Matthew Williams probably self-identifies more as bricoleur than fashion designer. While he possesses an intimate knowledge of the manufacturing process — gleaned by his time spent as a production manager-turned assistant designer at now-defunct California men's clothing line Corpus — most of his career has been punctuated by multi-platform creative and art direction stints with names like Lady Gaga and Kanye West. His LVMH Prize-nominated women's fashion label, Alyx, could easily be interpreted as a culmination of the lessons he's learned in making both clothing and images, but that would be a discredit to what the brand actually is: a diverse, subculture-tinged universe Williams wants us all to inhabit.
"It's hard to un-stick a label off of you once you've got one," says the 30-year-old designer about people who define him by his previous work. "I was just uplifting their ideas to the best that they could be," he continues, referring to former clients.
Alyx is Williams's most personal project yet, drawing references from his own life and the diverse cultural tastes that inform him. Recently, he's been watching episodes of BBC documentarian Adam Curtis's "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," which examines how computers and digital culture have shifted societal paradigms. The line also shares its name with his two-year-old daughter, and plenty of its inspirations stem from his family and childhood.
Alyx's upcoming fall/winter 2016 collection, "Natural Order," features conceptual masks made from vintage cigarette brand tees like Camel and Newport, as well as graphic references drawn from Williams's childhood. A Shorty's Skateboard graphic tee that reads "Fuck You" when folded up is reimagined into a colorful print that reads "Natural Order" — the hidden profanity remains intact. Smashing Pumpkins merchandise graphics are distorted and featured on mock-neck knits.
The homages aren't meant to communicate a sense of sentimentality, but rather reflect a sense of discovery and rediscovery. Williams cites how excited he is about fashion ephemera — like old Helmut Lang tees that were once given out to backstage staffers at runway shows — and how he himself is revisiting old music merch from underground hip-hop acts like Hieroglyphics and Del the Funky Homosapien.
As experience, emotion, and lifestyle become an integral part of understanding modern consumer attitudes, he likens this kind of wearable ephemera as "marks in the sand" of culture — indicative of a shared value system and an increasingly pieced-together cultural identity that allows wearers to empower themselves through fashion. "They mean something to me, but when they're on the garment, people find their own meaning in them," Williams says.
Alyx's clothes carve a unique, distinctive lane between utility, femininity, and bricolage. Roller coaster-inspired belt closures are one of the line's most popular items, while silver details that resemble lighter caps accentuate the back pockets of roomy, distressed workwear-inspired pants. Toeing the line between the familiar and the new, Williams hopes to incite a sense of discovery in his customers — sort of like scouring a vintage store for hours hoping to find that perfectly washed T-shirt with a faded screen print that's barely legible, or an old pair of Carhartts whose durable duck canvas material has been softened by countless wears, and countless owners. However, Williams's modus operandi isn't driven by nostalgia, but storytelling.
"That's what's so beautiful about fashion," he says. "It's this lubrication and connectivity between so many generations, and it gives us this common ground to communicate on — but also we get to wear it."
In a fashion world where a demanding pace leads to many promising designers burning out quickly, time is truly the ultimate luxury. But Williams is establishing a slow and steady approach — partly because of his limited resources, but mostly to show he's in it for the long run. A product-minded obsessive, his attention to detail permeates everything from collections to presentation. Everything is executed when it's ready, with a cohesive, unifying vision, and to a certain standard.
"We're trying to present great ideas in this fast paced world of turn-and-burn, and I'm hoping that's what will resonate with people: that authenticity and that care," he explains.
Williams acknowledges that each season can feel like a shot clock, but believes that wise time management — coupled with good planning and solid relationships — are the keys to building a successful brand. He's also leveraging his relationships with manufacturers and suppliers in a way that ensures they'll grow with him. His experience managing production in Los Angeles's garment district has afforded him the ability to communicate well with the Italian factories making his current collections. The hope is that as Alyx evolves, so will its manufacturers.
"Every step in the supply chain needs to get really proficient at the process, so that I can deliver superior product to the market," he says. "I want to get to a place where I’m making timeless product. And it takes time to get product right."
Alyx is a lean operation run by a tightly knit team around the world. His partner is Italian Luca Benini, a cult industry figure who helped bring labels like Stüssy into prominence in the European market. Benini's Slam Jam company still works with small brands like Palace Skateboards and global giants like Nike on European distribution. "The thing that can never be underestimated is the value of a team of people that really cares about the project that they're doing," says Williams. "It translates into the clothing."
To further cement his fledgling universe, Williams partnered with Nick Knight and Paul Hetherington to create a perpetual series of catalogs and films that celebrate the mood of each collection. Their latest project focuses on the spring/summer 2016 "Special Problems" collection and features model of the moment Molly Bair. The catalog and film actually dropped long after the clothes hit stores, but for Williams, it was more important to communicate the brand's ethos in the right way: "The point of the catalog is to show a pure vision of what the mood is for the brand. It's another brick in the foundation, and that's something no one can take away."
Alyx's universe is so compelling that many stylish, culturally savvy men find themselves drawn into its orbit — partly because of Williams's past projects, and partly because they have an equal appreciation of his references. Williams says he's really inspired by his wife Jennifer, who often wears men's clothes, and that in turn may give a masculine edge to his designs. But he's got no qualms about guys wearing his clothes, as it's a testament to Alyx's allure. Even items like the roller-coaster belt have found their way onto male-oriented aftermarket e-commerce platforms like Grailed, where they can fetch up to $800.
"Right now it's just a womens' brand, but that's not to say that there won't be men's projects in the future," says Williams.
For now, what Williams wants to do most is lay a solid foundation for his label. He hopes to build the kind of business that will outlast him — and is open to the idea of someone else taking the creative lead at Alyx one day. But first, the focus is on developing the design language and impressing his harshest critic: himself.
"As much press as you get or as much [clothing] as you sell — nobody can really validate what you do other than yourself," he says.
And so Wiliams and his team will keep doing what they do best: utilizing multiple platforms to build Alyx's story in a consistent and engaging manner. Like many promising young designers, Williams has entertained the idea of working for a larger house, collaborating on grander scale projects, and has thought about crossing over into men's — but right now he has the luxury of taking his time. "I kind of just trust that those things will come when they should, and when I'm ready."