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Will You Give Matthew M. Williams a Chance?

PARIS — Matthew M. Williams will, under the right conditions, be open and generous and vulnerable. He will show you his slightly messy bedroom and fix you an iced coffee that he cold-brewed himself and tell you about his sometimes tortured love life and lean back on his big Brutalist couch so that a sliver of one of the most vulnerable parts of the body (the stomach — his is taut on account of his exercise routine, which he’ll also describe if you’d like) is revealed beneath his fitted white T-shirt.

But he will not talk about his contract with Givenchy.

Employment contracts are a dreaded topic for any designer in Mr. Williams’s position. In June 2020, the tattooed-all-over American millennial and former Kanye West acolyte was appointed the creative director of Givenchy, a French fashion house best known for Audrey Hepburn’s little-black-dress-with-pearls image, or as a favorite label of A-list celebrities between the late aughts and 2010s.

Yet some people still don’t know Givenchy at all. Founded in 1952 it is considered a less defined brand — though still lucrative at times — within the broader stable of LVMH-controlled fashion houses, which include Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior.

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Mr. Williams moved to Paris when the city was still shut down. His new collection is inspired by sophisticated Parisian women he has seen and met since it reopened.
Credit…Karla Hiraldo Voleau for The New York Times

Today, designers appointed to luxury fashion brands like Givenchy are typically given three-year contracts. That is how long Mr. Williams’s predecessor, Clare Waight Keller, famous for designing Meghan Markle’s wedding dress, stayed in the position. If the pattern holds, Mr. Williams has less than nine months before his employment is officially extended or not.

While LVMH does not disclose revenue by brand, its semiannual financial reports offer a qualitative idea of how each house is doing. In 2021, for example, sales at Marc Jacobs had a “highly impressive surge,” while Celine, Loewe and Fendi each had “a record year.” But there has been no mention of sales when it comes to Givenchy’s clothing and accessories under the direction of Mr. Williams and Renaud de Lesquen, who became the company’s president and chief executive a few months before Mr. Williams’s appointment.

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Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Analysts in the luxury industry are more clear: Givenchy has “underperformed,” said Mario Ortelli of Ortelli & Company.

Luca Solca of Sanford C. Bernstein, whose firm tracks, among other things, how often brands are discounting their products said: “For the moment, the brand has yet to find a winning formula.” Givenchy is ranked among the luxury brands with the “strongest negative momentum,” according to the firm’s research. “It isn’t a disaster but probably a work in progress,” Mr. Solca said.

Critics haven’t totally dismissed Mr. Williams’s work for Givenchy. Opinions may be mixed, but they rarely present as purely negative; there are qualities of his utility-goth, streetwear-meets-evening distressed aesthetic that always earn praise, like the sharp tailoring and the cool metal signatures of his accessories. It is the coherency of his broader vision that is more often questioned.

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Credit…Karla Hiraldo Voleau for The New York Times

As such, Mr. Williams’s fate has been the subject of gossip for at least a year. In an industry so obsessed with momentum and consumption that it has invented new seasons — “pre-fall,” for example — much depends on continued enthusiasm from editors, celebrities and shoppers. Even if it takes time to see financial results from new leadership, Mr. Solca said, “from a creativity viewpoint, you should see indications that the brand is getting traction with retail, with media, relatively quickly. If that is not the case, then you’re off to a rough start.”

And so Mr. Williams and his team have made a plan.

On Sunday, the designer will present a runway show for women’s clothing, held during the afternoon at a Parisian park. This is a departure from his first two live-audience shows, which were lengthy, featuring both women’s and men’s collections, held at night inside a slickly designed, bass-thumping arena on the outskirts of Paris.

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Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

The clothing presented will also be an evolution: more svelte and sexy — or “feminine and sophisticated,” as Mr. Williams said — with less of a tough New Yorker girl vibe and more of a new-to-him Parisian chic. It’s as if his intensity has been plugged into Google Translate. (Or as if he suddenly got more female co-workers.) The collection will be styled by Carine Roitfeld, the influential French editor whose version of Parisian chic is a woman on the prowl: slinky skirt, smudged eyeliner, cigarette between her fingertips.

This new plan also comes with a kind of plea, one that Mr. Williams will only subtly make on his own behalf. “The thing with only having a few shows outside of Covid, and still not having a show just with women: There hasn’t been enough time for the industry to make a fair judgment on what it is,” he said. “You have to give somebody time to, like, make the album.”

What if, when the album does come out, people still don’t like it? “A lot of people, when they see something new for the first time, they don’t know that it’s good right away because it’s unfamiliar, and they need validation from their peer groups,” Mr. Williams said. “Imagine how much strength it takes to take risks at this level, with the pressure of the industry or the company or your career. Every time you have to be ready to lose everything. There’s not many designers that do that.”

His supporters are more direct. “I think he’s a special designer,” said Nick Knight, who has photographed campaigns for Givenchy through his ShowStudio. “I really pray and hope that he gets given the space to show that.”

Kim Jones, the designer of Fendi’s women’s line and Dior’s men’s line (also owned by LVMH), said: “There’s some really key items I’ve seen him develop at Givenchy. It just takes time.”

“I just pray,” Mr. Jones continued, echoing Mr. Knight’s piety, though these interviews were conducted separately, “that companies give people time.”

Born in Chicago and raised in California, Mr. Williams, 36, is self-taught, with a résumé not built on fashion school or ladder climbing at ateliers but on working in production and retail, then in creative direction for Lady Gaga (an ex-girlfriend), Mr. West and Mr. Knight. He helped found a D.J. collective with fellow future fashion stars Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston.

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Credit…Karla Hiraldo Voleau for The New York Times

“This wasn’t somebody who was hankering for a bygone era,” Mr. Knight said, recalling his first impression of the social-media-savvy Mr. Williams. “He was trying to do modern things.” Their projects together included a short film set to a heavy metal soundtrack starring the model Lara Stone demonstrating Krav Maga while dressed in high fashion. Once, Mr. Williams drank red wine while being tattooed so he would bleed more, allowing Mr. Knight to make a print of the bloodied tattoo on a white paper towel.

In 2015, Mr. Williams founded his brand 1017 Alyx 9SM, more commonly called Alyx, named after one of his two daughters. The following year, he was a finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize for young designers.

Doors were opened. A Nike collaboration dropped in 2018. The same year, Mr. Jones introduced a Dior saddle bag featuring hardware by Mr. Williams — a bid to make the bag “more masculine and more interesting for a new consumer,” Mr. Jones recalled. It was adapted from a popular roller-coaster-inspired buckle Mr. Williams used in Alyx designs.

Mr. Williams is known for being well connected; his first ad campaign for Givenchy starred famous friends like Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Playboi Carti, who styled themselves in his clothes. He is also well liked — his friends often bring up his sweet disposition and good looks — though to outsiders he can seem guarded and barbed.

But if you ask him, he has “a lot of acquaintances, but very few close friends.” Sitting on his canopied, tiered slate couch made by Michele Lamy and Rick Owens, which requires one to sort of climb on to in order to sit, Mr. Williams gazed out at his large terrace, with its titanic view of Paris. This was a major selling point of the apartment, he said, along with it being a short walk from Givenchy’s offices.

His life in Paris was lonely at first. He moved here in 2020, in the early and most isolated days of the pandemic. Mr. Williams had always been nomadic, but now he was a newly divorced father, alone in a new city with a new high-pressure job who couldn’t easily travel to see his children. His two daughters, ages 5 and 8, live in London with their mother — Mr. Williams’s ex-wife formerly oversaw sales for Alyx — while his teenage son with a previous partner lives in the United States.

“I think the industry doesn’t really know me, who I actually am,” Mr. Williams said. “I think they have an idea of who I am from photo shoots” — perhaps from the Givenchy fragrance released earlier this year that was, somewhat unusually, named after him — “but I spend all my free time with my family, my kids, and then I work.”

When the girls visit (every other weekend, Mr. Williams said), they tend to the strawberry plant on the terrace’s garden that he began growing as a kind of single-dad hobby. He also takes cooking lessons.

If his life sounds quaint, bear in mind that he’s equally enthusiastic about a water filtering machine from Japan that he said keeps his blood at “a neutral pH.” “It’s like 3,000 or 4,000 euros, but then you never buy water,” he said.

New York City, which he recently visited for a Givenchy party, still feels the most like home to him, he said. The party was on the rooftop of the city’s new cool hotel du jour, Nine Orchard, though Mr. Williams went to Brooklyn afterward to see a show at a rave venue he likened to one of Ibiza’s massive clubs. New York is where he started Alyx, something he felt the curators of the Met Costume Institute overlooked when they didn’t include him in last year’s exhibition celebrating a wide swath of American fashion designers.

“I think sometimes maybe the Americans forget that I’m American,” he said.

“I don’t know if there’s a younger person in the industry that’s heading a maison,” he said, wondering out loud about the ages of Jonathan Anderson, the creative director of Loewe, and Demna, who designs Balenciaga.

They are both slightly older than him.

At the moment, according to the stylist Carine Roitfeld, American fashion is essentially “hoodies and big jeans.”

This is not her style. “I’m more than French,” she said, needlessly. That day at Givenchy’s showroom, she was wearing a golden camisole dress folded down over her hips like a slip skirt, with a fitted black top and tights.

Sunday’s Givenchy show, which she has been working on since the summer, represents a “clash” between her Frenchness and Mr. Williams’s Americanness, she said, like wearing a chic skirt with sneakers.

Ms. Roitfeld, 68, was also one of the people who encouraged the company to split men’s and women’s runway shows this year.

Yet ask Ms. Roitfeld who the Givenchy woman is and she cannot answer, despite having done much styling (and occasional modeling) for the brand under a previous creative director, her friend Riccardo Tisci. “That’s the problem,” she said. “It’s not a strong DNA.” There is no endlessly re-workable, re-sellable totem, like Chanel’s tweed suits.

Yet a talented designer at the right moment can reinvigorate a stagnant brand virtually overnight, with a single collection, like Tom Ford at Gucci or Phoebe Philo at Celine.

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Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

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Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

The last time Givenchy was considered truly commercially successful was under Mr. Tisci, who was there for more than a decade. His first few years, it should be noted, were troubled; his debut, in 2005 was criticized as “painful,” “pretentious,” “a special form of cruelty to models.”

But Mr. Tisci’s later success never relied on a core house identity. The Hubert de Givenchy archive wasn’t so important to him, Ms. Roitfeld said. He transcended it by doing his own bad-boy thing. He was one of the first major designers in Paris to attract a hip-hop clientele, effectively changing the face of the front row.

It seemed, at first, that this was the route Mr. Williams would also take. His first live-audience runway show in 2021 featured a freaky, frenetic collaboration with Josh Smith, an abstract painter and sculptor. Mr. Williams chose Mr. Smith because he liked his work, not because Mr. Smith’s work had anything in common with Givenchy. The soundtrack was a brand-new Young Thug song.

But times have changed. Mr. Tisci may have attracted the coolest clientele in fashion — whose coolness was then absorbed back into the brand — but today, every major brand courts rappers, celebrities and artists. Designers can’t bank on buzz by association.

When asked about the idea that, compared with other fashion houses, Givenchy has historically lacked a signature visual identity, Mr. Williams suggested that high turnover is to blame. Before Mr. Tisci’s 12 years as creative director, Julian McDonald had about two, Alexander McQueen had five and John Galliano had one.

This is essentially what drove Mr. Williams, for this upcoming women’s collection, further into Hubert de Givenchy’s archive than ever before, resurrecting some forgotten seductive silhouettes from the 1950s to 1980s. It’s all part of his bid for longevity.

“Isn’t that exciting to have somebody reinterpret something in a modern way? Right?” he said. “We don’t need more old clothes. Right? We want new clothes.” He laughed with some urgency.

“Maybe there just needs to be somebody here long enough to really expand on those codes and reinforce them.”

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