It’s August in Ferrara, Italy. In the middle of the day, it is silent, hot, with enigmatically empty streets and squares, just waiting for something to happen. These are the same kind of disconcerting spaces that appear in Giorgio di Chirico’s paintings – it’s the place where the artist formed the Metaphysical Art movement. While Michelangelo Antonioni was born, bred and buried here; the silence, tension and beauty of his films are completely echoed by this strange city’s hushed centre.
It’s one of those weird in-between places that the designer Matthew Williams just seems to gravitate to. He has lived here for two years with his wife and collaborator Jennifer Williams, his baby daughter Valetta, and the four-year-old Alyx – for Alyx is not only a fashion label, but also his elder daughter who has been known to announce: “I am Alyx, from the brand. It is named after me.” She appears in the accompanying shoot wearing an oversized snakeskin jacket.
“Nobody tells us anything here,” says Jenn. “We ask about stuff, but still don’t really know where to go.” Matt is on crutches at the moment, following a nasty leg break from playing soccer, something that will take months of treatment and physiotherapy to mend. As a family group, limping around the courtyard of a castle, they stick out like a sore thumb – they are Californians caught in the backdrop of a Renaissance painting. Classicism and alienation, coolness and warmth, real and unreal, there is something slightly crazed about the whole thing… It all adds to the story of Alyx, the brand.
“Storytelling is what is interesting to me and to other people,” says Matt. “After doing so much behind the scenes and investing so much in the stories of other people, I wanted to do something hyper-personal. Something that just felt like my way forward. That’s what Alyx is.”
He adds: “I wanted to do something with longevity that I could do day in and day out. Naming something after my daughter, that commitment felt necessary and personal. I did not just want to do a business; I wanted it to be what I do with my life now. I don’t think you can divide work from your life – this is my life.”
So maybe something should be said about the life of Matthew Williams as well as the stories of other people he has contributed to over the past decade. Of course, those other stories also say something about his life, and how he found himself limping around the Renaissance city of Ferrara.
Matthew Williams grew up in Pismo Beach, California. It’s another of those in-between places, geographically between LA and San Francisco, suspended between Southern and Northern California. And it’s weird. It is also the place that is the chief inspiration for the Alyx label.
“Where I am from is what is special,” explains Matt, who has at this point travelled all over the world. “It’s a Californian seaside town that has a history with Satanism – I only have a few more coins to pay off my debt to the devil…” and before anyone gets all het up about Gaga and The Illuminati, he’s joking. “I knew a girl who was murdered, stuffed in a tree – a sacrifice. And there were other weird killings. I remember the arcade that I would always go and play in, by the pier. There was such a dark situation going on with secret rooms, wild stuff… It later got exposed. It was all quite like the movie The Lost Boys, that town Santa Carla, Northern Californian seaside. But I just thought it was normal. I would go off to karate class above a pool hall and that was next to a Hell’s Angels bar. And that is actually where I saw some of my first streetwear; Stussy 8 Ball tees, stuff like that. The guy who taught me how to play soccer was from the pool hall; he came from Czechoslovakia. I think my dad might have paid him in dental work – my dad wanted me to be interested in sports. My karate instructor was from the South Bronx, so that was my intro to New York. He was also a correctional officer at the prison near my town, the California Men’s Colony. That’s where Tex Watson was, the accomplice of Charles Manson. A lot of people who were married to the prisoners lived in my town. But really, my karate instructor was my other father figure, black Puerto Rican and from the South Bronx. I spent so much time with him between the ages of five and twelve. And funnily enough, his wife was called Jennifer too. They had a major impact on my life.”
In many ways, this childhood monologue is all you need to know about Alyx: dark and light, protection and freedom, disciplined and wild, destructive and euphoric, pomp and pop; in other words, very Californian.
“Where I grew up is very unique and special and it almost sounds rough and tough the way I explain it now,” says Matt. “But it was a beautiful childhood – quite picturesque really. It was different from anywhere else in the world, that’s for sure.”
An aim to recreate the feeling of home, one looked at from different parts of the world, could perhaps be seen as one of the defining elements of Alyx. It is perhaps no surprise that for the shoot, an essential part of this story, Matthew Williams and the photographer Daniel Regan chose to focus on one of Matt’s later homes and the place that Dan very much calls home, basing most of his work there: Venice Beach.
“I suppose I wanted so many of those early experiences reflected in the shoot – and this is not something I have ever really done before,” explains Matt. “I grew up amongst all different kinds of cultures. My family had been farmers in that region of California for 100 years, hip-hop and skateboarding were so present, and surfing was something generations of people did. There was a big part of Mexican culture that I grew up with as well; my friends came from all sorts of backgrounds. Sometimes it’s hard to illustrate where my aesthetic comes from because those weird seaside towns in California are like nowhere else – this is something Dan understands very well. You just have to shoot there, and that’s why for this shoot we chose Venice.”
Matt landed in Venice around 2011 and got to know Dan soon after. It was something of an in-between time, coming off the back of his big creative collaboration with Lady Gaga. It had been a crazy time for Matthew Williams, meeting and starting to work with Gaga when they were both 22 years old, doing huge stadium shows, high profile music videos, massive shoots, travelling the world while the world looked on and more than paid attention.
Now, at 32, he feels some distance from that time. “It feels like a dream now – I am sure I have forgotten most of the things we did,” he laughs. “Sometimes I will be in a city and things will just come back to me. I’ll realise I have actually been there before… It was really fast-paced, all over the world. It was cool. But now, more or less, most artists have creative directors and stuff is not so bad. But then, there was sooo much bad stuff – I think we had it easier because we were doing not so bad stuff around lots of really bad stuff! He laughs again, Matt frequently does.
“I worked in fashion before music and I never really wanted to work in music,” he explains. “It had not been a goal of mine, but I was happy to work in it. I just took what I had learned from fashion and applied it. Although I was still really out of place in that music mix – I can only really work with musicians when they are my friends. There has to be trust. I was behind the curtain a lot. I wasn’t on Twitter saying look at what I did. I liked the work we did as a collaboration, if other people spoke about me that was fine, but it was nice for the work to get the attention, not me. Really, I always wanted to be a designer.”
In many ways Matthew Williams shrugs off his influence as a creative director in music and will often stress, “Gaga and Kanye are their own creative directors anyway.” And yet a decade ago, at a time when the link between music and fashion had been largely severed, he helped sew it back together again.
“I actually worked with Kanye before Gaga and then he asked me to come back around 2011-2012,” says Matt. “I was doing creative direction with Virgil Abloh – costumes, brand, collaborations, other musicians on the record label… But at the end of the day, Kanye is his own creative director, we just brought him brain food, stuff to shape the way he wanted it. Really, he knows more than anyone, he knows so much. He has the best taste.”
Nevertheless, there is a certain visual style then that correlates to what Alyx is now and relates heavily to Matthew Williams’ taste and relationships. Nick Knight’s videos for Black Skinhead and New Slaves, the crystal Margiela mask performances, the Seven Screen Experience, all hint at Williams’ future world beyond Kanye’s collective of creatives. Above all, what working in the music industry did give Matthew Williams was a radical notion of possibilities – of how to grow something big out of something little, of quickly and ambitiously creating a multi-layered world in fashion.
There is a word that is part of the parlance of Disney that seems to reflect Matthew Williams very well: Imagineer. In the wonderful world of Disney, the Imagineer is part of research and development, responsible for the creation, design and construction of Disney theme parks worldwide. In his own itinerant way, this is what Matthew Williams seems to do too. Whether it is a fashion show, a shoot, a collaboration with a sportswear giant, a stadium spectacular, or a music video, there is a sense of the Imagineer. Call it showmanship, the creation of worlds, or a belief in a distinct American vision sold worldwide, Matthew Williams wants to take everybody along for the ride.
It is only appropriate then that the distinct calling card of Alyx is not a silhouette or a garment but a buckle. It’s a distinctive buckle found on harnesses from rides at Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in California, and another part of the origin story of Alyx. Since 2015 and the foundation of Alyx in Saint Marks Place New York – hence the brand’s name change to 1017 ALYX 9SM, the last bit is 9 Saint Marks, the site of the first Alyx studio, the first bit Matt’s birthday – that buckle has spread far and wide. It has also transformed into a high fashion incarnation to become the Christian Dior CD fastening, featured heavily in Kim Jones’ first men’s collection for the house, with Williams openly credited.
Yet Alyx is now far beyond buckles. At the same time as Kim Jones debuted for Dior for the Spring-Summer 19 season, Matthew Williams had his first Alyx catwalk show in Paris – it is these looks that are illustrated on these pages. After living full time in Ferrara for two years, setting up a studio in the city, immersing himself fully with the factories that make the clothes, the Paris show could perhaps be seen as the first full flourish of Alyx and Matthew Williams’ absolute arrival as a designer. While this is certainly not the beginning of the end, it might well be seen as the end of the beginning. The first chapter of the story of Alyx is over – the rest is yet to come.