Matthew M. Williams’s spring 2022 show for Givenchy started with black and ended with white. Both looks—the opening one a tough neoprene number with a bustier and a zippered front; the finale a cascade of soft ribs, razor-sharp pleats, and amoeba-esque eyelets—were paradigms of the design vocabulary that Williams has been perfecting for years: vigorously technical, sexy, and serious all at once. But across many of the 70-something ensembles between the two, some very unexpected elements appeared.
On a glowing oval runway, a parade of black gave way to shades of red, camel, lilac, and pistachio. Some models carried chain-strap purses shaped like antifreeze canisters and gallon bottles of bleach; others wore jeans covered in basketballs with jack-o’-lantern faces. A series of knits featured a shadowy figure in a cloak against a pulsating rainbow of thread.
A handbag inspired by Drifter, a painting by Smith from 2019, and another cast from an untitled 2014 ceramic by Smith, in front of the artist’s studio work.
Josh Smith in his studio in Brooklyn.
These flashes of exuberance were the result of a collaboration between Williams and Josh Smith, a New York–based artist known for his vibrantly hued paintings and ceramics that blend the mundane and the nightmarish to uncannily appealing effect. The duo first connected as friends, but decided to work together after the idea was proposed by Williams’s girlfriend, Marlene Zwirner, a director at David Zwirner gallery, which represents Smith. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the artist and the designer might seem like an unlikely pair, but the process was a natural one.
Williams, 36, is self-taught and got his start creating performance looks for Kanye West and Lady Gaga before joining forces with the late Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston to form the streetwear collective Been Trill. He founded his own label, 1017 Alyx 9SM, in 2015, and, after a series of high-profile partnerships with the likes of Kim Jones, Nike, and Moncler, he joined Givenchy in 2020. Williams had been a fan of Smith’s work for years, but “getting to know him as a person and spending time with him in his studio was a whole other layer of understanding,” Williams said.
Smith wears screen-printed jeans and a hand-knit sweater that recalls his 2019 painting Scholes Street.
Smith, on the other hand, was mostly ambivalent about fashion (although he did paint his name onto a handbag for Louis Vuitton in 2020), and was unfamiliar with Williams’s career. Yet he jumped at the opportunity to work with someone he respected personally, but whose work he didn’t fully understand. It was a chance to “sow a variable into the creative process,” the 46-year-old artist said. “At this point in my career, I’m really anxious to meet other creative people who are highly functioning and forthright, and don’t care so much about doing things ‘right.’ ”
The pair started the process simply by hanging out in Smith’s Brooklyn studio. “I really loved the time that we got to spend talking and vibing together on the collection,” Williams said. “I don’t always make space in my life to do that anymore.” Some of their initial conversations were about the goth aesthetic and its various permutations: “Future goth,” “nature goth,” “health goth,” and “original goth” were all terms they brought up, somewhat jokingly. As they started working, the concept drifted away from that. “But you need a starting point for any creative endeavor,” said Smith. “And a pretty prevalent thing within fashion is this heaviness.”
Matthew M. Williams, holding bioresin bags that were cast from Smith’s ceramic work, at David Zwirner gallery.
Eventually, Smith began to share what he describes as a “mist of ideas for Matt to pass through.” To the team at the Givenchy atelier in Paris, Smith sent examples of his own paintings and sculptures, some of which were then translated into screen prints and weaving patterns, as well as references that had inspired his practice: pieces of scrap metal, work by early American basket weavers, and wallpaper painters. “I didn’t interfere so much with the form of what Matt was doing,” Smith noted. “I just provided the springboard, and then some very professional, creative, innovative people who know how to work together whipped up the world.” Smith’s ceramics were scanned, rendered in bioresin, and affixed with chain handles and hinged panels to form purses; images of his work were applied to cracked denim. For Williams, one of the biggest creative challenges was rendering Smith’s “Reaper” paintings, which feature a lithe harbinger of death against abstracted color fields, in hand-crocheted sweaters, adapting the softly curving lines of the artist’s brushstrokes into a coherent knit.
Williams says that art has always worked its way into his creative process, as a source of inspiration. But his experience with Smith was more profound than simply utilizing the artist’s visual elements. “Josh works from such a pure place, and I love that about him,” Williams said. “It’s amazing to have been able to be there with him and hear his take on everything. I’m trying to harness that into myself and my own work, to be as authentic of a person as he is.”
As for Smith, he’s looking forward to seeing how people interact with the collection in real life. “I’ve learned that clothes can make you feel really good,” he said. “I paint to see what I want to see, and Matt makes clothes to look at them and see how they function and feel. The next thing is sharing it. And that’s a whole other type of experience: It’s communal, it’s interesting, it’s constructive, and it drives you on.”
Photo assistant: James Hartley. Grooming by Amanda Wilson for Kevin Murphy.