Matthew Williams on his Givenchy debut and what Kanye taught him

By Vanessa Friedman

Matthew Williams, a 34-year-old American from Pismo Beach, California, with no formal fashion training, took the reins this week at Givenchy in what was the biggest — and only — debut in Paris.

Here, in an interview that has been edited, he talks to The New York Times about what it was like to start in a pandemic and how his background working with Kanye West and Lady Gaga prepared him for the job.

Q: You just had your big reveal. How do you feel?

A: Really excited, and just happy. My mom came to visit yesterday. I hadn’t seen her in nine months. We just had like a quiet dinner and caught up. This morning I went around to all the studios and just thanked the teams for their help because it was really a mission getting everything done in the past 60 days.

Q: You’ve talked a lot about the fact that even though you have a somewhat unconventional fashion background, you always dreamed of running a big brand in Paris. But you probably never dreamed of running a big brand during a pandemic. So is this a case of be careful what you wish for?

A: I think I never really understood the scale until I was actually here. It takes some getting used to. But big companies like this have the structure to be able to do everything that needs to get done.

Q: When most people hear Givenchy, they still think of Audrey Hepburn. Is that something you relate to, or do you think of a different kind of muse?

A: Well, I definitely relate to it in that my first muses, who I made costumes for, were Kanye and Gaga. That idea of a relationship with an entertainer really resonates with me. And I love that there is this connection with Hollywood, which is really natural for me because that was my way into fashion, being from California.

Hollywood was the closest place that I could begin making clothing, and that led to New York City and then Europe, so there is that genuine relationship between entertainment and fashion for me, and for the house.

Q: Why did you decide to have a presentation rather than a big show for your first collection?

A: I wanted this first collection to really be about the product, and showing a vision for the casting and the models. A lot of my choices are really emotional — things that I feel are desirable or, with the menswear, what I want to wear myself. Like the blazer I was wearing yesterday. I love how boxy the fit was, and how easy it was. It could be dressed up or dressed down with jeans, or with elevated tailored pants that maybe have more stretch than usual.

But it also didn’t feel like the right time to be doing a show, for many reasons, including not being able to have my friends and family from America and Asia be able to come and be a part of it. So it seemed better to have a humble approach.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about the need for a reset and a new way of working in fashion. Are you using your new start to change any of the existing systems?

A: As far as the pace of the collections, we’re showing men’s and women’s together. So that’s one change. I think it’s important always to evaluate the system that you’re working in and try not to perpetuate out-of-date models.

We also have amazing access and direct communication to our customer now, and I think that will change what we make. In the past, merchandising and ordering was really defined by guessing what people wanted, but maybe in the future there will be ways that products can really be produced more specifically to the consumers’ needs.

Q: You’ve never worked with a couture atelier before. How is it?

A: I mean, it’s incredible. Some of the members of the atelier have been working here for 20 years, and worked with Hubert himself and John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Riccardo Tisci. The knowledge and the pieces that we can create here are unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Q: Are you planning a couture show for January?

A: You’re going to have to stay tuned.

Q: How did working with Kanye and Gaga prepare you for Givenchy?

A: That’s really hard to synthesize in two sentences, but it was an amazing education being beside these two creatives when they were inventing, and still are, at a pace that was so fast.

It wasn’t like collections, where we’re working in seasons that take months. It was like every week a new idea and a new project and a new collaborator. That pace and work ethic was something that really stayed with me, and I’m really fortunate. It was really formative for me.

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