Styling Max Clark. Model Matty Bovan. Matty wears all clothing Balenciaga.
Is there any more of an exquisitely accurate symbol of the current state of creative play in fashion than 26-year-old Matty Bovan? Already famous after just two collections with Fashion East — a star persona with his @babbym Instagram feed — he's a walking, self-painted billboard for so many generational characteristics, it's hard to count the ways. What is he? Designer, model, illustrator, makeup artist, creative director, colorful androgyne, just for starters. He's the darling of Katie Grand, Marc Jacobs, and Miu Miu, yes. But so much more than that, too. Beyond the multi-colored eye shadow and whatever tint he might've dyed his hair today, Matty is a non-compromising, multi-tasking, collaborative native of the British creative resistance. Someone who flags the way it really is; an example of survivalist leadership emerging on the brink of the crashing old system.
Which is why, on an ordinary day, you're likely to find Matty two hundred and one miles up the M1 from London, working away at the back of his parents' house in York. "I've got this garage I've worked in since I was sixteen," he explains. "It's like a studio set-up. I work on four or five looks at a time; I like to have things on the go. What I do is a messy job, washing and dyeing things, and it takes up space."
Matty is the only child of parents who didn't go to university but have encouraged him every step of the way. His mom, Plum (@begoniapeterson), once a secretary, decorated the house with dyed bed sheets and heart-stamped cornices. She now makes his jewelry. "I always grew up with the idea that if you don't have the money, you just make it. So it's always been a natural thing for me to be creative," Matty says.
It was Plum's mother who turned Matty onto knitting and the reason he took the fashion knitwear BA degree at Central Saint Martins. "I chose knitwear because my grandma Joan taught me to knit when I was 11," he says. "I was staying with her and it was like, 'give me something to do!' Then a friend of my dad's mom gave me a knitting machine when I was 16. It's so much cheaper to make your own things, and I liked the speed of it. I remember trying to make an outfit a day when I was 17."
Matty wears all clothing Matty Bovan.
Extraordinary families, from whatever background, make talented outliers of their kids — that's been proved over and over. Yet in some ways, the situation of this outlier, this gangly six and a half foot composite of Irving Penn shape-thrower and early 80s club-kid throwback, is just normal reality. Yep: Matty Bovan is a refugee from London, one of thousands of the 'boomerang generation' whose graduate earning-power is outstripped by impossibly high rents in the capital and who, as a result, is living back at home. The difference with Matty is that he is not afraid or ashamed to openly state it. "I'm not going to get on my soapbox, but young people are really feeling it post-Trump and Brexit," he says. "It's £9000 a year to go to university now — how can people manage? I know I'm privileged to be able to live at home, because many people can't. But all my friends are having freak-outs, not just people working in fashion. Everyone's asking what am I doing, when I can't afford to pay rent, even when I'm working? How awful is Brexit? I remember just reeling when it happened. I am a huge non-fan."
Which has a lot to do with why his second collection, shown to universal acclaim in February, took a darker turn than his glittery, escapist debut. On a shoestring, he created a symbolic dystopian landscape of wonky papier-mâché cottages dominated by high-rise buildings, made by William Farr. "I'm not a political designer, but I'd been watching all these sci-fi movies, Blade Runner and Alien, and in them the corporations are the evil villains," he says. "I felt that was the most relevant thing right now. So I wanted to construct these warriors, who are not afraid." While the collection referenced medieval York — his fascination since he was a kid — there was also something primeval, tribal, and inspiringly brave about the wrapped and layered mash-up of crochet, free-form argyles, silver survival-blanket coats and prints of scenes from ancient books depicting devils and dragons. "I wanted it to be a bit ambiguous," Matty explains, but in it, there was embedded an ironic comment: embroidered badges that read 'Bovan Corporation.'
Matty Bovan has taken the deliberate choice not to throw his lot in with the corporate ways of fashion. The way he's come to this decision isn't necessarily aggressive or angry, but it's been taken in light of a whole set of circumstances which have made the system more inhospitable than ever for even the most brilliantly talented designers. On the one hand, the hierarchies of luxury houses that hire and fire top creative directors — and their teams with them — with brutal regularity. On the other: retailers who set unreachable and swiftly ruinous sales targets for young independents. He didn't understand the reality of the second part until he went to Paris with the Fashion East band to sell his collection. "After the first season I went to the London Showrooms in Paris. I realized I can't really supply it the ways stores are asking. I don't want to make lots and lots of clothes. At the moment, I'm doing one-offs and teaching. It lifted a weight, not having to worry about that."
Matty wears all clothing Matty Bovan.
It's not that everyone wasn't interested in Matty Bovan's cheerful, youthful, clubby look — they were. Even before he graduated from Central Saint Martins MA course in 2015, a prolific fixture in the studio working day and night on his spangly multi-layered, twisty-turny 3-D constructs, creativity flowing out of his fingertips, he's always been unmissable, dressing the way he designs, experimenting on himself. He's a down-to-earth northern individualist blessed with a sociable charm and openness, excited to say yes to opportunities. It's just that, to his cohort it's become clear that the opportunity doesn't lie along a single fast-lane highway into the fashion industry. He tried that. "I won the student LVMH prize and went to work at Louis Vuitton. They didn't really know where to put me. There were so many deadlines, so many clothes, and I couldn't really afford the flat in Paris," he recalls. "So I asked to leave before the year was up. I felt I'd let everyone down, but when I came back, I knew I was doing the right thing."
The way forward has turned out to be a self-determined do-it-yourself patch-worked career supported by freelance collaborations, sponsorships, and contracts. A new way of doing things; a branch of the so-called 'gig economy', run from a garage in York. "It holds the creative door open," Matty says. And so far, it's working very well. There's the friendship with Katie Grand, who's had him modeling, styling, and doodling his drawings on layouts for Love; the collaboration on prints for Marc Jacobs, and the dressing of mannequins for a Miu Miu resort presentation in Paris. There's his collab with M.A.C, and a film with Barbie. He's also made some one-off pieces for Lulu Kennedy's Fashion East pop-up shop in Selfridges.
It's all a matter of how young people gauge 'success' today. For Matty Bovan, it's about keeping his creative freedom afloat; the ability to make and say the things he wants through his clothes, no matter what. Besides the collaborations, he's thinking about a new way of selling: "maybe occasionally, with an installation. Making it a celebration of the one-off."
In the meantime, he knows that having the space, away from the grinding harshness of the London rat race, is the savior of his mental health. "It's nice for me as a creative person to have silence and some perspective, and to be surrounded by trees. It really takes the pressure off to work like this. I have to be quite happy to be able to work, anyway." Far from retreating into an ivory tower, Matty Bovan is also a giver-back, teaching at his former Foundation college, Leeds Beckett University. At twenty-six, he says he worries about talking to kids ten years younger than him, and seeing them depressed and worried about money and the future. There is no magic cure for the times we live in, but what better advert for the sheer joy of making something out of practically nothing could there be than having Matty Bovan walk into your class? "You can't worry when you're making something. For me it's primordial. It's almost meditative," he laughs. "Even knitting is a kind of peace."
Text Sarah Mower
Photography Tim Walker
Styling Max Clark