Today, Matty Bovan’s hair is bright yellow. His eyes are painted with two curliqued black flicks that extend across his temples, and his nails are flashing sapphire. I see this, because he’s waving a crochet hook in a pleasant greeting over a Zoom call.“I’m crocheting something for next season, keeping my hands busy!” he declares. “I find it really therapeutic, you know, so I just sort of keep it going.” Bovan is here to talk about another Zoom call that took place exactly where he is today—the studio in his late grandmother’s house in York—during which he recently won both the Woolmark Prize and the ancillary Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation for 2021. “That’s been kind of crazy.” He pauses. “It’s just been kind of two different worlds, almost. I’m incredibly honored and happy.”
You can see exactly what would’ve charmed, impressed—and quite probably astonished—the International Woolmark Prize judges as they looked in on Matty as he explained his entry on screen from this room. He’s in York, in the North of England. “It’s funny,” he chuckles. “A lot of people mishear that. I sometimes get letters addressed to Matty Bovan, New York, England.” But no: Bovan is a pioneer of localism, designing and making clothes outside of the fashion-capital system. Only a few years ago, that seemed to be an impossible fit with anything the establishment could accept. Yet the extraordinary life of this lanky, multitasking British thirty-one-year-old is proof of the viability of what his generation believes in: local production, craft, the power of hands-on creativity, gender-ignoring dressing, and a whole lot more.
Something yellow is fast taking shape in Bovan’s hands as he talks. This is a color not far off the current shade of his hair—because there’s always a flow between the appearance and the ideas that manifest in the wildly inventive woven, knitted, and printed things that burst out of his collections. That’s been the case with this fashion rule-breaker since he was roughly the age of fourteen—long before he graduated from Central Saint Martins’ MA course in 2015. Scroll down through his Instagram account, @babbym, and there’s the proof: happy family photos of the teen Matty at home in Yorkshire sometime in the early 2000s, with his hair streaked red and white, alongside his mother and grandmother, who taught him to crochet and knit, beaming next to him.
There was a moment of epiphany when his tutor at CSM MA, the late Professor Louise Wilson, looked at his first year design work and rejected it. The visionary teacher cajoled him that what he was wearing when he walked into class—homemade dresses and a different experiment with makeup and hair color every day—was far more interesting than what he was trying to project as “fashion” for other people. “Louise was adamant: you need to take pictures of what you’re wearing every day. She told me to document it, and work from that. And then it was like, oh okay, what I’m doing is valid.
At college, they were like, ‘No: just do who you are, and elevate it.’ I mean, that’s interesting, because I guess it’s what a lot of people are doing now.”
From that point on, with all his dramatically intruriging, cobwebby, knitted, fluoro and pastel-colored self-made collections, the culty fame of Matty Bovan exploded. Pre-pandemic, supermodels were always thrilled to step up to walk for him. His London Fashion Week shows—spectaculars in which the wonky glamor of his hand-made ball gowns wowed the press—had the backing of stylist Katie Grand, and of brands such as MAC and Coach, who wanted to collaborate with him. At his Spring 2019 show, Vivienne Westwood sat next to the designer’s flamboyant mom, Plum Bovan. Backstage, Westwood made sure she found the TV cameras to deliver her accolade: “Matty Bovan, he’s a true punk, you know.”
Well, maybe Dame Vivienne was right in some ways—all the DIY, off-system British-indie ways—but Matty Bovan’s aura is something 180 degrees away from the gobbing, swearing, bin-bagged rebelliousness of punk forty years ago. His work fits the profile of English-eccentric tradition in a very different way. Bovan’s never made anything in black. He’s a grounded, imaginative force with a politely open-minded confidence in who he is
and how he works. There’s joy in all the multicolored subversion that he weaves, knits, and prints into collections like the ocean-inspired one for Woolmark he talked through that day to Thom Browne, Tim Blanks, Carine Roitfeld, and the rest of the judges who Zoomed into his front room from New York, Paris, London, and Australia on the day he convinced them that he should be this year’s double-winner.
Part of the Woolmark challenge—and opportunity for Bovan—was to prove how young talent could exercise sustainability while using wool; in particular, fine Merino wool. “I wanted to try and explain to people that the stuff I make is really limited,” he says. “A lot of love and time goes into each piece. I try and make everything special and unique because I think that’s also what people respond to now. I think this makes sense for fashion, because it’s gone from being thousands of pieces which are anonymously produced, to [a position where] people are actually wanting to know, ‘How did you make this? How long will it last? Where’s it been made? And, what’s it’s been made from?’”
The expanses of the patterned pannier dresses he made—piratical skirts suggestive of ship’s sails—were specially designed Merino wool jacquards, which he made in conjunction with Hainsworth, along-established mill that, amongst other things, makes uniforms for royal regiments. Woolmark’s backing for the project was open sesame for that. “I’ve never been able to get a foot in the door, because they were very establishment. I was able to work with them, sending artwork to be done on their digital looms, which was great.” Unfazed by working during lockdown, he found local women who are experts in knitting and crochet “just around the corner from me,” boiled up pans of dye and hand-painted the rest in his home studio to get the vivid colors he wanted. The rest, he made from leftover yarns on a hand-operated knitting machine.
He’d never really thought about emphasizing his sustainable credentials, but the photo-documentary video he made about his processes for the Woolmark judges stated that for the first time. “I’ve always worked like this, but suddenly I realized, maybe I need to be more transparent about it,” he says. “I never throw anything away, and the machine I have doesn’t use electricity. I was trying to explain how much of it is hands-on, and how we work with local factories. So I made a sort of diary of it.”
Maybe it was that—the proof that something so limitlessly creative could still be made during the limits of last winter’s lockdown that swung the judges in Bovan’s favor. “I guess I poured so much into the collection because it felt like a really dark time,” he reflects. But in a way, it brought him back full circle to who he’s always been. “I remember trying to do all of this since I was a teenager, so it’s kind of like going back to that headspace, by being very kind of DIY. I love this idea of cooking things up on the stove and seeing what comes out. When I was a kid, my mum used to do that, tie-dyeing tablecloths in the garden all the time. Believe me,” he laughs. “It was very vague, because at fifteen I had no clue, but there’s still a lot of that DNA in me now. It hasn’t really left, because it just all comes down to self-expression.”
What will he do now that he has the accolade and the financial lift of the double whammy of two Woolmark prizes? “I’m still really shocked and grateful that I won, because there was obviously such a very talented lineup of people, and you lose perspective in a way, you know, you do the best you can but you have no idea of the outcome,” he says with typical modesty. “Now, it’s a case of just sort of pushing every button I can think of, pushing skills a bit further, and trying to learn a bit more about them and trying to also explain more to people who are interested in the work.”
He’s not planning a return to the runway any time soon—his next collection will again be in the form of a film. And nor will he be leaving his studio, or the local network of suppliers and craftspeople he’s built up and relies on. It doesn’t mean that his international reach as a leader in independent, ethically creative fashion will be any the smaller—quite the opposite: he intends to build on that through his direct-to-consumer business, right where he is. In a world where so many young creatives are thinking and acting in the same way, Bovan’s an inspiration for a generation.“Home is my happy place,” he says with a smile. “There’s a freedom in it. And, you know, it’s fun.”
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