The History and Influence of Matthew Williams' Alyx Studios
The History and Influence of Matthew Williams' Alyx Studios
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date June 15, 2020
Over the past decade, a new category developed within the menswear hierarchy. Often referred to as either "luxury streetwear" or the more reductive “street luxury,” the label is slapped on brands ranging from Off-White to Heron Preston and Palm Angels. Though the origin of the nomenclature is clear–brands that ostensibly make “streetwear” but with premium fabrics at a luxury price point—as a catch-all term the expression is dated, particularly following the Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration which destroyed any notion that capital-"F" fashion and streetwear are separate entities.
While many of these brands have overlapping themes ranging from a Kanye West connection to New Guards Group distribution, in reality, they are drastically different, with disparate references and wide-range of aesthetics. In fact, perhaps the only brand where the term “street luxury” actually applies is 1017 Alyx 9SM. Even though the name is often considered derogatory, in this case it’s the highest compliment.
The only “streetwear” brand run by a true fashionphile, 1017 Alyx 9SM (or simply “Alyx”) actually sits at the intersection of luxury and contemporary fashion. Run by a former skater who holds Stussy and archive Raf Simons in equal regard, designer Matthew Williams Alyx spends as much time developing its futuristic tailoring as reworking vintage California skate shop graphics into its upcycled long sleeve T-shirts. Though defining streetwear is increasingly difficult, no modern brand is more adept at mixing downtown references with runway quality, a paradigm that many attempt but often fall short.
Of course, it’s infamous “rollercoaster” buckle is a brand calling card, but beyond hardware Alyx’s ability to combine '90s subcultural nostalgia with prescient luxury trends is the envy of many—and a near perfect reflection of the current state of menswear. As we move further into the next decade, where buyers are increasingly searching for quality and utility as opposed to trend, Alyx is one of the few labels jotting the course as opposed to simply riding the wave. Now, how the brand managed to do so much in so little time as another question altogether. The answer is one man: Matthew Williams.
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Matthew Williams is the perfect example of hard working paying off. A college dropout who was more interested in skating and gear than a traditional four-year degree, Williams began his career at just 19, working for Keith Richardson (future founder of Mr. Completely) at notable Los Angeles label Corpus.
While working in production, Williams got his first taste for nightlife, going to clubs during the pre-camera phone days, a golden era for parties and DJs. Between playing sets and working on collections, Williams' rolodex grew alongside his talent, and a brand expansion and eventual acquisition led him to relocate to New York where he worked under former Supreme creative director and Noah founder Brendon Babenzien. Frequenting popular clubs while working with some of New York’s most celebrated names, Williams quickly became a noted downtown figure. Yet, after three years balancing designing and incessant party culture, Williams relocated to Los Angeles. It was there he met idol and future mentor, Kanye West.
Once again in Los Angeles, Williams was working in production when West’s then-stylist reached out to produce a custom suit jacket for the 2008 Grammy Awards. At the time, clothing production was a tightly guarded business, and Williams' ability to execute left an impression. Shortly thereafter, West reached out and offered Williams a position under his then creative director Willo Perron, working on West’s clothing concept, Pastelle. After sourcing all the original sewing team and developing concepts under Perron and West, Williams helped produce tour outfits for West. Though Pastelle was ultimately never released, West was clearly impressed with Williams, working with him on and off over the next decade.
During his time with West, Williams lived between Los Angeles and New York where, through mutual friends, he was introduced to a then-relatively niche musician: Lady Gaga. Having heard Williams worked on tour costumes, Gaga hired the designer to develop her stage presence for her initial showcase. Seeing an opportunity for a senior position with an emerging artist, Williams parted ways with West to work as Lady Gaga’s creative director, his first taste developing women’s conceptual stage design.
Given Gaga’s well noted passion for archival fashion, it was during this time that Williams worked with some of the most notable names in the industry, ranging from the late Alexander McQueen to famed stylish Nicola Formachetti and legendary photographer Nick Knight. Between developing costumes to working on fashion shoots and designing infamous custom pieces, including Gaga’s custom leather jackets, the Japanese graffiti Hermès Birkin bag and the iconic "meat dress"—Williams became just as comfortable developing and producing conceptual womenswear as he was designing men’s.
After more than three years with Lady Gaga, Williams—now with a unique perspective on both mens and womenswear—parted ways with the musician in order to pursue his lifelong passion for fashion in a serious way. Having grown familiar with Nick Knight following their mutual work on Gaga’s “Monster Ball” tour, Williams reached out to Knight asking for a position at SHOWStudio. Knight agreed, and for the next year, the designer worked as a SHOWStudio artistic director, studying under Knight, blogging and working on photography and fashion film.
Impressed by how Williams had grown, in 2012 West reached out once again and hired Williams to rejoin the team, now focusing on stage design and art direction for the European leg of the Watch The Throne tour. Working under Virgil Abloh, Williams grew close with not just West, but Abloh, Heron Preston and Justin Saunders; at the time, all were simply employed by West in varying capacities. Together, feeling a lull in nightlife, the foursome formed the infamous #BEENTRILL# collective, a now-iconic crew of DJs that developed into one of the first viral streetwear brands.
Between working with West, hosting parties, designing merchandise and moonlighting as an art director for brands like Stussy, Williams' profile grew even more, and though he was still the lesser known of the four—Abloh would soon launch his first label, Pyrex Vision; Preston would join Nike; Saunders (aka JJJJound) was already Tumblr-famous—given his wide-ranging expertise and talent, it was understood that, amongst insiders, Williams was the one to watch.
In 2015, after years of constantly being on the road and countless hotel rooms, airplanes and DJ booths, Williams knew it was time for a change. Though working with West and #BEENTRILL# was immensely gratifying, Williams felt unfulfilled. Having dreamt of starting his own fashion line since his days at Corpus, Williams left behind #BEENTRILL# and parted ways with West for a second time to focus on his first solo endeavour: Alyx.
Named after his then-infant daughter, the line was the culmination of his disparate experience and passions, with references spanning from Supreme and Jean Paul Gaultier to bondage and '90s skate shops. After months of introspection and ideation, Williams developed the initial patterns, mood boards and brand direction, finally presenting them to Luca Benini Benini is an original Stussy tribe member (like the influential Hiroshi Fujiwara), infamous streetwear importer and founder of Italy’s most respected modern men’s retailer, Slam Jam Milano. With Benini’s help, Williams set up manufacturing space in Italy and began to source fabrics, experiment with patterns and finally put together his debut collection.
Finally, for the Fall/Winter 2015 season, Williams presented his debut collection. After years wearing Prada and Supreme, collecting archive Raf Simons and studying vintage military gear, the predominantly black collection with nods to Helmut Lang and ample amounts of leather was fresh—if expected. The fact that it was exclusively womenswear, however, was a welcome surprise.
While many assumed that, like Abloh and Preston, Williams would simply produce high-end streetwear, Willams chose to focus solely on women’s eveningwear, tailoring and boots—at least at first. Already comfortable with creating runway-ready looks following his work with Lady Gaga, Williams–who himself is equally passionate about men’s and women’s clothing—realized that if he began with menswear, it would permanently overshadow the women’s collections. Instead, he opted to enter the women’s market and establish a visual language and aesthetic. For the first calendar year, Alyx presented a full women’s wardrobe including outerwear, footwear, tailoring, cotton basics and even jewelry, quite a feat for an upstart label without major corporate fashion backing. Though critics were skeptical—what does a former art and concert tour creative director know about runway women’s fashion?—the critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, with publications celebrating the quality and research required to produce this caliber of clothing.
Alongside the debut collection, Williams introduced the infamous “rollercoaster” belt, a definitive piece which went on to form the basis of Alyx’s entire range of accessories. Inspired by a harness Williams wore during a trip to an amusement park, Williams contacted the producer and convinced them to create custom hardware specifically for the label. The result was a vaguely utilitarian quick-release belt with military grade Cordura fabric and a tooled metallic quick-release buckle; almost instantly the belt became a hot commodity for both men and women. Though the label itself was still relatively unknown, the hit accessory put Williams on the map.
Following four seasons of womenswear, Williams was finally ready to expand into his forte: menswear. Nike creative guru Fraser Cooke, a friend through mutual connection Kim Jones, brought Hiroshi Fujiwara by the Alyx Fall/Winter 2017 showroom. A fan of the pinstripe “ALYX” fabric featuring a repeating logo in place of the usual vertical stripe (as well as Alyx's unique hardware) the “God” of Japanese streetwear asked Williams if he was interested in collaborating on a small capsule with his creative agency and design house, Fragment Design. At the time Hiroshi was holding “THE PARKING” pop-up in Japan, a retail concept and series of exclusive drops, with the first parts of Alyx's menswear as a highlight.
After wetting his beak, Williams was ready to officially launch his men’s business. In the winter of 2017, a small collection of printed Alpha Industries bombers, distressed oil wash denim, minimal tailoring and boots in collaboration with Roa hit select stockists across the globe. Perfectly capturing the technical military trend, Italian cordura combat vests paired with leather jeans and printed graphic tees served as a new take on street-meets-runway.
As opposed to brands inspired by street culture, Williams channeled his direct experience working from within it. Everything from photographing A$AP Rocky for Vogue Homme Japan, to William’s love of Gaultier blended with his collection of vintage skate tees as a source of inspiration; the result is a near-perfect crystallization of the modern state of menswear. His depth of knowledge in the various subcultures that form the base culture today led to a brand perfectly suited to combine and build upon them in a novel manner.
Following Williams’ debut menswear collection, the accolades came rolling in. Stockists jumped from a handful to dozens, with a Paris fashion week debut the following year as well as a number of collaborations ranging from Mackintosh to Japanese denim specialist Blackmeans and Italian leather guru Guidi. Not only did Alyx work with insider labels lauded in their respective fields, but also introduced recycled cotton basics and an extensive array of recurring graphics, ensuring that despite technical innovations the core business never fell short.
As the label grew so did Williams' notoriety, landing him an on-going (Nike](https://www.grailed.com/designers/nike) partnership (with at least two separate collections), signature sneakers, a Stussy capsule and a consulting gig at Dior, lending Kim Jones his infamous hardware.
Still, despite a reputation now rivaling his #BEENTRILL# peers, Williams never let Alyx become an afterthought, and fans took notice. From participating in Moncler’s “Genius” program to presenting high-concept art books alongside every collection, Williams looked towards designers like Pierpaolo Piccioli and Yohji Yamamoto while simultaneously paying attention to the latest Supreme and Noah drop. This ensured that the always conceptual product was grounded by the sort of pieces men want right now. With his panoramic approach to design, it’s no surprise that Alyx has never had a bad season thus far.
Following a label rebrand—the brand is now officially referred to as 1017 Alyx 9SM, a reference to the designers’ birthday and his Manhattan address on Saint Marks Place—the revamped Alyx is pushing the envelope even further, working with Ecco chrome-free waterproof leather and waterless denim washes. Still, despite Williams' insistence on pushing the envelope production-wise, the core ethos still remains. As far as Williams is concerned, a logo-flip long sleeve is still just as valuable as broken leather side-zip boots—precisely the way men of his generation (and younger) currently shop.
Most recently Williams has been tapped to replace Claire Waight-Keller as the creative director of Givenchy. His appointment to the LVMH-affiliated house follows in the footsteps of his friend and former creative partner Virgil Abloh. It is expected that his view of streetwear and runway-ready luxury will fall somewhere between the softness of Waight-Keller and the Renaissance-tinged streetwear of former Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci.
Whereas competitors treat streetwear and fashion as two sides of the same coin, at Alyx they are both part of a continuum, including everything from sneakers to taped seam water-resistant leather anoraks. For the next generation of contemporary luxury, Alyx has no rival. Luxury streetwear may be a broken notion, but bridging the gap between street and perceived luxury fashion is an art form, one that Alyx has mastered.
For a comprehensive history of Matthew Williams' archive of influences and past work, explore this Grailed-exclusive interactive history on Matthew Williams—featuring commentary from Williams' himself.