative context and winding up at Givenchy in the middle of a cultural and social turning point…
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it can’t be like before, in a way.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — No.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But we don’t know exactly what the new game is.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, it’s crazy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Full of questions…
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It’s great because it’s a clean slate. It’s a new beginning. I think it’s important to have a positive idea of the future. And if you can’t have that, then there’s no way it’s going to be positive. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — We don’t have any choice.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — That’s right — or else, it’s going to be bad, for sure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why I’m doing a love issue for Purple — it’s a way to send a positive message. Love is the opposite of hate. And hate is growing.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you quarantine in New York?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I got stuck there when I was visiting family and friends. I was there for three months.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ve had the experience of living in many cities. LA?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. LA, New York, London, Paris, Milan.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s go city by city. What do you like about LA? You lived in Downtown LA, no?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I grew up three hours north of LA. Pismo Beach. It’s an hour north of Santa Barbara.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Nice.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I moved to LA when I was 19. I lived there for a couple of years and then moved to New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Around the turn of the century?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — In 2004.
OLIVIER ZAHM — LA was still wild at the time, right? And Downtown was still rough?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah. I had to have a security guard walk me from the parking garage to my apartment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — There was nothing there. I was just living there because the brand I worked for had all the manufacturing there, and I did the production. I would wake up in the morning and pick up bolts of fabric, take it to be cut, work with patternmakers. And I’d just go all around East LA, Boyle Heights, South Central.
OLIVIER ZAHM — All the places that are becoming trendy now.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, but it was cool. I always wanted to live in New York, and Downtown felt like the closest thing to it in California.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you have Californian culture in your blood?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. Even my grandparents, great-grandparents… They came out when California was just being formed. They were farmers. My family has been there for over 100 years. I lived in Venice Beach for a while, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does it influence your designs?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It’s definitely part of my universe because it’s where I come from — it’s just natural.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A more relaxed attitude?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah. More street culture from California, like skateboarding and things like that, rap music. Like the jeans I’m wearing… I don’t know if there’s a California-ness to it, but it’s also punk or…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And hip-hop in LA at the turn of this century was amazing.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, in San Francisco and LA. And that’s what’s cool about where I grew up — it’s right in the middle, between San Francisco and LA, so I grew up going to both cities. If I wanted a cool rap album, I’d drive three hours to Amoeba Music in LA or San Francisco and get the record or the CD. I would go there in the summers or on winter break and stack 15 albums from the staff picks and just go back.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a favorite rapper from that time?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — My favorite popular rapper would be Tupac. I really love Tupac.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tupac is still with us.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. But then, there were more underground rappers and stuff that I liked, like Hieroglyphics and Living Legends. They were very much underground California rappers and really in the skate films I watched. So, I learned about all the cities through those films and stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, then you had to go to New York. What was the New York attraction?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I got a job there and moved to New York around 2006.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was the Dash Snow club. [Laughs]
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. I was going to the Beatrice, MisShapes, Sway, all that stuff.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It feels so far away already. [Laughs]
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It was the best time though, right?
OLIVIER ZAHM — The best time. Because it was a bit fucked up, but also cool and nice and not pretentious.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It was a special time in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We didn’t know at the time, but it was.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — There was no social media. You just had to know what was happening.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And this is when you started to work for Lady… No, that’s a bit later, when you worked for Lady Gaga?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah, a bit later.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what do you like about New York? At the time, New York was a scene, an underground scene.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I just love the city. I love the energy of it, how it’s just like a village. You walk outside your door, and you just run into people and figure out what happens. I like not having to plan in that way and just seeing where the night takes you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re like the old men from the ’80s saying, “New York is not New York anymore.”
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Well, that’s how I feel about California. The California I grew up in was so different — it was so isolated from everything else.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Totally isolated.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It was very picturesque. It feels so different now to me, even though I love it so much, and it’s my home. I spent 20 years there — I’m interested to explore other places.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And then Europe — London and Milan. So, you arrived in London first?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, it was between a New York and LA period. I lived there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened between you and Nick Knight? Was it an immediate connection? Love?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — He was working with Gaga. I art-directed a lot of that stuff, and we just became friends through working on her project.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your career, your creative journey, is based on meeting people?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. And music. Going out to clubs, the crossover of music and fashion. Even in LA, deejaying and going out to clubs — that was where you would see people wear fashion, and you got dressed up. It was so exciting…
OLIVIER ZAHM — To look at.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — To look at because you’d see amazing looks, but there was also the amazing energy and the music. And that was my favorite part about it — the link.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How will fashion survive if we don’t have clubs anymore?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It’s sad.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that even possible?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I don’t know. I hate being somebody who’s like, “Oh, it was better then.” It was just different. Now, it’s a different thing. People wear fashion to different occasions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe they wear fashion more for every day, on the street.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. But if I didn’t see interesting people wearing clothing every day, whether that’s on social media or, I don’t know, whatever… I was really hungry to go out to a nightclub because you wouldn’t see cool people otherwise.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And London is a very specific experience, right? What did you get from London? With Nick Knight — what did you learn there?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — He really taught me a lot about the history of fashion and fashion photography.
OLIVIER ZAHM — SHOWstudio is an interesting creative hub, right? Totally specific. And always pushing possibilities.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. It was really inspiring for me to look at the world and creativity like that. Because I think that the creative process can be applied to anything. He’s always pushing forward and open to trying new things. And he engages with so many different communities, whether it’s young people just starting, coming up, or couture houses, musicians.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, London is love for experimentation, right?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, and going out was a different scene, too. That was also really interesting. The George and Dragon was still around, this little pub in East London that a lot of fashion people would go to. It was a fun time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And this was when, 2015?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — No, maybe that was 2010 or 2011. Then I came back to America, lived in New York, and then came to Italy around
OLIVIER ZAHM — To do your own brand?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you share some words about it? Will you continue to do it?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — We’re continuing. We just did a collection in June, but the world hasn’t seen it yet. We’re going to put the collection out to the world in September.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you will have Givenchy and Alyx?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a lot.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — And I do a line for Nike under my own name. And then we also do a Moncler project once a year with Alyx.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Be careful not to burn out.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It’s a lot of work, for sure. Have you seen designers burn out?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, a lot.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Do you have any advice?
OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] Keep it light and cool because it’s not so serious. When people take their job too seriously, any kind of job, it becomes a weight. Don’t carry that weight. That’s what I apply to myself.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I think that’s good advice. Did you ever take it too seriously in your life?
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve tried not to. When I get upset or when I get scared, I just say to myself, “Olivier, you’ve become too serious.” Because it’s like fashion or art — it’s the moment. It’s what we feel in the moment. What we enjoy in the moment. If we don’t enjoy the moment, we can’t communicate anything good. Trying to not use any substances to help the lightness. So, now, Paris — you didn’t imagine you would start something new in Paris, did you?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It’s always been my goal, since I was a teenager. I’ve always wanted to design for a Maison. But it was always just a dream. I didn’t know if it would ever materialize. When I started Alyx, I knew I wanted to go make fashion in Europe. That’s where I could make the kind of product that I wanted to make.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What appeals to you about Europe? Is it more sophisticated or more creative?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It’s just more that the craftsmanship is here, the savoir faire. Just to be able to…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Transfer your ideas?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah. So, I came here. It was always a goal of mine, since I was a teenager. It’s super surreal that it actually came true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It happened.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. Being from California, in this small little town, and being here in Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Paris, Les Invalides. I like this neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — What does this neighborhood feel like for a Parisian? What’s this neighborhood like?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the most aristocratic, bourgeois area in Paris.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Oh, okay.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it’s in the center of Paris. It’s not like the 16th, which is a bit far, a bit boring.
This is still in the center. It’s a very privileged and nice area.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I chose a good spot, then.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Right on. How do you see Paris?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I’ve seen it change so much because I’ve been coming here for around 10 years. I first started coming here, going to André Saraiva’s parties and stuff at the club they used to have.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Le Baron.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Le Baron, yes. And then, there was a time I was living here with Kanye. That was awesome.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay. When Kanye started his brand?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. And now, living in Europe, coming here… It’s changed a lot. Just like New York, it goes through moods. But right now, I really love it. It’s a really nice place to be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s an interesting moment for Paris because, in a way, Paris will attract more creative people. Because of the history. Paris is an open place — you can express different points of view without being judged here. Let’s speak about love, to finish. From Lady Gaga to Kanye to the Givenchy team, there’s a strong collaborative side to your work. Can we say that your work is driven by love?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Definitely. I love fashion and doing collaborations — it’s been the only thing in my life that’s just been magnetic to me. I’ve always loved fashion: fashion photography, wearing fashion, making it. It’s the thing I’ve been the most passionate about continuously over my life. The people and the community whom I’ve met through it are where some of my best friends come from. I think there’s love there. Love is motivating.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And there’s a sense of community in your work.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. Or even, like, we don’t know each other that well, but I have a lot of respect for you because of your work. You know what I mean? And our mutual love for fashion and commitment over time. There’s an openness when you see another person who’s also dedicated their life to that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t need to know the people, but, in a way, you know them better — you know them for their work.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. But I think that love is one of the most motivating things in life, and we need it to battle all the fear that’s out there right now — and the frustration, like you said. Love is a powerful thing. I feel like there are so many different types of love, too. Having children… I have unconditional love for them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you have kids, the idea of love becomes more important, I find.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You immediately project, imagine their future. And if their future is dark, you have to fight for a better world. And do you think fashion can help?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I think fashion can inspire change.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s not idealistic to believe that?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — No. I mean, everything’s connected, just pinging off each other. It definitely contributes to the change.