Meet Matthew Williams, Givenchy’s new Creative Director
For the first time in years, the relatively lifeless fashion house Givenchy has made headlines with their recent appointment of a new creative director, Matthew Williams. But who actually is Williams, and does it remain noteworthy that a major fashion house has appointed yet another white man to achieve their creative vision?
Williams has already made a name for himself in the fashion industry, after co-founding his own street-style come high-fashion hybrid label, 1017 ALYX 9SM (more widely just known as Alyx) in 2015. The label, which is rooted in contemporary culture, was then shortlisted for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers in 2016. Though the brand did not hold their first runway until 2018, the understated event boasted a star-studded audience, featuring the likes of Kanye West – whom Williams had already worked with to create a sound-sensitive jacket in 2008 – and A$AP Rocky. The brand has since cultivated a cult-like following, becoming a firm favourite for celebrity models like the Hadids.
The Alyx designer credits Californian skate culture, which he was fully immersed in whilst growing up, as a major influence on his understanding of fashion. This influence translates into his fashion brand Alyx, creating an unusual hybrid of smart tailoring, alongside a more industrial, utility-style. Alyx’s collections have featured anything from an oversized utility vest to a fitted blazer and the infamous ‘roller-coaster buckle’. Williams’ style feels uniquely contemporary and will hopefully be a breath of fresh air for Givenchy, though perhaps the roller-coaster buckles should remain firmly with Alyx.
Obviously, it would not be fair to judge Williams’ influence at Givenchy as a creative until his first runway show. I, for one, am intrigued to see how Williams is able to redirect the stale fashion house in a new, more current style whilst still honouring their traditional roots. Williams is exciting as a contemporary creative talent, made all the more noteworthy with the emphasis he places on sustainability. The Alyx designer views sustainability as a necessity and a value which all designers ought to share. He has been known to use everything from up-cycled cotton to recycled nylon from Scandinavian fishing line. Hopefully, this ethical approach will persist within his work at Givenchy and help create a more sustainable norm within high fashion, an issue which is becoming increasingly pertinent. This focus on sustainability exists as further evidence for Williams’ contemporary approach, he wants to generate change, be something new.
However, Givenchy’s appointment of the Alyx designer, though an intriguing decision in itself, actually caught my attention due to the method of announcement. On June 15th, Givenchy’s official Instagram released a series of six thematic images which focused solely on Matthew Williams, and his apparently very important tattoos. The images are all in black and white, all feel self-indulgent, and uncomfortably draw attention to the divide between the directing creative, Williams, and the team who will be working with him on creating the clothes. Subtle differences, like the fact the workers are all in masks when Williams is not wearing one, seems to suggest that Williams is the only identity worth seeing, worth knowing. This awkward disparity between leader and workers also does not marry up well with the crafted image of Alyx, which is notably community-focused and has its roots in family (the fashion label is even named after Williams’ eldest daughter). I was not the only one who is uncomfortable with the photos; Instagram users were quick to comment on the ‘dictatorial’ and ‘super weird’ nature of the chosen images, and the infamous account ‘Diet Prada’ drew attention to Givenchy’s questionable publicity choice.
I wondered if this was standard Givenchy, the routine upon the appointment of a new creative director. However, a quick scroll through the Instagram page revealed that this was far from true. Williams’ predecessor and Givenchy’s only ever female creative director, Clare Waight Keller, only had a single black and white headshot dedicated to the announcement of her appointment in 2017. Possibly making matters worse, this single headshot of a leading woman was balanced out by a matching portrait of the founder Hubert de Givenchy (yes, another white man). I understand publicity methods change, there are new ways of doing things, and the choice to draw direct parallels between Clare and the founder of Givenchy is, in itself, potentially flattering (there is something there about a return to the company’s roots which is not as relevant to Williams’ unusual appointment), but this disparity between the treatment of a male director and a female director does feel uncomfortable, unequal, and feeds into the fashion industry’s tendency to place these white male creatives on a pedestal. Think, Karl Lagerfeld, Lee McQueen, now Matthew Williams? How many of their female or BIPOC counterparts can you name? This is not an attempt to discredit these white male designers, all of whom are/were undeniable visionaries, it just feels like further evidence of a stark gendered inequality in the fashion industry. There is a peculiar bias which favours men in an industry mostly made up of and dedicated to women, the sort of bias the industry should be attempting to resolve rather than perpetuate.
The distasteful nature of this social media announcement was exacerbated by how tone-deaf it felt in the current social climate and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. What began as a protest against a pattern of police abuse of black citizens, soon gained traction and evolved to highlight the wider issue of systemic racism and inequality in all in infrastructures, not least that of the fashion industry. The presence of this movement on social media platforms has seen a rise in performative activism, where people post passively on social media in ‘support’ without offering any substantial help (e.g. signing petitions, making donations, providing educational resources), treating this essential movement as they would any social media trend. Many fashion brands, Givenchy included, have posted a black square to their Instagram page ‘in support’ of the movement, whilst simultaneously being part of an industry known for its inequality and complete lack of diversity. These same companies are taking a few genuine steps to support black workers and creatives in fashion, where they could make some actual, tangible change. Racism in the fashion industry is a problem which runs deep and cannot simply be corrected with a shallow Instagram post, much less one which fails to even include further useful or educational resources. It is worth mentioning that Williams has been slightly more supportive than Givenchy. As part of Alyx, he has released a £64 Anti-Racist Action T-shirt with all proceeds from sales going towards the National Bail Out, Campaign Zero and The Freedom Fund. Some were quick to label this a PR move, with the print on the T-shirt too small to raise actual awareness for the issue. Certainly, though, it is more in tune with the movement and does aim to at least provide some financial support - something you might expect from a designer inspired by ‘streetwear’, which is intrinsically tied to black culture.
As if to cement the performative nature of Givenchy’s supposed support/activism, it is very obvious that more thought, more time and even just more posts have gone into the announcement of Williams’ appointment as creative director than have been dedicated to the BLM Movement. The French fashion house appears to draw a virtual line on their Instagram, reducing the BLM movement to a BLM moment. It is as if they had done their bit with their three empty posts and could now return to business as usual, starting with the hiring of yet another white male to lead their creative team.
This is without even mentioning that the third post in support of the BLM Movement (however superficial this support may be) is also dedicated to the announcement of their new white creative director through a snippet of a voice recording from Matthew Williams himself, with the socio-political climate only alluded to. This is nothing against Williams, he is a creative talent and one I feel will be an exciting force at Givenchy; one who is more aware of the changing ideals of contemporary society. Unfortunately, it is hard to not read his appointment as a reflection of an industry which is failing to diversify and change with the society around it.
Tackling racism in the fashion industry extends beyond the use of a black model in a campaign as a token of diversity. It will involve providing equal opportunity, equal treatment and equal pay, to everyone involved, regardless of race or gender. From those who work to make the garments, all the way up to those who become CEO’s or leading creative directors, it is about eliminating cultural appropriation and instead embracing talent from these cultures. They are, after all, the ones who know it best. Givenchy’s appointment of an exciting young designer had the potential to be something great. But in the wake of BLM, the tone-deaf introduction makes this feel like a tired step sideways, rather than the stride forward that the fashion industry desperately needs.
Georgia Hawthorne Fashion and Luxury Goods Ambassador
Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society