22-Aug, 03:54

15:41, August 02 73 0

2017-08-02 15:41:04
Matthew Williams, Renaissance Man

FERRARA, Italy — The paths that lead designers to their destinies — or even just to their studios — are long and winding, and difficult to predict. It would have been hard to divine at the outset, or at any critical juncture along the way, that Matthew Williams, a one-semester college dropout from Pismo Beach, Calif., onetime creative director and paramour of Lady Gaga, collaborator of Kanye West, skate rat turned club kid turned D.J. turned designer, would wind up newly installed here in Ferrara, north of Bologna, where the Renaissance court of the Este once patronized Michelangelo and Piero della Francesca.

But on a hot June day nearly a year into his residence in Ferrara, when a procession of nuns and priests began their march through the cobbled center of the city, a snaking train of holiness, Mr. Williams did as all the local Ferrarese do: shrugged and stepped out of their path. (His own contribution to the city’s Roman Catholic life is more or less isolated to the enormous black cross tattooed from the nape of his neck to the back of his skull.)

Mr. Williams, the founder and designer of Alyx, the label he began in 2015, has been steadily collecting fans and accolades. Bella Hadid, the fledgling supermodel, has taken to wearing it out and about. The pashas of LVMH (Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, et al.) have assessed his achievement, and in 2016 he was named a finalist for the company’s young designer LVMH Prize. Picky shops around the world have lined up to carry it.

All this without the benefit of a fashion show, an ad campaign, much name recognition or even a recognizably pronounceable name. It is pronounced ah-LEEX, named for his elder daughter, who just before the procession began had been running giggling circles around a statue of Savonarola, the 15th-century friar who inveighed against clerical corruption and delighted in book burnings until his execution for heresy, and one of Ferrara’s most infamous sons.

It has been an adjustment for the entire family — Mr. Williams; his wife, Jennifer, who oversees the label’s sales; Alyx and her new baby sister, Valetta, who arrived in June — to adapt to their new home, where they moved to be closer to Mr. Williams’s business partner, the Italian streetwear distributor Luca Benini, and to work more closely with the factories that produce his collections. (Cairo, 8, his son from an earlier relationship, visits.)

They live in an apartment in the city center and commute, in a borrowed Land Rover, to the factories where their clothes are made. They are learning to live without the 24/7 creature comforts of New York: little ethnic food, no takeout, hummus at only one grocery store across town. The language barrier remains difficult. Of the family, Alyx, 3, is the most fluent.

“It feels like we’re here on a romantic weekend sometimes,” Ms. Williams said over a pasta lunch at the trattoria where they take most meals.

“It’s very welcoming,” Mr. Williams said. “No one cares that you don’t speak Italian. They’ll just keep talking to you. In Italian.”

Mr. Williams, 31, cuts a distinctive figure in Ferrara, with his close-cropped hair, faintly military wardrobe (he favors tailored trousers, boots and leather belts), the liberal spray of tattoos and the small ring pierced into the webbing between his lip and gums.

“Matt’s always surprised that people remember him,” Ms. Williams said. “I say, ‘You’re covered in tattoos.’”

It wasn’t always thus. Growing up in Central California, Mr. Williams had been artistic but without much recourse beyond high school sculpture class.

“Where I’m from, you don’t think of being in the arts or being in fashion as really a career,” he said.

He went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to study art but dropped out after one semester. He was more interested spending summers in Los Angeles, helping a friend oversee production of his denim collection. It was there he met Ms. Williams, out at a club one night. She was celebrating her 23rd birthday; he was technically underage.

“I was working at Maxfield at the time,” Ms. Williams said, meaning the high-fashion Los Angeles boutique. (It now carries Alyx.) “I spent all of my paycheck on a Dries Van Noten shirt and shoes. He was like, ‘Those are Dries, right?’ I was like: ‘You know what this is? Oh my God, who are you?’” On their first official date, he was carded and rejected at the door. Within three months, they decided to move together to New York, despite the fact that Mr. Williams’s application to the fashion program at Parsons had been declined.

In New York, Mr. and Ms. Williams eventually (and, as it turned out, temporarily) split up. Mr. Williams, a self-confessed club kid, spent every night out. He began both collaborating with, and dating, Lady Gaga, working on videos, stage shows and costumes for onstage and off. Through his work with Lady Gaga, he met Nick Knight, the English photographer who worked with generations of fashion talent, including Yohji Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen.

“He’s one for our time,” Mr. Knight said. “He does feel of this moment.”

With Gaga, he went on, Mr. Williams helped to create a new fashion vantage. “Hotel door to the limousine door — that’s a six-foot catwalk,” Mr. Knight said. “People were established on those six feet.” Mr. Williams was, too.

After working for a time with both Lady Gaga and Kanye West, who were at one point planning a joint tour, Mr. Williams eventually moved on from Lady Gaga’s team, reunited with Ms. Williams and went to work for Mr. West exclusively, serving as an art director on his touring productions and album designs. There, Mr. Williams met Virgil Abloh, a creative director for Mr. West, in the years before Mr. Abloh founded his own Off-White label.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Abloh spent long days and nights traveling the country, consumed by their own ambitions to create something new. With a few friends, they founded Been Trill, a loosely defined collective that at various points issued mixtapes, gave parties and released, somewhat irregularly, clothing. “It was an inside joke,” Mr. Abloh said. “It was us being creative, burning off excess ideas.”

But Been Trill turned, briefly, into a cult phenomenon, and a launching pad. “It taught us a lot,” Mr. Abloh said. “It gave us confidence to believe in our own ideas. I remember telling Matt, ‘Dude, you have more to give than this whole collective project.’”

Mr. West’s fanatical drive impressed Mr. Williams. “From the experience, I learned a work ethic,” he said. “He worked nonstop but with such self-belief. He gave me the power to really believe in myself and put it into action, to will the things I wanted to create into existence.”

But the strain of travel and the pace of following Mr. West’s show around the world took a toll.

“I had been on the road for, whatever it was, six or eight years,” Mr. Williams said. “Jenn and I had gotten married. We had just had Alyx. I was wanting to begin my dream, which was having my own fashion brand and making the clothes that I had always wanted to make.”

He found a partner in Mr. Benini, who personally invested in Alyx. With his company Slam Jam, Mr. Benini had introduced California surf and skate brands like Stüssy to Italy but had never produced a line of his own. He hadn’t been searching for a partner, exactly, but when Mr. Williams arrived, Mr. Benini decided he was the man he hadn’t been looking for.

Mr. Williams has a fan’s passion for fashion and its demigods — a partial list of his mononymic enthusiasms includes Hedi, Margiela, Helmut, Raf, Rick, Rei, Yohji — but no formal training. Mr. Benini was undeterred: Mr. Williams had an art director’s sense of context and culture, references in art, music and fashion history.

“Today, the art director is very important,” Mr. Benini said. “I feel it’s much more important to understand not only the traditional approach to fashion, but also what there is behind it.”

Mr. Abloh agreed.

“I believe in Matt as a creative director,” he said. “Alyx, it’s a premier designer label for this new generation. As a collective, we’re all writing its history.”

About 10 kilometers southeast of Ferrara’s city center, a 20-minute rumble by Land Rover, the Mary Fashion factory makes garments for some of Italy’s biggest luxury brands. Founded 30 years ago, Mary Fashion once specialized in ladies’ undergarments. It has since expanded its offerings. Mr. Williams, whose designs may incorporate metal cigarette lighter caps or looping wire, whose fabrics may be plasticized or reflective or technical, often pushes them even further.

“Matthew’s collection has nothing in common with the products we’ve been producing for more than 20 years,” said Alessio Bonora, Mary Fashion’s general manager. We paused by a sewing table where a woman was working on a garment in one of Mr. Williams’s custom prints, an inky blot developed from a bloody napkin salvaged after one of his stick-and-poke tattoos.

The Alyx style, Mr. Williams said, is less a strict credo than a feeling, or maybe more accurately a mix of feelings, since it draws equally from street-smart aggression, Gothic grimness and military polish. Lest it seem too humorless, one of the collection’s signature and durable details is a heavy metal buckle that he discovered and then sourced after a trip to Six Flags. St. Marks Place, one of the historic landmarks of New York City punk rock, is printed on every label. The first Alyx studio was on the block, and Mr. Williams hopes the first Alyx store will be, too.

But that is in the future. For now, Alyx is advancing by stages. Men’s wear arrived this season, though Japanese stores often bought the women’s collections with an eye to interested male shoppers. It is in the word-of-mouth phase of its life, one helped by the affection of women like Ms. Hadid and Molly Bair, the elfin runway model who has become something of a muse to Mr. Williams, working with him and Mr. Knight on Alyx shoots.

Ms. Bair loves her Alyx bomber jacket, she gushed, and wore it all winter. Reached by phone in New York, she happened to be wearing her Alyx-designed Vans. (Mr. Williams has a continuing partnership with Vans, the sneakers of his California youth.) “Oh, I have these purple bell-bottoms that I was wearing constantly,” she added. “I get so many compliments on them.”

Mr. Williams needs such evangelists. Ferrara is outside of fashion’s usual ports of call. He is working to add accessories, experimenting with sustainable basics. Back on the factory floor, the seamstresses beamed as Mr. Williams sauntered by. One tittered in Italian to Mr. Bonora.

“She’s scared about what you have,” he said, indicating the silver ring through Mr. Williams’s inner lip, hanging over his front teeth, and wants to know if it hurt.

“No, not that bad,” Mr. Williams said good-humoredly. “Thin layer of skin.”