How Matthew M. Williams Is Refreshing Givenchy: Behind-the-Scenes of His First Collection

The French brand Givenchy recently named Matthew M. Williams, a self-taught designer from Pismo Beach, California, as creative director. Ahead of unveiling his first collection this month, he gave WSJ. an exclusive look at how he plans to rock the house.

By guest author Alexandra Marshall from WSJ Magazine

All captions courtesy by WSJ Magazine

In a long, narrow room lined with conference tables laden with accessories, Matthew M. Williams, the newly appointed creative director of Givenchy, inspects a zippered parka on a model. With his dark blond hair slicked forward into a Caesar cut, wearing a shiny black-leather popover top and sharp black gabardine pants—from 1017 Alyx 9SM, the sportswear company he founded in 2015—the 35-year-old could be a character in The Matrix. The parka is of a piece, inky black, with zippers in bright chrome that snake over the sleeves and around the body creating the silhouette of a carapace. “This came out really nice,” Williams says to his design team. His accent reveals a youth spent in sunbaked California skate parks. (Williams grew up in Pismo Beach.) “Yes, this is a piece we definitely like.” One down, dozens more to go.

Today is the first chance to review what people in the fashion trade call toiles, or three-dimensional prototypes rendered in provisional fabric. Williams and most of his core design team are taking notes, tweaking forms and making educated guesses at how finishing details like felt backing for collars might affect the overall look and fit of a garment. Of a coatdress shift with a deceptively simple pleat treatment around the neck: “It’s a bit dressmaker,” sniffs Williams’s design director. Williams nods in agreement. A development manager logs any adjustments, and then the prototypes go back to Givenchy’s in-house atelier around the corner.

The Givenchy ateliers are a historic brain trust. Some of the petites mains who create haute couture have worked there since the time of the house’s founder, Hubert de Givenchy. Visiting the archives where vintage pieces are stored, Williams was especially struck by his eveningwear, “with, like, embellishments riveted into the bottom of dresses and things woven through. The scale and proportions were really amazing.” De Givenchy launched his self-named company when he was just 25, in 1952, producing clothes that were breezy and sporty but still sharp and elegant, with the kind of graphic punch that played well on film. His enduring muse was Audrey Hepburn. Their collaboration, beginning with Hepburn’s wardrobe for Billy Wilder’s 1954 film Sabrina, was one of the first notable pairings of a Hollywood star with a Parisian couture house.

In 1988, de Givenchy sold the company to the just-born luxury group LVMH. Its head, Bernard Arnault, hired a series of buzzy British upstarts to design for the historic house, first John Galliano, then Alexander McQueen and then Julien MacDonald. But it wasn’t until 2005, with the arrival of Riccardo Tisci and his moody take on baroque style, that Givenchy anchored its contemporary identity. The brand became known for upscale men’s and women’s streetwear with hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll influences, alongside elaborate, intensely worked couture gowns. When Tisci left for Burberry in 2017, Clare Waight Keller, formerly of Chloé, arrived with a softened, more professional interpretation of the brand. She found a high-profile fan in Meghan Markle, who hired her to design her wedding dress for her 2018 wedding to Prince Harry, but Keller stepped down after just three years. Now Williams, aided by consulting stylist Lotta Volkova, who helped channel postapocalyptic chic for Vetements and Balenciaga, is harking back to the Tisci era by injecting a darker, more industrial edge.

“Matthew is the perfect designer to talk to the new generation of luxury customers,” says Moncler CEO Remo Ruffini by email, who selected Williams’s 1017 Alyx 9SM to create a capsule collection for Moncler’s Genius line, which launched in December 2019. “It’s a magic combination between a street-inspired style and a sophisticated touch able to create new cultural references.” Streetwear will continue to dominate fashion, he adds. “The ‘casualization movement’ is here to stay and will keep on pollinating the world of luxury in its ivory tower.”

Though the Givenchy men’s and women’s collections are still a few weeks from being finalized, among Williams’s trial pieces is a lot of black, and a lot of sharp tailoring, and an occasional shot of searing yellow-and-black python print. You can feel the influence of Williams’s favorite designers: Helmut Lang, Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens and, indeed, Tisci. (Williams sees Tisci’s work at Givenchy as one of the most successful rebrands in the past several decades.)

The lineup of accessories reveals that one linchpin will be a heavy box chain fashioned out of the four-G’s of Givenchy’s historic logo, either in chrome or brushed nickel, some set with Swarovski crystal. They’re closed with an array of stylized padlocks, some in clear Plexiglas, some embellished with more crystal bling, which bags, sweaters and belts make use of too. This kind of free-floating motif is candy for a fashion public that tires easily of logos but still loves the clubby appeal of distinct brand signifiers. Williams knows the territory well: He scored a hardware hit at Alyx with a metal buckle based on the roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain, in the hills of Santa Clarita, on a mountain pass that joins Southern to Central California. It took a year and a half for that motif to catch fire, Williams says—and it did, eventually appearing on bags, belts and hats throughout Kim Jones’s spring 2019 debut collection for Dior Men.

This tire-kicking phase of collection design is usually a guarded secret. Work-in-progress fabrics don’t show minimalist tailoring in its most flattering light. Same for the sample-quality leather of the black ballet pumps and their curved, chrome-tipped horn heel. Granting access now to WSJ. was Williams’s choice, and it is unusually transparent, especially because of how much there is yet to be finalized for this new iteration of the 68-year-old company. His accessibility was a plus for president and CEO Renaud de Lesquen, who took his post in April, a few months before Williams was hired. “He’s a team player,” de Lesquen says by phone. “He’s very pragmatic. He’s very concrete.”

On this early September afternoon, it hasn’t even been 80 days since Williams started his job in Paris, relocating from Milan, where he lived to be close to Alyx’s Italian manufacturers. He has already decided to align the men’s and women’s collections more closely, committed to increase the use and development of sustainable fabrics like recycled nylon and ecoleather and cut back on toxic production techniques. “To get Alyx there has taken six years, and I’m the owner of that company,” says Williams, who will continue to dedicate one day a week to Alyx business. “Givenchy is a much bigger machine, with a longer approval process.” Change is not always easy, but it was important to de Lesquen, who was looking for someone who would bring “a shot of youthfulness to Givenchy. Hubert was a pioneer with a challenger mindset, and so is Matthew.”

De Lesquen and Williams are so far aligned on the future. The CEO, who previously ran Christian Dior’s couture and perfumes business in the Americas, emphasizes the importance of Asia for future retail development. Of Givenchy’s current 102 boutiques, 11 are already in mainland China. The continent is spending again after emerging early from Covid-19 lockdown compared to Europe and the Americas, and the launch of a Chinese e-commerce website for Givenchy is coming soon. With long experience running international perfume brands for L’Oréal, de Lesquen knows what it takes to make a hit fragrance. (LVMH owns Parfums Givenchy as well, which is a rarity among couture houses.) De Lesquen also wants to bring more warmth to customers’ in-store experience, and rather than leave client relations to the creative side, he also meets high-spending fans of the house. Still in development is the social-media strategy, key for any fashion company undertaking a reboot. For now, Williams is sticking with the #Givenchyfamily hashtag introduced under Keller.

Social media has not been entirely smooth so far. A series of black-and-white photos celebrating the announcement of his hiring, posted on Instagram in late June, brought some sharply critical comments. The company had booked a photographer to document Williams’s first day on the job. All dressed up in a black suit, he mounted the staircase to the atelier and opened the door to reveal the team. His back was to the camera, displaying a large cross tattoo on his neck—Williams started getting tattoos in his early 20s and is well-covered—and arrayed in front of him was the atelier staff, clad in masks and white coats. “It was one of the happiest days of my whole life,” Williams says.

It was his idea to share the photos to Instagram, and the reaction was fiery. On one side, commenters found the black-and-white images fascistic and dictatorial, and rolled their eyes at the appointment of yet another white man to head a legacy house. On the other, Alyx partisans spoke up about Williams’s history of championing subcultures, and the post of him with the atelier staff received over 50,000 likes. “I don’t really pay attention to that stuff,” Williams says.

De Lesquen has a more executive take. “The worst thing is for people not to be engaged,” he says. “We’re not going to try to please everyone, and we need to have a strong point of view.” He says, “I don’t think that there’s any advantage in being just another midsize luxury fashion brand. It’s all about engagement.”

He and Williams have a standing weekly half-day meeting and communicate many times a day by WhatsApp. As Covid-19 has put live fashion shows and presentations into question for many houses, Givenchy will take a pass this season, instead releasing a look book. The gentler rollout lowers the pressure for Williams, who has worked as a consultant to Kanye West and as creative director for Lady Gaga but has never had quite such a high-profile position himself. He’s friendly and earnest, but hasn’t yet found ease speaking about his life and past.

“I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner here,” Williams says of his office, his view of the 8th arrondissement rooftops lorded over by the Eiffel Tower. He’s not complaining. “It’s been a dream to be here since I started in fashion at age 19,” he says. An apartment just across the Seine on the Left Bank is about to be decorated. Despite a personal fashion sense that reads slightly Bond villain, Williams says his taste in home design is “really cozy”—the better to welcome his three kids, who are from two past relationships. Putting his own twist on Givenchy’s capsule line for children is personal for him. “I want them to be wearing the cool clothes we make.”

Williams’s path to the Givenchy job was unconventional. Most fashion designers, especially those at the top of legacy houses under the LVMH and Kering umbrellas, attend fashion school to learn the building blocks of design. A few prodigies—like Galliano and McQueen—jump straight into their own businesses, but the more common path is to work your way up through established houses before getting top jobs. When, in 2018, Louis Vuitton appointed Virgil Abloh—who had earned an architecture degree before working for Kanye West and launching his own streetwear line—it was a marked shift for the luxury conglomerate.

Rejected by Parsons School of Design when he was 19, Williams began working in production, in charge of executing other people’s designs. “I would drive around downtown L.A., pick up fabric, do the marking, grading, cut samples. It’s how I learned to make clothes.” It was good training for esprit de corps, it turns out. “It’s not about my ego as a designer, that I created each thing,” Williams says. “It’s about what’s best for the company.”

Williams met Stefani Germanotta at a restaurant before she had released her first album and became better known as Lady Gaga. She named Williams her first creative director, during the key years of 2008 to 2010, when he helped to create some of her most over-the-top looks. These include the famous “meat dress” from the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards—Williams was the one who first showed her a photo of the 1987 Jana Sterbak artwork that inspired it. He also worked on an animatronic gown with moving face fans, wings and skirt, and the white-lace bodysuit she wore for her notorious performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. (It was loaded with a squib that started to bleed red dye as if she had been shot.)

“A lot of her looks were based on choreography and props,” Williams says. “Or sometimes she would call and be like, ‘I just had a dream that fire was coming out of my tits. Can we make that?’ Sometimes the pieces we’d make would take months and months.”

Williams’s sense of theater creates interesting possibilities for haute couture. He is eager for the challenge and looks forward to working with the highly skilled Givenchy atelier. “What can be created here is just….” He trails off. “I’m so excited.”