BACK LIVING IN NEW YORK,
GIVENCHY’S CREATIVE DIRECTOR,
MATTHEW WILLIAMS, IS STILL
DEEPLY INSPIRED BY THE CITY AND TELLS US WHY.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Matt, how does it feel to be in New York?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It feels great! It’s amazing to be back here and see the city come back to life. New York hasn’t felt this exciting since I first started coming here in the early 2000s.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s incredible to see how the New York machine is starting to function again, because the city was dormant during Covid. You were here, right?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah. It was like a movie. The streets were empty. You would walk around and not see anyone. But at the end of the day, there would be a moment of celebrating the healthcare workers, when everybody would bang pots and pans — it was really great to hear.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You first moved to New York from California in 2006. What attracted you to the city?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It began with skate videos. When I was a teenager, I would see what San Francisco, LA, Philadelphia, and New York looked like. And because I was from a small beach town in California, I would romanticize living in the city. Also, all of the music I liked was from cities. So, I moved to Downtown LA first, because the skyscrapers almost felt like New York. And then a year later, I moved to New York. But I didn’t know anybody here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was Downtown LA like then?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Scary. It was super crazy. But I lived there because the brand I was working for when I was 19 made clothes in Downtown and East LA. So, I would always drive around and do production. It was just easier to wake up there and start work in the morning than to go from the west side. It was in the Continental building, which was the first skyscraper west of the Mississippi. It had a cool vibe, but there was nothing down there. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know you lived there.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, and then I started coming here with the brand I was working for. And I started meeting people, and I was like, “I could just move here.” Then I got a job for another brand, running production and eventually designing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, New York at the time — was it more about the music or art or both?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — It was probably more music and going out. There was a really fun scene of going out and dancing.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Music was also very much connected to fashion for you. You started doing collaborations, designing for Kanye, Lady Gaga…
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah, that was a year and a half after I moved here. I was living between here and LA for about 10 years. When I first moved here, it was more what you saw out at night. Or going to Tokyo for the first time, or Paris. You’d have different scenes in every city, and people dressed differently. It was really inspiring to be out at night. That’s what inspired me to make clothing. Back then, people would go to shows, but you wouldn’t see the photos of the show. To be able to see the people who were styling for the brands or the magazines I looked up to was really inspiring. Because it wasn’t as instant as it is today. You had to really be a part of a community or a scene.
OLIVIER ZAHM — If not, you weren’t really in touch with fashion. It’s interesting to see how people dress up in New York. There’s a New York style, different from Paris. How would you describe it?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — There’s definitely a specific New York look. The young kids have a style that mixes ’90s clothing with sportswear, and with tech, weirdly. With big jeans and vintage t-shirts.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It changes with each generation, but there’s always a freedom to dressing in New York. Maybe more so than in Paris or LA.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I don’t know if it’s because of how much people live outside in New York — but the clothes feel lived in, and there’s a freedom in crazy combinations and mixtures. It becomes part of your energy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You really express yourself through your clothes in New York.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah, and each part of the city has its own look. There’s a West Village look, an Upper East Side look, where the skate kids would hang out. Or St. Mark’s Place.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think those local identities — the tribes like the techno crowd and the punks, who stood for a certain ideology — are as prevalent as they used to be?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yeah, I think there are still dress codes. There are codes within communities. Humans are like herd animals, and most want to look like part of the herd. Different herds around this city. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re still influenced by New York, even though you design for a French heritage brand. Givenchy is truly Parisian, even if there’s the Hollywood connection. And you have New York in your veins.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes, New York feels more like home than any other place in the world for me. There’s so much stimulation, seeing people in the streets. I love that New York can be such a vibrant city and can feel so big, but you can also live in a small bubble. I like those two extremes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Our common friend, the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia, gave a lecture at the Purple Festival stating that fashion is very important today, maybe as important as music, because it’s a form of art that is wearable, and that connects art and life. This is the program of the avant-garde. But as a designer, you connect your own art with the street and the everyday life of people. Do you see fashion as a form of art?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — I think certain designers and projects — like a Rei Kawakubo couture show — really border on art. And then there are things like Alyx, which are connected to new subcultures. Kids really love that brand, and it represents their culture and their world in a unique way. It symbolizes something more than clothing, like a residue that permeates deeper than just a product. Given the commercial aspect of fashion, once it gets too big, it’s a business, and it’s not art. That’s why I loved costume design, actually. That’s where I started. Because it’s one moment, one person, one idea. And it never has to be produced. It doesn’t have to work. It starts to have a sense of purity. But I don’t believe fashion is art. There are places in fashion that border on it, but we can’t say that for everything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re deeply connected to street culture, even at Givenchy. You connect the status of a luxury brand to the street. It’s a revolution in fashion, and this connection is very New York.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. We have to respect Riccardo Tisci because I think he was the first person to do that in luxury fashion, and Givenchy has that heritage because of him. It’s different for me because I come from that culture; I grew up with streetwear and street culture, and I’m an avid listener of rap music. So, maybe what I do at Givenchy, and how it relates to street culture, has a different point of reference. But really, it’s about me being authentic to myself and where I come from and what I’m inspired by, the kinds of kids I’m inspired by who are making that music and how they dress.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The rap music of today?
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Yes. I come from an era of going to clubs to hear music you didn’t know. When I go out now, people want to hear music they know all the time. I want the opposite. I want to discover. Today, I love a lot of the artists on Playboi Carti’s label Opium, like Destroy Lonely, Ken Carson, Homicide, Hannah, 40 Glocc. A lot of artists from Atlanta. They have their own scene and sound down there. They have an amazing energy.
ALEPH MOLINARI — It’s impressive how hip-hop has survived as a genre for so long, more than 40 years, taking on so many shapes, integrating all genres of music, even house or techno or death metal.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Totally, and it’s interesting because my son is 13 years old, and that’s all the music he and his friends listen to. A lot of it is on SoundCloud and not even on streaming. It reminds me of when I first started getting into music. I lived in central California, and to get rare, independent, albums, I had to go to Amoeba Music in LA or San Francisco. It was a journey, and I would spend hours digging. It’s the same thing now for them. They love the hunt for demos.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Yeah, hunting for off-the-radar gems. Exactly in the way that we were, at some point, looking for that rare vinyl or CD.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — And a lot of them would have uncleared samples. It’s almost like an open-source platform. It’s interesting how there’s still that culture, but in a different way.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you feel that fashion also has that today? Because hip-hop was created by sampling and remixing the past, sounds from the ’60s or the ’70s, creating new sounds based on that. Do you feel that fashion does that in a similar way? Because fashion is so cross-referential today.
MATTHEW WILLIAMS — Definitely. I think we do that naturally. Even though I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, I’m naturally trying to do things that touch me emotionally, that I’m sure come from things that I’ve seen from designers that I’m inspired by. But at the same time, I’m pushing it to a place that feels new and different.
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