This interview appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 print edition of RAIN magazine. Support print. Purchase your copy here.
Interview by Rebecca Voight
Portrait by Thomas Lohr
Editorial photography by Richie Talboy
Styling and casting by John Tan
Hair: Fernando Torrent at L’Atelier NYC
Makeup: Steven Canavan at L’Atelier NYC
Model: Youssouf Bamba at DNA
all clothing and accessories by 1017 Alyx 9SM SS20
Matthew Williams has the allure of a latter-day crusader, his steely blue eyes appearing fixed somewhere off in the utopian future and the thick black cross tattooed across the back of his head hinting of divine determination. In fact, he is a formidable presence. The self-made creative director of 1017 Alyx 9SM (1017 references his October 17 birthday, while 9SM stands for the brand’s first address, 9 St. Mark’s Place, New York), he has pushed his look, a sleek mix of luxury and street with significant hardware (those signature Alyx rollercoaster buckles and chest rigs) to the apex of cool.
From his start in style as a skater kid growing up in Pismo Beach, California, Williams has leapt from one challenge to the next, learning fashion from the inside out. He taught himself how to make patterns while working for street brands as a teenager in Los Angeles, dreaming up performance gear for Lady Gaga and Kanye West. He also turned Been Trill, billed as an art and DJ collective with partners Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston, into a high/low hit factory that was big in the Instagram age, only to disappear just as quickly.
Alyx, named after his older daughter, is an entirely different venture. At 34, Williams is at the top of his game, an American designer who produces in Europe. Partnered with his wife Jennifer and Slam Jam’s Luca Benini, he now lives in Italy, where he is able to nurture creativity and quality from the ground up. Beginning quietly with womenswear in 2015, Alyx added men’s two years later and has steadily built its reputation and product reach before staging fashion shows in Paris. In its third season on the runway for SS20, Alyx’s menswear looks more sophisticated than ever, with a sport and tech undercurrent that gives it undeniable street credibility.
Here, Williams talks to RAIN about his fashion inspirations, then and now.
Rebecca Voight: What was it like growing up in California?
Matthew Williams: Well, I moved from Chicago to California when I was two. Growing up there was really amazing, especially in the ’90s, when I grew up. It was a really cool place.
RV: How does a guy who’s into soccer find his way into fashion?
MW: Ever since I can remember I’ve always liked fashion, especially with soccer. You know, as a player, you like the European teams, and at that time it was very rare to be able to purchase a football shirt from Europe. I got into collecting football shirts. People dress on the pitch in different ways, and I think the first thing I got into in fashion was through all those kinds of clothes for playing soccer.
RV: How did you get into soccer? That’s not typical in the United States, is it?
MW: For younger kids it’s pretty big, I don’t really know why. I tried every sport as a kid and it was just something I really enjoyed.
RV: You were a skater, too?
MW: Yeah, and I still am.
RV: What skate brands did you like when you were young?
MW: I liked eS a lot. I liked Shorty’s because that was from Santa Barbara, which is very near where I grew up. I liked Antihero, I liked Baker. I really loved Zero. I like Toy Machine a lot.
RV: Oh yeah, Toy Machine. I wrote about Ed Templeton [its founder].
MW: Yeah, that’s when I really got into skating, too. Because the town where I grew up is next to San Luis Obispo. That’s where I went to high school. And that’s where CCS is, the biggest mail-order skate catalogue. It’s the big distribution center for the entire US of all that skate stuff. So it was a big skate town and I got to see a lot of different skate product, and people would come to do demos because of CCS.
I got into fashion through skateboarding, too, and through music. It was my entry into culture, really, and even understanding what different cities looked like through skate videos. It was so cool being able to go to LA, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco for the first time and to see locations that were familiar from skate videos. That was really an introduction.
“I wanted to go to design school, but I didn’t get in. So I just kept working because I had such a deep desire to do fashion. It was all I could think about. I was, and still am, completely obsessed with fashion”
RV: What was the first piece of clothing you ever designed?
MW: Well, the first brand I worked for was called Corpus. It was
a contemporary denim brand in LA and I was doing production for them. I assisted on the design and stuff. The first thing I made, I don’t know how to describe it… It was like a denim parka, really simple. And it went into stores because Corpus was doing trade shows at the time.
RV: How old were you then?
RV: You seem to have grown up really quickly, racing through schools, learning on the job. Were you in a hurry?
MW: No, I wanted to go to design school, but I didn’t get in. So I just kept working because I had such a deep desire to do fashion. It was all I could think about. I was, and still am, completely obsessed with fashion. I love it. There wasn’t really anything else I could think about wanting to do.
RV: So you figured out early on that practical experience was the best way to grow into it?
MW: I still wish that I had gone to school. There are technical aspects that I could have become better at, but I learned a lot of them through working. When I started my brand, and for the first three years, it was just me. About two years ago, we started hiring some design-team members because of the pace of everything. And the collections started getting really, really big, and we started doing men’s and women’s and collaborations. Some of the people on my design team had been to Saint Martins and other big schools, and it was really nice to be able to learn from the people on my team. Doing that also reassured me that my path was actually fine.
RV: There are so many big designers I’ve met who never finished school.
MW: Yeah, I think I was lucky enough to have practical experience from the beginning. Knowing how to do it in real life has been really helpful.
RV: You took a big leap visiting Europe for the first time as a soccer player. What was that like?
MW: Yeah, I was 16. I came here on my own just playing with teams. That was before people used the internet as easily as they do now. And I just had a list of addresses and phone numbers, dates and times that I needed to be at these places. I had to figure out how to get there. It was a really cool experience. I mean, I was really lonely for parts of it as I was by myself. I trained with different teams in Europe, in England and Austria, and it was really cool to be able to spend time with kids my age from other countries. It was completely different from the California surf and skate culture I was growing up in and it really opened my eyes to different types of music, and fashion.
RV: What did you think of Europe. Was it more fashion-oriented than the US at that time?
MW: It was just a different type of fashion, but I loved Europe from the first time I visited. What’s not to love, right?
RV: So when you launched Alyx, was the idea to do it in Europe from the start?
MW: Not exactly. I’d met Luca Benini of Slam Jam through my wife, Jennifer. Originally I came to Europe to ask him to help produce shoes for me, because I didn’t know any place in America where I could make them. After we spent a weekend together he said he’d be happy to work with me on the whole project, so we started the company. It took us about a year and a half to put out the first collection. And, actually, the first one got stuck at customs. We didn’t get a chance to show it and ended up missing the New York and Paris fashion weeks.
MW: It was a slow start, but we got there. I’d already made clothes for different brands in different countries, and I knew that the kind of product I wanted to make was achievable here. I knew that there was the potential to make really nice things at a price that was affordable to the customer and also that you could scale a business here. The big problem with a lot of brands I’ve worked for in America is that they get a great start, but then the orders come in and you have to import fabrics and materials from abroad. Importing Italian fabric into the US is slow—you waste so much time. The amazing thing about Italy is that everything is made here—the yarn, the fabric, the trim—so it can just be driven a couple of hours from factory to factory.
Also, the production minimums in America are really high, but here you can make 50 of something or you can make 5,000. In America you can produce overseas, but that’s not the type of product I’m interested in making.
RV: You live here in Italy, which means you’re working on the product every day. Was it hard for you and your family to leave the US?
MW: Well, neither of us speak Italian perfectly yet. Jennifer speaks more than I do, and my younger daughter doesn’t speak it yet, but she understands perfectly.
Since we had been going back and forth between New York and Italy for three years after our first daughter was born, when she was about to start school, we wanted to see her as much as possible and limit the travel, so it was a group decision. Originally we moved to Ferrara [in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy], but since August we’ve been living in Milan.
RV: Italy has a reputation for incredible artisans who work out technical solutions with designers, step by step. For them it’s more than a 9-to-5 job. How much interaction do you have with your factories?
MW: Yeah, I think each supplier is different, and it takes a different level of effort and communication to get what you need done, but I really enjoy working in Italy and have found a way of working that gets the desired result.
RV: Design, for you, is process-driven, as opposed to just dialing in a sketch. You taught yourself how to make patterns on the job, for example. How would you say that informs Alyx?
MW: Well, I care about construction and quality, and I tend to think about each individual item, as well as the whole collection, so I guess that serves me well.
“Kanye West found me out of nowhere. I produced a jacket for his stylist and he asked me to work on his brand. He made me part of all the discussions and ideas. He helped me to believe in myself, more than I ever could have done on my own”
RV: You’ve jumped around quite a lot—for example, early on, you went from working on a brand to designing performance clothes for Lady Gaga and Kanye West, as well as working with the photographer Nick Knight. You were already in the industry, so what convinced you to switch gears like that?
MW: I liked the idea of being able to just make a garment that doesn’t have to work, that can exist for a moment on the stage under the lights. You can make different decisions and different proportions. Also, at that time, for me, it meant having a much larger budget to make just one piece. The point is it allowed me to be really experimental with the work, especially before I got to Europe. It was the most creative thing possible for me to do at the time.
RV: Why do you consider West a mentor?
MW: Because he found me out of nowhere. I produced a jacket for his stylist and he gave me a job and asked me to work on his brand. He flew me around the world and made me part of all the discussions and ideas. He helped me to believe in myself, more than I ever could have done on my own. And he stayed with me through the ups and downs of my life and continues to be a really good friend of mine, even though we aren’t working together anymore. I’m just really thankful, appreciative of his belief in me and his continued support. He’s just one of the greatest guys in the whole world.
RV: Kim Jones’s first collection for Dior menswear, spring/summer 2019, was such an amazing thing. Were you surprised when he asked you to collaborate? What was that like?
MW: We’ve been friends for a long time. We were speaking about doing stuff at Louis Vuitton when he was there. Then he took over at Dior and he asked me to be a part of it and contribute to what he wanted to do. He’s always liked the hardware I create for Alyx, so he asked me to create some for him. There was some back and forth, and he gave me a rough concept of what he liked about the Alyx buckles, and I proposed something that he liked really quickly.
RV: Collaborations are a very important part of Alyx—Moncler, Mackintosh, Nike, Dior, Blackmeans from Japan. What do these brands signify for you?
MW: I like all the collaborations that we have now. If something really interesting comes along we’ll do it, but I’m not looking for new collaborations. With Mackintosh, for example, it’s a really special handmade process and all the garments are made from start to finish by the same person. Basically, they make it with their bare hands. They spread glue on the jackets with their bare hands and have rollers that roll them flat over blocks of wood. Their rubberized cotton material is something that’s been around for more than a hundred years and their way of working and constructing with that material is so unique. It’s a product that can be made only by them, so it’s something we couldn’t do ourselves.
RV: Alyx has produced shows in Paris for the past three seasons, and SS20 seems more dressy and sleek than ever. What are you aiming for?
MW: I think that element of Alyx has been there since the beginning. There’s still a lot of dark denim with the Blackmeans collaboration, and there was tons of hardware. But we also worked for the first time with Caruso, which is an amazing sartoria tailoring factory in Italy. I have never been able to make tailoring like that before this season.
RV: Alyx is known for sustainability. What’s new on that front?
MW: Well, we’re doing this new leather with Ecco leather that’s dyed with CO2 gas that pushes the pigment into the skin without added chemicals or water waste. We’re also doing upcycled jersey and we work with Econyl nylon made from recycled fishing lines from Scandinavia.
RV: What do you think of Instagram culture and the rise of influencers in fashion?
MW: I think it’s just another way people communicate. Everyone has their own community that they’re looking at. That’s just the way we’re kind of going as people. But just because somebody posts something on Instagram and has a bunch of likes it doesn’t mean it sells or that they have much power. There are tons of brands that do really well that don’t have huge social-media followings. I think ours is maybe more visible because we have a younger audience.
RV: What would your advice be to someone aged 15 or 16 who wants to get involved in fashion today?
MW: Just follow your dreams and go toward that goal. If you’re really passionate about it, then it has to be, because you love it. So do everything you can to make it a reality.
alyxstudio.com / Instagram: @alyxstudio