Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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    The Very Tactical Ascent of Givenchy Designer Matthew Williams

    At least, this is the bet that Givenchy’s parent company, LVMH, has made on the young American. But it’s also a return to form for the house. After all, it was Riccardo Tisci’s 12-year tenure (2005 to 2017) that imbued Givenchy with a reputation for viral iconography and demonstrated that there was luxury-label money to be made with the most basic of garments. (Long live the Rottweiler T-shirt.) Like Williams, Tisci was one of Kanye West’s strongest creative allies, and the rapport supercharged Givenchy’s connection to the hip-hop world. Tisci’s success helped forge a path for LVMH’s current stars—designers like Kim Jones, now running Dior Men and designing womenswear at Fendi, who was responsible for bringing Supreme to the Louis Vuitton runway. There’s also, of course, Jones’s replacement at Vuitton, Virgil Abloh—a friend of Williams’s and another key figure in the greater Kanye ecosystem who charted a course from music to streetwear to European fashion. If Abloh’s appointment in 2018 marked a sea change in fashion, a sign that legacy houses were ready to shake things up, Williams’s hiring showed that they’re doubling down, continuing to draw on a young, hyper-relevant talent pool that understands a newly viral, highly online, image-forward fashion universe.

    Williams’s post at Givenchy is not just another design job. The role itself is a kind of megaphone that will enable him to share his boldest ideas with a massive audience. But in another sense, the position could ultimately become an audition for even grander things: It’s a chance to determine whether Williams can become one of The Greats. Given how quickly these houses can switch up leadership—Keller lasted three years in the job—anything can happen.

    A critical component in Williams’s quick rise has been his talent for understanding accessories—namely hardware and bags for men. When Jones wanted to revitalize John Galliano’s trademark Saddle bag and transform it into a menswear item at Dior, he called upon Williams to collaborate on it, making it, as Jones said, “even more masculine.” The items that Williams is examining with his design team today—the bags—are essentially his bread and butter. Everyone here, it seems, is still getting a feel for Williams’s creative vision, and they’re all eager to please, eager to hear what he thinks.

    At one point a Givenchy employee models a piece. The man tugs hard on the straps. “These things are working, I think,” he tells Williams, who studies what he sees. Williams claims that he’s not a savvy businessman—he will happily leave the global matrix of consumer demographics and merchandising strategies to his colleagues. (“Sometimes it’s not about selling things. It’s about it existing for the mood,” he explains.) Still, his focus is naturally trained on the characteristics that make an item sellable. At the design meeting, he is quick to invoke the context of the store, how a certain piece will be presented to the consumer (should a piece be sold separately or as a set?), or how something is going to come across in an image. Fashion is increasingly a market where pieces go viral just like hit singles or memes; they live and die by their shareability.

    Williams gestures toward his colleague, who is sagging under the weight of that rucksack, and it becomes clear that the designer’s mind has moved beyond straps and buckles, beyond notions of craftsmanship and fit. He’s working ahead of all that, thinking now about how he can lodge the product into the consumer’s brain. Calling it the “Givenchy backpack,” he seems to realize, simply won’t do. “Can we give that thing a name?” he asks.

    There’s a photograph of Williams and Kanye West from Alyx’s debut runway show that still floats around the internet. It’s a generic image taken during Fashion Week a few years ago and not particularly remarkable unless you look closely at Williams’s hands, which are gripping, inconspicuously, a pair of forearm crutches. The crutches are pretty chic, as far as medical equipment goes: Jet-black and minimalistic, with an air of absurdity, they almost enhance Williams’s outfit. In fact, when he sported these crutches on the runway following his first Alyx show, some spectators thought that they were a design object—yet another document of his obsession with the space where high function intersects with fantasy. They were of a piece with the teched-out, accessory-minded sphere of his aesthetic vision. One can imagine them styled in a glass display case at Barneys (R.I.P.) next to elaborate water bottles and leather fanny packs, with a retail price of $1,295.

    But in fact, Williams had an urgent, real-life need for the crutches. In 2018, as he was working in Milan and growing Alyx, he played in a charity soccer match. During the game, he remembers, “my mind thought I was still 18 years old. I was running really fast, and I changed direction in a quick way.” His femur slammed into his tibial plateau, and his leg shattered in five places. He had two metal plates and a handful of screws put into his leg and was rendered immobile for three months. “I had to learn to walk again,” Williams says. “It was a really difficult experience.” When I suggest that perhaps this ordeal may have inspired some of the hyper-functional Alyx ethos that generated items such as a chest pack, Williams demurs. “No,” he says, “but the chest rig was a helpful accessory during the time of my crutches, though. Definitely.”

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