Matthew Williams, who was named the creative director of Paris-based fashion brand Givenchy today, is only 35 years old, but he’s already had more star-making chapters in his career than most in his new, rarefied position. He’s the founder of the influential brand 1017 ALYX 9SM, which blends the minimalist workwear ethos of Helmut Lang with a club-kid influencer spirit. Before that, he was a key member of the collective Been Trill, creative director to Lady Gaga as she became an international superstar, and an early visual collaborator with Kanye West. His career may seem sprawling, but Williams is a highly focused collaborator who, over the past decade, could be found just in front of wherever the culture was headed. The ultimate guy behind the guy (or Gaga) is now the man at the front of one of luxury’s most influential Parisian couture brands.
Williams’s ascent to the helm of Givenchy marks a new era in the ever-evolving definition of fashion designer. Clare Waight Keller spent the past two and a half years bringing a bourgeois sensibility to Givenchy, with mussy ’90s menswear and a celebrated couture atelier, but under its previous creative director, Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy was the first big house to see the wisdom (and value) in marrying streetwear and luxury fashion. That’s a reputation that Williams seems poised to carry forward, but he can be expected to put his own twist on the idea. Because Williams is emblematic of a new breed of impresario, the DJ-designer-merch maker-coolhunter who is as fluent in savvy marketing as he is in fashion design. He is an expert at creating not simply the full look, but the whole visual universe, studded with characters, a killer soundtrack, the right accessories, and the best partners: along the way, he also worked with Hood by Air, Supreme, Stussy, and Nike.
To trace Williams’s career is to trace fashion’s most notable subcultures over the past decade and a half. While the appointment of Williams certainly represents a shift in direction from Waight Keller, it’s also a return to form for a fashion brand that spent the 2010s at the center of culture, dressing Kanye West and creating some of the luxury world’s first must-have sneakers. As the fashion world struggles to chart a way forward amid coronavirus, the environmental crisis, and a historic fight for civil rights, Williams picks up where Tisci left off, when fashion represented popular culture at its zenith, and where creative risks, if ventured, required a celebrity cosign.
The Early Years: 1985-2005
Williams, who grew up in Pismo Beach, California, dropped out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, after one semester spent studying art, opting instead to hang in Los Angeles, helping a friend with his denim line and becoming a regular in that city’s club scene. It was while he was out clubbing that he met his wife Jennifer, with whom he moved to New York three months later. He applied to study fashion at Parsons, but was rejected. (Never give up on your dreams!) He became a regular in that city’s club scene, too—this was in the mid-2000s, a golden age for New York’s bottle service nightlife—which is allegedly where he met Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, whom you may know as Lady Gaga.
Go (Kanye) West, Young Man: 2008
Williams moved back to Los Angeles about a year and half later, where he met Kanye West’s then-stylist, who asked him to make the LED jacket with West’s then-creative director Willo Perron that the rapper wore to the 2008 Grammy Awards. (A work of goth apocalyptica: you can see shades of the glossy, hard-edged Gaga to come.) He later served as the art director for West’s creative company DONDA.
The Dada To Her Gaga: 2008-2010
Williams, who Gaga called “Dada” (!!!), was formative in the singer’s effort to create the full-fledged visual and aural experience that surrounded her music. (They were also briefly involved romantically: “Dada is quite brilliant and we were crazy lovers,” Gaga once told the Sunday Times. “But I stopped it when we discovered what a strong creative connection we had. I didn’t want it to be just about careless love.”) Williams created her disco stick, for example, a kind of crystal-covered light up baton that she waved onstage while the lights were low during her club performances. He then became her creative director, working with stylist Nicola Formichetti. (This is where playing six degrees of fashion and pop music separation gets really twisted: Brandon Maxwell, who’s now the first name in American luxury sportswear, was Formichetti’s successor, and styled Gaga in her famous meat dress.)
Another piece of crucial potential foreshadowing: he told Gaga to buy one of Hermès’s iconic Birkin bags. “Matt Williams, my creative director and closest friend, said, ‘You must buy a Birkin because it’s the most classic bag,’” Gaga told Vanity Fair in 2010. Gaga said her fans found the bag unrelatable, so she asked them to cover it in art and graffiti. “My fans are more iconic than this purse. And I love fashion, but I don’t love it more than my fans. And that’s what this bag is all about.” Perhaps a hint of his luxury handbag ambitions for the house of Givenchy?
It Was Indeed Trill: 2010-2014
In the 2010s, Williams formed a collective with Heron Preston and Virgil Abloh that regurgitated internet pop culture into T-shirts and other merch, and DJ’d wherever fine streetwear was found.
Hypebeasts, one of humanity’s most fickle species, turned on the group after A$AP Rocky dissed them in 2014’s “Multiply,” but their penchant for creating cult clothes that circulated through the highest rungs of creative popular culture, freeing merch from music and yanking it to the center of fashion and popular culture, remains undeniably influential.
1017 ALYX 9SM: 2015-Present
Williams then performed what appeared to be an about-face: with his family, he relocated to Italy to launch the rigorous, craft-obsessed brand 1017 Alyx 9SM, whose sexy blend of buckles, harnesses, black, and leather preempted the inter-industry obsession for golden-era Helmut Lang. But Alyx is in fact the throughline of the Williams ethos: hard, sexy clothes surrounded by a cool-kids crew mentality. He was also tapped by Kim Jones to create the accessories for Dior menswear, bringing lustrous sharpness back into to high-end menswear and helping to make harness and chest-rig bags a must-have accessory. (Williams was an early practitioner of warcore.)
To Givenchy, he brings not merely a cult of cool kids but an imposing posse: friendships with Kanye West and Lady Gaga; his partnership with Abloh; unofficial face of Alyx, model Bella Hadid; and a reputation for creating must-have accessories. He communes with the world of pop music the way Hedi Slimane worked rock ‘n roll into Saint Laurent’s DNA, and his rigorous Alyx silhouettes show an obsession with craft that departs from couture’s traditional doting on beadwork, lace, and materials. At Givenchy, where he’ll show his first collection this fall, the stage is set for Williams to make subculture into plain old pop culture.
An earlier version of this story stated that Brandon Maxwell designed Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress; he styled the look, while the dress was designed by Franc Fernández.
Originally Appeared on GQ