A few weeks ago, The Weeknd illuminated the Superbowl half-time show in his fully-crystalled Givenchy jacket. Designer Matthew Williams has prior experience with such performances through his long-time association with music and musicians. He knows what works in stadiums. That’s why he chose a 50,000-seater for his first physical presentation for Givenchy. Go big…or go home. He stuck with the plan even when Covid nixed the live audience element. That’s how the Givenchy show on Sunday night came to take place in a massive, shadowy, unpeopled space, with a monumental cathedral of light dwarfing the puny humans at the heart of it all. Williams grasped his challenge. He pumped up the volume on his mens- and womenswear, ramped up the urgency of his models as they veered backwards and forwards across an illuminated square in the middle of the empty stadium.
You got the why. The show was the culmination of a dream for Williams. He’s made it all the way from Pismo Beach to the pinnacle of fashion: the creative directorship of an actual French maison. His appointment last June sparked controversy — another white male claiming another top design job — but he himself seemed remarkably sanguine on Sunday, especially compared to the tense, tailored, newly blonded Matt who fronted the lookbook launch of Givenchy’s spring collection in October. Now the blond was gone. Williams’s hair was real again. Like he’d found himself at Givenchy. “It’s a continuous process,” he countered. “I’m always finding myself.”
Still, the clothes he showed established a clear compatibility between his own design ethos (as defined by his label 1017 Alyx 9SM) and whatever he imagines Givenchy to be. Of all his fellow graduates from the streetwear scene, Williams has shown the greatest instinct for the foundations of high fashion: cut and fabric. He said the atelier at Givenchy has given him an opportunity to explore them further. “The tailoring’s the number one thing. Just the way the waist is shaped, the shoulder is constructed. I’ve never worked with that kind of knowhow.” Hubert de Givenchy’s signature silhouette was a strong shoulder tapering to a narrow waist, preferably in a shade of black. Williams’s fingertip jackets would have looked familiar to Hubert, though the asymmetrical wrap skirts that went with them maybe less so. Likewise the bared breasts. “Female empowerment,” said Williams. His male models were generally masked and swaddled in substantial duvet jackets, in stark contrast to his women, some of whom were sheathed in second-skin sheer, or less. “The men were uncovered last season,” he said. “On my runway, genders own their sensuality. A woman is free to show her body, and own it.” Williams is Californian. Half a century ago, Rudi Gernreich, another Californian designer, made a similar statement with his clothes. Matt’s a fan.
The overriding impression was less sensual than tough, hard, aggressive. It was partly the ominous, looming emptiness of the space, filled up by Detroit techno OG Robert Hood’s soundtrack. The footwear, huge clumpy things that looked a bit like McQueen’s Armadillo shoes (popularized by Lady Gaga, Matt’s ex-partner) added an edge appropriately described by Williams as “extra-terrestrial”. But a closer reading told another story. Under the industrial trappings, there was an artisanal warmth in pieces made with boro, the Japanese patchwork technique. Trousers were tailored from soft knits. Men’s nylon coats reversed to snuggly faux fur. Williams agreed that this was the influence of the moment, an expression of a need for comfort and escape. “When you think about that space we created with the show, it’s still dreamlike,” he added. “It’s still taking you away from everything for a moment. That’s something that fashion can always offer.”
He also acknowledged that this collection, this show were his Ground Zero, a blank slate for his tenure at Givenchy. Someone he trusts completely just told him, “The only person you have to please is yourself.” At night, he plays Robert Hood loud and dances on his own while his neighbours bang on the walls.