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Matthew Williams and the future of Kanye West's protegés

What happened to the generation that brought the break in fashion

Matthew Williams and the future of Kanye West's protegés What happened to the generation that brought the break in fashion

The year is 2015. Together with streetwear guru Luca Benini, Matthew Williams found a brand that would soon close the Paris Fashion Week programming and lead the American designer to head Givenchy: 1017 Alyx 9SM. Williams' entry into the fashion world is perhaps the second most striking case of success for one of the creatives who grew under Kanye West's wing; the first and most revolutionary being Virgil Abloh, who left an indelible mark on the fashion culture, along with notable names like Jerry Lorenzo, Samuel Ross, Heron Preston, Mowalola, and also Demna Gvasalia, who joined West's team in 2015 to create Yeezy Season 1. Together, these creatives represented the heart of the streetwear wave that hit a fashion system now tired, but came to a halt with the death of Virgil Abloh in November 2021 and definitively dwindled with West's public meltdown in October 2022. Today, things seem to have returned to square one, with the gradual reabsorption of these groundbreaking creatives into the fashion system's fabric. Perhaps the most notable trajectory today is that of Matthew Williams: upon leaving Givenchy after an uncertain creative direction, the designer has returned to focus on 1017 Alyx 9SM, whose importance over the years has diminished parallel to the impact of its collections. Today, things seem on the verge of change. Thanks to whom? An entrepreneur from Hong Kong and renowned art collector named Adrian Cheng.

What will change for 1017 Alyx 9SM?

Cheng's plans for the relaunch of 1017 Alyx 9SM seem promising: a new headquarters in Paris and a return to the fashion week calendar, a new emphasis on women's collections, boutiques to open in ten key cities worldwide, expansion of product offerings and collaborations, a direct-to-consumer drop and distribution plan, but above all, a fairly structured plan to celebrate the brand's founding anniversary with activations, exhibitions, print materials, and so on. In an interview with WWD, Cheng went into greater detail: renewed focus on commercial essentials to include in the wardrobe, capsule collections, collaboration with Nike, a second one with Audemars Piguet, but also, it seems, the desire to establish a foothold in luxury while remaining in a more youthful and democratic market that fills the void created in recent years among mid-range to low-priced high street brands. Cheng's emphasis on the brand's independence, the tightness of the team, and the community suggests a sort of creative restructuring of 1017 Alyx 9SM. The idea of opening stores in ten cities and presumably pushing for greater brand penetration in the Asian market, where luxury sales are starting to falter, would make it a brand of much greater strength and impact. The feeling, however, is that from a business/entrepreneurial perspective, the brand has changed hands, even though Williams will now have to work to bring it back to its former exciting glory.

Jerry Lorenzo's Overseas Success

Just as 1017 Alyx 9SM prepares for its upcoming anniversary, last year it was Fear of God celebrating a decade in business. They did so, not only with a show at the Hollywood Bowl but also with a new CEO, Alfred Chang, from Pacsun, who, speaking to the press for the first time, mentioned that the brand's revenues revolve around 200-300 million dollars annually. For the next ten years, the goal is to reach half a billion in annual revenue and then aim for the coveted billion annually. In this case as well, the brand, which for the moment remains in Jerry Lorenzo's hands, plans to expand the team, open its own stores, and, as can be inferred from the latest FW24 collection in January, evolve the brand in an extra-luxury tailoring direction all-American. An important note: as noted by the CEO himself, the majority of Fear of God's profits remain in America, while a portion is divided between Europe and China.

@studnioo Replying to @haroon qureshi Fear of god> Essentialls #fearofgod #essential #essentials #essentialshoodie #drip #foryou #foryoupage #fashion #fashiontiktok #viral sweet caroline but dark academia - fingerbib

This demonstrates that, after collaborating with Zegna and establishing various contacts with the European fashion world, Lorenzo has remained (unlike, let's say, Mike Amiri) a predominantly American phenomenon. In his case as well, the brand's production is articulated into a main line of luxury garments and lines like "Loungewear," "Athleisure," and "Essentials" of more commercial and medium-priced items that fuel sales. These lines should not be seen as something negative: they are precisely what allows the brand to maintain a top-of-the-line while also being able to interact with a younger and less affluent audience that is still capable of approaching the brand and making it a popular phenomenon. A successful version of the long experiment that European fashion brands conducted with their second lines, precisely diffusion lines, of which few survive today, including Emporio Armani, Versace Jeans Couture, and See by Chloè.

The Personal Paths of Ye's Protégés

A different case is Samuel Ross, founder of A-COLD-WALL*, who a year and a half ago declared that his brand's revenues had tripled between 2019 and 2022 and continues to sign collaborations with Converse, Timberland, Hublot, and Nike, among others, after becoming the main design consultant for Beats by Dre. Things are going very well for Ross, rightly so considering the designer's numerous talents, who has also presented an exhibition of his paintings in London. The feeling with Ross is that, after experimenting with a "fashion week" brand format, he has decided to continue in a more independent manner: his collections, for example, do not appear on Vogue Runway but directly on the brand's channels, he does not participate in London or Milan Fashion Week, and in general, after an initial viral moment, he has settled into his own niche. A more or less similar story can be told for Heron Preston, whose brand has followed a similar trajectory, and who is now the top consultant/collaborator for H&M, moving between various collaborations, recently with Zellerfeld and the L.E.D. Studio project. Things have greatly improved, however, for Mowalola Ogunlesi, who, in addition to remaining in Kanye's inner circle, has become one of the most beloved designers at London Fashion Week and, over time, one of the leading names on the English programming calendar, as well as one of the most recognized emerging designers on the scene.

Building a System?

All five of West's main "protégés," it seems, have found a position of prominence in the fashion industry. However, after Virgil Abloh's disappearance (a largely symbolic watershed, of course) and after Kanye West's public fall, what seemed to be a cohesive team or a genuine movement lost the relevance that, around 2015, made all its members protagonists of global fashion weeks, their products appearing in street style reports, anticipating the arrival of new "fixed" stars in the fashion industry. Things turned out differently: after an initial explosive phase, the novelty that West's protégés represented left a mark but dissipated, perhaps colliding with the logic of a system that several economic crises and geopolitical trends have made even more ruthless. However, like the brands of Williams and Lorenzo, those of Kanye's protégés are about to celebrate their anniversary (A-COLD-WALL* is from 2015, Heron Preston and Mowalola from 2017), and thus, reaching this milestone could initiate the process of their historicization and their entry into the Fashion Archive Hall of Fame. Celebrating an anniversary can always be the moment to inaugurate a new course. Françoise Marithé + Girbaud was reborn in just that way, riding the wave of nostalgia and collectors but also that of its historical significance, which appeared necessarily cumulative and retrospective over the years.

But it would be profoundly wrong and reductive to say that their fame was born and died with the streetwear trend: in addition to all being in full swing, they paved the way for generations of even younger creatives who, instead of getting noticed through Kanye West's media vehicle, reach prominent positions through more traditional paths within the industry. In this sense, their cultural revolution has been initiated and assimilated into mainstream culture - but at the cost of the global relevance of individual designers? The truth is perhaps that the group had strength in making a system and aggregating around Donda, and with the central nucleus's centripetal force gone, each of them has followed their own path, as it should be. Now they have all deservedly found their fortune, and we hope they find even more in the future, but that promise to rebuild the system from top to bottom, to bring a breath of fresh air to a mechanism old for at least a century, does not seem to be coming true.