Hmm, I found myself thinking on Saturday night, perched beneath a glowing oval of light in a Paris arena with a jillion other people at the Givenchy show. Hmmmmmmm.
I was thinking “Hmmmm” because of a strange quality present. You see, there was an “original score” (in creative director Matthew Williams’s words) by Young Thug, good California-kid casting (long glossy hair!), hype-fluent products like big stompy bubbly boots and laundry bag backpacks, and a thematic consistency down to the free bottles of black lemonde. In other words, the show had all the right stuff for a successful live runway debut for Williams, who joined the house in late summer 2020 and has been churning out digital collections since, including a lookbook for his first collection shot by Heji Shin that I really adored.
So why did everything feel so….Hmmmmm?
Interestingly, a lot of people who saw the show only on Instagram seemed to adore it. Williams is a natural fit for the brand, which has been a playground for some of the fashion world’s foremost princes of darkness, including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, and veered more towards an elegantly old-fashioned chic under Williams’s predecessor, Clare Waight Keller. But in person, it was hard to square these clothes with the wider moods of sensuality and freedom that have captured not just the fashion world but pop culture: they weren’t quite conceptual enough to make the case that they stood for something different. The problem with being cool is that it’s very easy to slide into being cold.
There was something curious about the collaboration with New York-based and Tennessee-born artist Josh Smith. Smith’s sunsets-n-palm trees attitude and rich Matisse tones are a great spiritual match for Williams, who seems to ping-pong between spaced out Californian and hard-edged city dweller. These days, though, the fine art collaboration is feeling a little run down, so to work, the premise demands a kind of purity. Apparently, Williams met Smith through the David Zwirner gallery. (He’s also rumored to be dating Zwirner’s daughter Marlene.) That’s perhaps a little too back-scratchy as a collab’s raison d’etre.
I felt a little different when I went to the showroom the following day. Up close, the details are pretty fabulous, like a men’s blazer with sleeves chopped at the shoulder to reveal a layer cake of padding and rubber. Some of the pieces are even zany (men’s thigh-high leather boots? Honestly, alright!). And the Smith garments are good ‘gram bait, especially the jeans and a turtleneck, plus a ropey handmade hoodie that looks like a baja hoodie for an art connoisseur. There’s obviously an Art Basel-hopping customer for jeans painted by Josh Smith. Of course, the Givenchy atelier is a beacon of craftsmanship and you can tell that Williams, who adores technical innovation, is having a blast getting the team to whip up weird new zippers, little bloomer panties, bizarro outerspace-y fabrics, and little passimenterie details. The clothes would look pretty fantastic on you if you weren’t just a thin body but a slammin’ one—this is clothing for those who have disciplined themselves into taut musculature through an unforgiving regimen of juice (or goth lemonade and leafy greens. The menswear is a bit more forgiving, though the beefy hoodies and tailored jackets felt strongest as a foundational palette for the accessories.
So what accounts for the Hmmmm? Williams is clearly channeling McQueen, and he is also a longtime friend and collaborator to Kanye West. (Several other attendees brought up comparisons to Yeezy Season 1, down to the dreamscape-y soundtrack, which Williams worked on.) Those are men who have mined often-dark psychology to imbue their work with drama and intense pathos, with the threat of financial or spiritual ruin ever-present. I don’t know if Williams needs to go that far. Riccardo Tisci, Weight Keller’s predecessor, was a serious lord of dark-pop fashion yet always seemed bubbly enough. You don’t have to put your demons on the runway to make the clothing move. Waight Keller was much more of a classicist—a product of the fashion system who thought and dreamed with great nuance. Her designs, especially her menswear, were driven by a sort of precious and occasionally hunky flou. Still, she was obsessive about fit and cut, and could spend hours getting a pant hem or a shoulder just right. She had an ideal of perfection in mind, though it was about freedom rather than control.
It seems to me that Williams believes he’s doing dark and disciplinarian clothes when in fact his love for control, over fabric and fit and his palette of references, is leading him to do a gothier version of the Waight Keller way of making clothing. He is too conservative with his thinking, maybe, and too attached to his references, certainly, which feel outdated, especially his interest in sculpted neoprene and bonded tailoring. But he makes truly terrific products—I’d buy those big stomper boots and the pumpkin raffia bag, and probably the crazy laundry bag if I weren’t allergic to logos—and the pieces are well-made and fun to look at. The question is whether Williams wants us to have fun, or is chasing after something else. If it’s the latter, he should be ready to be confrontational, to offend. (His partnership with Shin suggests he might be.) One wonders: if he had someone to add a little tension to his life, like a fresh young stylist, an unexpected photographer, or a house muse from outside the Kardashian industrial complex, things might look radically different. More relaxed, more personal, and perhaps most importantly, more unhinged.