MILAN — Matthew Williams, founder and creative director of women’s and men’s fashion brand 1017 Alyx 9SM, is one of those guys who can unquestionably be considered cool. Born in Chicago but raised in California immersed into the skate culture, he cut his teeth at Alexander McQueen, made a name for himself working as creative director for Lady Gaga and counts Kanye West and Kim Jones as his professional godfathers — the latter actually designed his and his wife Jenny’s wedding outfits and also asked Williams to design a series of roller-coaster belt buckles for his debuting show at Dior.
A year before launching 1017 Alyx 9SM in 2015, Williams cofounded men’s street brand Been Trill in collaboration with Heron Preston, Virgil Abloh, Justin Saunders and YWP. As for the moniker 1017 Alyx 9SM, it bears the name of Williams’ eldest daughter, while the numbers reference the designer’s birth date and an abbreviation of the brand’s first studio on Saint Mark’s Place in New York City.
Just a year after establishing his own brand, Williams was in Delphine Arnault’s radar and selected among the finalists of the LVMH Prize.
Kicked off as a men’s wear brand, 1017 Alyx 9SM expanded into women’s wear in 2017 and in June 2018 made its runway debut at Paris Fashion Week with a coed runway show.
While rooted into a streetwear aesthetic, 1017 Alyx 9SM stands out from the crowd for Williams’ ability to seamlessly integrate workwear and most of all tailoring elements into an urban, modern wardrobe.
The brand, which is already distributed by the most prestigious stores in the world, including Ssense, 10 Corso Como, Dover Street Market, Joyce, Galeries Lafayette and Browns, just to cite a few, is gearing up to open shops-in-shop at Nordstrom and Selfridges in September.
“I have been following Matt and Jennifer for a couple of seasons already. I was intrigued by the first show and very surprised by the second fashion show especially how it was so developed in the space of few months. I loved the combination between sophistication and the modernity of the [fall 2019] collection. So I decided to have a chat with Matt and Jenn to understand their aspiration for the future. I really liked what they said,” said Sebastian Manes, Selfridges buying and merchandising director. “I wanted to support them by giving Alyx a great shop on our designer floor. Matt and Jenn are a great team, so I feel very strong about their potential. It’s only the second season we carry their brand, the first results were promising but now with the boutique, we are taking together the challenge to the next level and we are both mega excited about it.”
Williams, who has just moved to Milan from Ferrara, where he relocated a couple of years ago to be closer to the factories producing his collections, sat with WWD to discuss the most original idea behind his brand, his relationship with his business partner, streetwear guru Luca Benini, how sustainability really matters to him and upcoming projects.
WWD: What’s Alyx for you?
Matthew Williams: That’s a really open question. I think when I started the brand it was important for me to approach a project that was really personal. So I pull from as much inspiration from my personal life as possible. It’s kind of an ongoing personal monologue, that’s how I would kind of characterize it.…I know that’s kind of vague, but I try as much as I can to put emotion into the work, as much as I can, as much as possible.
WWD: How is this evolving?
M.W.: Really naturally, I mean, we like to say at the brand that it is about evolution, not revolution, so we are working on similar silhouettes, similar materials, trying to make it better each season, kind of like adding to our design ethos with the same materials, same silhouettes and trying to make it better, as good as it can each time. But it’s been a really slow and steady growth. We started with the women’s wear for the first three years, and then launched men’s, and now we show them together, so they really have a dialogue with one another using similar silhouettes and similar materials and such.
WWD: What’s the proportion in terms of business between men’s and women’s wear?
M.W.: It’s 50/50.
WWD: What’s the most exciting aspect of the job at Alyx?
M.W.: I think just the people I get to interact with and collaborate with, whether that’s my internal team or the shows with the models, the styling, you know, the special projects we get to make with OK-RM, who are like our art directors we work with in London. We do printed materials with them each year, so I think the collaborations with people is really exciting for me.
WWD: It’s something quite unexpected for an American guy with an international background to move to such a small town like Ferrara. Why did you decide to do that?
M.W.: I just felt that was the only way to really get the kind of product that I wanted to make. It was the only way to actually do it, just becoming an actual person in all of the factories, not just being a name in an e-mail, you know what I mean, and trying to really work closely to make something new, make something different and define where our own voice was. And so that takes time, and energy and effort and passion and getting everybody to work together toward that goal, so yes, it was the natural move. And my family, we all committed to doing it that together, which was a big choice, but in the end we are really happy that we made it.
WWD: Your wife works with you, right? She does sales…
M.W.: Yes, but she is also involved in the creative part and she is a big inspiration for everything.
WWD: Where do you find inspirations?
M.W.: Just all around, my wife, sometimes it would come from a fabric swatch or an image or conversation, so it’s really open.
WWD: Tell me about Luca Benini, your business partner.
M.W.: We have similar backgrounds in music and similar likes in fashion, you know he comes from streetwear and I originally met him through my wife and through the guys at Stussy, so we have a lot of similar interests and friends, and he really believed in me from the beginning, which is really amazing and he just offered the support from like so many different angles to make it become what it is today. Can’t thank him enough.
WWD: Your latest show was very focused on tailoring. Ho do you keep streetwear, workwear and tailoring together?
M.W.: Well I think tailoring was something we’ve been approaching for a while, but you know, it’s such a big challenge when there are so many houses that have been doing amazing tailoring for a long time, especially in Italy, there are so many brands that people really go to for tailoring. So as a young brand I feel that you have to propose something new with it, and a lot of times, you know, the sartoria [tailor’s shop in English] does the tailoring very like “This is the way you have to do it,” and even for us as a business it takes time to be able to sell well-made jackets, you know, with that kind of construction and everything. So we are very lucky to have as a supplier Caruso, which is very famous. They have their own brand and they also do Dior, Louis Vuitton.…We worked with them for the first season, this season, and they really offered their support and belief. We weren’t able to make jackets like that before, so we’ve done more unconstructed stuff, but these ones are more like fully canvased, really done in a really proper way, so it took the belief in them that we as a young brand could make products like that and sell products like that. You know, before that, you really had the limitation of what we had access to, and sometimes I prefer not to make something that’s like in the middle. And I think that the runway shows have also helped us with being able to portray that kind of image that we want, you know, before of that it was look books and you know…
WWD: Do you think the younger generations are actually attracted to tailoring?
M.W.: I think it’s one of those things that goes in waves for everybody, but it’s something that I’m always attracted to and always wear in my wardrobe.
WWD: What do you think is the key to get these new generations closer to tailoring?
M.W.: I don’t really know; I don’t have the answer for that, but maybe just seeing the designer they are into propose interesting versions of it. I think there are two ways of approaching it. There’s using traditional materials and traditional constructions that’s really interesting and then maybe then there is another direction that is more using materials that, you know, are maybe more unconstructed and don’t crease much, or are more technical or easy to travel with and more casual that you can just wear with jeans, sneakers and a shirt. I think both of those directions are quite interesting to explore.
WWD: Sustainability is something you really care and you have always tried to pursue with your brand. What do you think is going to be your approach in the future?
M.W.: Well, we’ve already been working with sustainable materials for three years. We have it in a lot of categories. In leather, we focus on using as little water as possible, so we’ve been working with a process that was developed by Ecco Leather, which dyes the leather using carbonic-acid gas. So they expand the gas super fast and it becomes liquid and then it pushes the pigment into the skins, and when they stop, the CO2 gas becomes gas again and just evaporates, so that’s nearly a waterless process and it’s using the moisture that’s already in the hides to dye the leather, so we focused on saving water with the leather. With the T-shirts, we use textile remnants so waste that ends up on the cutting room floor gets reground and new yarn is made from it and then new T-shirts from that. So that we’ve been doing for three years now. Wherever you see like a visual label, Alyx visual is used with that, two types, for solid colors, it’s completely waterless, so we use the color of waste makes that color of shirt, and then we also have garment diversions, which is like natural cotton that is prepared for dye but it’s still up-cycled cotton using that same process. And then, for the technical fabrics, we have like our black nylon section, it’s a 100 percent recycled nylon, and we also have the section that we work with Swing and Econyl, and Econyl uses reclaimed fishing nets to do the nylon…so those are the three traditional sustainable techniques that we are using.
But I think in general, you know, the most sustainable thing is to make something that lasts for a very long time and that has value in the customer’s heart. So a lot of times luxury clothes are that, people, you know, spend more money than fast fashion on them, they tend to keep them longer and making something that is made in Italy with the amazing manufacturers and craftsmen, you know, those things are going to last more than fast fashion, so that’s sustainable as well. I think that’s one thing that I’m really trying to pursue, like what is this version of modern craftsmanship? How can we use the technology that is available to us with the artisan approach and find a new way to create modern craftsmanship? And so that’s kind of what I am most interested in exploring…because you know that a lot of the traditional luxury has craftsmanship. If you think about Hermès or Chanel, you know, there’s a real language to the craftsmanship and…it’s like what can we do to modernize that? And also when you look to some of those luxury products, even if somebody doesn’t know fashion, they can tell that it’s been touched by hand, or it is very obvious the value in the product, so that’s something that I want to keep exploring.
WWD: What’s your average customer?
M.W.: Average customer? It’s hard because I think we have a really broad customer base depending on what store it is and where in the world. But it’s a really wide range, because we have entry-level price products and graphic T-shirts all the way to a tailoring jacket made by Caruso. You know, so it’s really broad.
WWD: Is the business growing?
M.W.: Yeah, each year it’s doubling.
WWD: Are you considering opening stores?
M.W.: We’d like to in the future. Our first shop-in-shop is opening in Selfridges in September and then we are opening seven temporary stores with Nordstrom in September. And we’ll also have some with I.T. in China in October. So we are kind of slowly gearing up and then hopefully in 2020 there’ll be some permanent ones.
WWD: Where would you like to open?
M.W.: We’ll see. I don’t know, wherever it makes sense, I don’t want to commit to a place.
WWD: What’s the biggest market for the brand?
M.W.: It’s equal everywhere in the world — 30 percent North America, 30 percent Europe, 30 percent Asia. I think that’s one exciting thing about today, because of the Internet everybody is aware of our brand, and it’s equally growing everywhere. In the past, maybe, it would’ve grown in New York first and then, you know, L.A. and then maybe we’d have gone to the U.K. and then slowly Japan and Asia. But now, you know, it’s everywhere at the same time, which is pretty exciting.
WWD: What’s your relationship with technology?
M.W.: I try to just find a balance in my life with it, you know. You can be 24/7 on that and I think it’s a great tool to communicate and use it when we can to communicate about projects or ideas. But I like to live in the real world an equal amount of time, especially with my kids, you know, put my phone away in the weekends and just be with them.
WWD: You developed quite many collaborations in the past few years. What do you think is going to be the future of collaborations?
M.W.: Everybody approaches them differently. For us, it’s really important that our collaborations are ongoing, so it’s not just a marketing tactic. It’s important that our collaborations allow us or the collaborator to make a product or communicate a concept in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. We also learn a lot from our collaborators and gain resources whether that’s in suppliers or fabrics, contacts, or you know, learning another team’s approach. Also, like in the case of Moncler, we have been able to do amazing quality jackets that we would normally never be able to produce or also make products at a price point that we would normally not be able to have a customer to buy, you know. And the same with Nike: we are able to make amazing, technologically advanced clothing and shoes at a price point that is more affordable than Alyx. So it’s kind both of those spectrums…
WWD: Is there any collaboration you would love to do? Or any product category?
M.W.: Yeah…I mean, I’m happy with the collaborators we have now, but we are always open to other ones that are exciting. We have a lot at the moment, though.
WWD: Are you still working with Mackintosh?
M.W.: Yes, we do Mackintosh, and then all those suppliers are collaborations, so our collaboration with Vibram, that we do each season with Nike and Alyx. Then we have Ecco Leather, we work with AMF, which is the only sustainable metal supplier in the world so all the galvanization process is done with the robots, no human touches the chemicals, here in Italy. AMF is incredible, they do lots of work for Chanel and Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and all the water in the factories is recycled, same thing with Ecco Leather. So we are really trying to identify this group of suppliers that are sustainable and then we also promote them, because I’d like other brands to use suppliers that are sustainable, you know what I mean….We also work with Majocchi, which is an amazing technical supplier here and we launched with them a dyeing process called “Water Zero” with them, which is amazing.
WWD: What’s the next big goal?
M.W.: I think just continue, you know; I think continuing is the most difficult thing. Just get better at what we do.
WWD: Are you planning to continue showing in Paris?
M.W.: Yeah. We are really fortunate to be able to show there. I think Paris has always been a place that’s welcomed international designers, and we are really proud to be able to show there, and appreciative. It’s great to be able to be on the official schedule.
WWD: You are setting up an office in Milan, right?
M.W.: Yeah, we have a small design studio. So the sales and marketing work here [at Spazio Maiocchi] and then my design studio is in a small apartment.
WWD: How many people work with you in the design team?
M.W.: I think we have around six people in Porta Venezia.
WWD: Your wife walked the show in June…how did it happen?
M.W.: I’ve wanted her to walk the show for a while but our stylist Lotta Volkova she was just like “Jen, you should definitely walk the show!” I think it was her asking that made Jen say yes, so yeah, then she walked in and it was like a really amazing moment when she walked on the runway. It was cheering from the whole crowd, you know, you don’t really see that on a fashion show that much. I think that the people who didn’t know her were like “Why’s everybody yelling for that model?”