Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics


In their latest collaborative project, designer Matthew M. Williams and painter Josh Smith have created garments pulsing with vibrant color, animated by psychedelic renditions of palm trees and the Grim Reaper.
In this story, starring Texan emo cowboy and burgeoning fashion icon Teezo Touchdown, the two creators discuss the genesis of their collaboration, the meaning of magic, and earning the right to make audiences uncomfortable.


Matthew M. Williams is no stranger to the collaborative process. The thirty-six-year-old creative director of Givenchy belongs to a generation of designers who came of age working collectively. As he and his peers find themselves settling into top jobs at fashion’s most storied maisons, they are rejecting auteurism, opting instead for creatively multiplicative ad-hoc partnerships.

Josh Smith is the latest collaborator to enter Williams’ sphere at Givenchy. Smith is an American artist who is as prolific as he is stylistically voracious. Trained originally as a printmaker, Smith is best known for his paintings, which traverse a wide range of subject matter—flowing, psychedelic renditions of perennial motifs like the Grim Reaper and palm trees, canvases devoted to his own looping signature, barren streetscapes as seen from the roof of his Bushwick studio during depths of the pandemic, and much more. This isn’t the first time Smith has worked in fashion, but it is the most fully integrated he has been in the design of garments, and his involvement has resulted in a new look for Williams’ Givenchy, one pulsing with vibrant color.

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ADAM WRAYHow did you two find one another?
MATTHEW M. WILLIAMSWe met through a mutual friend who works with Josh, and we just enjoyed each other’s company. I went over to Josh’s studio and we started cooking up some stuff, having fun, listening to Lil Peep, and talking about the world. I talked to Josh about things that I was interested in, craft I was interested in, and he would show me books and little totems that he has for inspiration around his studio. Obviously there are well-known artworks of Josh’s that we used and interpreted in really traditional ways, but there are lots of pieces in the collection that were inspired by things Josh owned or collected and I just put through my filter. For example, he has an amazing basket collection—I saw them and was like, let’s do some woven bags based on this.

JOSH SMITHMatthew moves around a lot, so one of the big challenges was to get him to remain at my place for an extended period of time. I just wanted him to kind of get a feel, not just visually, and not just of how cool my life might be, but also of how stressful and weird it is too.
AWStress is an interesting emotion in the context of artwork. The obvious metaphor is a diamond created through an immense amount of pressure. Do you two find that stress is a direct motivator? Can you see it in your output, or is it more of an ambient-life thing that you’ve got to deal with alongside making the work?
JSIt’s a negative by-product for me. Matthew, how do you feel?

MMWI just try to get sleep and treat myself well, and that helps me deal with the stress.
I experience stress differently now than I did when I was younger, and try to accept it for what it is—a moment of suffering that’s going to pass. I don’t get that stressed out from work, because it’s really fun. I get stressed out from things that have to do with my kids, challenges that they have in their lives. It puts work into perspective.

JSI’m the opposite of him. I’ve really learned a lot from Matthew and have been working to gain some of his healthier habits. Work does seem to be something he moves fluidly through.
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AWMatthew, what do you feel you’ve learned so far from working with Josh?
MMWJosh moves without any kind of fear. He has this instinct for creation. He’s his own harshest critic, but he’s not scared to do what he knows is right. There’s something really free about his approach to work and life, just trusting that he knows what’s right. I think, especially in fashion, we make a lot of group decisions, or decisions based on the past. Sometimes it’s our job to push things forward and not be afraid of people’s reactions to things. You have to keep trying stuff, and you know when it’s shit and you know when it’s good, and you have to trust that instinct.

AWYou mentioned listening to Lil Peep together. Matthew, your career has been deeply intertwined with music, and I imagine it is as much of an inspiration to you as it has ever been. For example, this KALEIDOSCOPE story sees the collection being modeled by Texan rapper Teezo Touchdown, with whom Matthew has collaborated in the past. Josh, I know you’re also obsessed with southern rap. Do you draw as much inspiration from music?
Did you guys bond over shared musical touchstones, and did that come out in the work?
JSIn the creative business, I think you can kind of tell what’s moving inside of somebody, and I could tell Matt had this type of inquisitive energy. His is more intense, and he has his ear more on the rail, so he knows a lot of younger people. I'm not old, but thinking-wise I am a little more out of touch. Still, I pick up on people and I’m always curious, and I’m genuinely interested in what people who are different than me are doing. It’s important. Without that, I’d be a total loser-type artist. I wish more people did that. People shouldn’t be all “muggly” about stuff.

“Artistically, if you're not trying to end your career with what you're presenting, if you're not taking a good shot at undermining everything you've done previously, then you really shouldn't be working at this level.”

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AWIsn’t that from Harry Potter?

JSYeah! People shouldn’t be muggles. You have to believe in the magic. If
you don't believe in magic, then move away from me.
AWWhat does magic mean to you?

MMWOh, just everything unnecessary.
Just pause, effortlessly, and there it is, you see the simple reality of what you needed the whole time. It’s right there in front of you.

AWWere you able to find some magic in the output of what you did together?

MMWIt felt like magic making it.

JSIt was magic. It’s belligerent magic.
I mean, you activate all these people, these brilliant people, these talents who are not replicable and their time, well, there is an expiration on it. These people aren’t going to be around forever. Fashion is so much more than just clothes. It’s a really aggressive statement about something. There’s so much I didn’t learn, and as it went on, I realized I don’t want to know about the whole thing. I wasn’t a hands-on person in this at all. I was on another continent, and I just had to trust the process. In past fashion projects, people would just take some images and do their little magic thing and the outcome would be perfect. This was much more of an artistic collaboration. There was that same sense of fear. I would’ve only changed one thing, which is that I wish we lived in the same city. But maybe that would have driven you crazy, Matthew. I don’t like to get in people’s creative space. I would just like to see more, to learn more.

MMWThat week that we spent together in your studio was the most fun I’d had in years.
Josh could be a hype-man. He has that energy.
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AWDoes the process of the work you do take a lot out of you physically? Is it almost like you need to train for the next body of work?
JSSometimes it gets into my physical self, but most of the destruction is mental. It really changes you mentally, just overthinking and dealing with interpersonal stuff while you’re trying to be not just a creative person, but a real person—your real self. It’s pretty scary trying to put that out. If I’m not try- ing to put that into my work, then I don’t want to do it at all. I don’t want to make famous money to show something that shouldn’t be shown. A lot of successful artists kind of do the same thing their whole life—like, they figure it out and then most of it is self-promotion.
I don’t want to do that. I just try to throw everything away. I think, artistically, if you’re not trying to end your career with what you’re presenting, if you’re not taking a good shot at undermining everything you’ve done previously, then you really shouldn’t be working at this level.
AWIt seems like what you’re saying, and forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted you, is that you’re trying to figure out how to bring honesty to the work, to create honest work.
JSWell, it is honest work. I can’t lie in the art, but sometimes things get a little style-y. I practice a lot. I trust in myself, and I love art because you can make mistakes and sometimes the mistakes stimulate life in a lot of ways. The fashion stuff, you can make mistakes in the creative process—and we didn’t even scratch the surface on that—but once it gets into the channel of being fabricated and manufactured, it’s on a proper, straight track. It sounds too stressful. But Matthew is right here. He works in this job. Why am I talking about it?

“I think you can always improve what you've done. Everything's an advanced prototype, so you make something and then figure out how to make it better. You add more knowledge.”

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MMWI don’t really think about stuff like that, because when you’re designing, all of the work needs to be authentic to you. It’s naturally honest. And I don’t really believe in mistakes in that way, because it’s all about perspective. Everyone’s allowed to have an opinion, as to whether something’s good or not, but I think you can always improve what you’ve done, especially in fashion. Everything’s an advanced prototype, so you make a shoe and then figure out how to make it better through the material and the construction. You add more knowledge. Fashion’s a manual craft, so when you’re making it, and the more time that you spend on the repetition of making that one thing, means that you make it better and better and better. That’s really what my work is based on, from the simplest item to the most complex. I go in really, really deep and try to make it better and better and explore, explore, explore even the most basic of ideas to see if there’s new space and a new mixture. When I was at Josh’s studio, he was like, “This paint company was closing, and so I bought all the paint from this one supplier.” It’s the same thing for me.
I have my tools and my mixture of how I put stuff together that naturally has my hand. When you work in a creative medium, you start to have that little recipe that’s yours and how you put stuff together, and I definitely have mine.

JSWithin our work, there definitely were mistakes, but they were put there intentionally. I would never do a show that didn’t have mistakes. Within my art shows, I always make a broken part, just so people can see the glory of the unbroken stuff.
AWThere’s honesty in imperfection, as well. That’s part of being a person.
JSAs long as it’s not open-heart surgery. There’s things that you can’t fuck around with. But no one dies from what we do, hopefully. So, it’s a pretty good way to think and learn about life.
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AWFashion and art are both trend-driven media, for better or worse. How do you deal with those dynamics?
MMWAs a designer, you always need to be looking forward to the future and synthesizing what it means to live today. Fashion is a reflection of now. So, there’s always going to be that element, and there are certain designers that are able to present something that feels new or relevant to today, and the public gives it a chance, they actually try to understand this new thing. It takes time to earn the respect from people to even give something a chance. That’s why when you have musicians that have a history of making great work, when they propose a new sound, they’ve earned the right to propose something that’s uncomfortable, because everybody knows how talented they are.They allow their ears to acclimate to that new sound. Only certain people have the ability to present work that people will give a chance, and let it make them uncomfortable.

JSI’m a trendsetter. I’m the one in the front. I do the real stuff and find the real thing. I grab it out of the air and throw it out there and then everyone else can look at it, and then try to do what they want to do. But I do it first, and I do it the best and in the newest way. I don’t know why it’s like that, but I try to just be at the front.
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Matthew M. Williams is an American designer, co-founder of the fashion brand 1017 ALYX 9SM. In 2020, he was appointed Creative Director of Givenchy women's and men's collections.

Josh Smith (American, b. 1976) is a New York-based painter who also works with collage, sculpture, printmaking, and artist’s books.

Williams and Smith collaborated on a series of hand-worked pieces for the Spring 2022 collection of Givenchy.

Adam Wray is a writer, editor, and creative director currently based in Montréal.


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