meet rihanna’s favorite denim designer
Matthew Dolan’s mom thinks his clothes are ugly. Rihanna disagrees.
As a fashion designer, having your clothes appear on a trashy magazine's back page of shame is often, perversely, a good sign. It means you're probably ahead of your game. Similarly, your mom's confusion should be reassuring. "My mom's always asking me, 'Why do you make so much ugly stuff that's so big?,'" laughs designer Matthew Dolan in his studio on New York's East River. "She went crazy when all of those celebrity gossip websites were commenting on my pieces. It's a good thing, though."
Matthew's talking about the several times this year that Rihanna was photographed around New York in his signature oversized jackets (two in unwashed denim, one in camo), and the images of Lady Gaga leaving her Paris hotel in an ankle-length Matthew Dolan denim coat with dramatic wide-cuffed sleeves. Ever since the Bahamian pop queen appeared on the cover of i-D's Music Issue wearing one of Matthew's now instantly recognizable, generously proportioned indigo shirts, things have taken off. This month, Rihanna wore another piece on the cover of NME.
"Rihanna is ultimate. I love her. She's amazing," effuses Dolan in his soft Australian accent. But now he's also excited to see non-celebrities wearing his clothes on the street: "It's one thing to see pieces in a magazine, it's another to see them on the subway. You always want to know who buys it, who that person is." As we talk, he's in the process of getting his spring/summer 15 collection ready to present at fashion week. It will be his first collection since his Parsons graduate show in 2014 (yep, Rihanna wore pieces from his M.F.A. show), and he's thinking more and more about the women who are really going to wear his clothes.
"It's cool to make these jackets but you have to remember that someone has to go eat dinner in them," he deadpans. "Your sleeves are in your pasta? Yeah, that's not really practical." The spring collection, which he has since debuted at a packed presentation on Orchard Street, takes the standout oversized silhouettes and fabrics of his graduate collection and shifts them ever so slightly towards the dinner table-appropriate. The styles are familiar - slouching pinstripe denim overalls, super-wide-leg jeans with frayed hems, raw denim jackets with overflowing sleeves - but the sizing is more XXL than XXXL. You could eat spaghetti in these clothes no problem.
After all, Matt's denim obsession began by studying practical, comfortable clothes. During his masters course at Parsons, one of his assignments was to create a project inspired by a randomly selected location on a map of New York. He got the Brooklyn waterfront, it was summer, and he watched all the tourists in their cargo pants and Hawaiian shirts. "I was taking pictures of all the clothes on my phone and seeing the same things over and over. Everyone wears jeans. I've always been really obsessed with comfort and familiarity, but I really started looking at how things fit."
He also credits his mom with his interest in clothes. Matt was born in Danvers, Massachusetts but moved with his family to Sydney when he was young (he then lived in rural Japan for a while, and studied in Switzerland). "When I finished high school, I was not very sure of what I wanted to do. I was really interested in design, but it wasn't like I'd wanted to be a fashion designer since I was a kid. I was always surrounded by that stuff, though. My mom sewed our clothes so we had a big sewing room in my house. My sister got all these homemade dresses that she hated wearing!" He says the second choice on his college application form was "law or something like that." But an inspiring Vivienne Westwood retrospective that opened in Sydney right before he left school finally pushed him into fashion.
In Australia, Matt says he always felt very American. (The fact that his family flew the Stars and Stripes outside their house probably didn't help.) And living away from the States is perhaps, in part, why his interest in the country's fashion history is so strong -- he almost wrote his undergrad thesis on the subject. "American fashion is all about democratization," he says, "there is so much interesting history here, then there was a big boom in sportswear and now I feel like fashion has become very Eurocentric."
In the studio, Matt's mood board is collaged with John Wayne movie stills and printouts of Aaliyah. It's as Americentric as it gets - an ode to authentic US of A cool in all its forms. You can trace the shapes and textures of his clothes back to these snippets of vintage Americana. The smocking on a draped plaid top has its origins in an etching from a book about 19th-century dressmaking - as does the off-the-shoulder drape of a crinkled denim shirt. And the spring collection's stiffened denim dungarees echo the pair worn by the sultry freckled teenager on the cover of Richard Avedon's In the American West. Matthew may sound like an Australian, but his clothes are helping push American fashion towards a new frontier.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Michael Hauptman, courtesy Matthew Dolan