Previewing his Fashion Space talk in Leeds this Friday, Matty Bovan, the British designer who returned to Yorkshire, tells Fashion Editor Stephanie Smith how he overcame barriers and rules to become a catwalk sensation.
Matty Bovan has always been extraordinary. “Even as a kid, I wanted something different,” he says. “I didn’t want what the other kids were wearing. Especially as a boy, there was nothing. I’ve always liked tactile things, like velour, which never comes in boys’ clothes, and I never understood why.”
We meet in the sedate grandeur of the Garden Room at the Principal York hotel for our interview and he arrives like a visiting bird of paradise, dressed in tones of orange and deep red, a splash of neon pink, long hair dyed multi-shades of blond, black and blue-violet, a patch of crimson at the ear. He’s wearing make-up, of course. Bovan loves make-up and, as babbym, frequently posts snaps of the day’s look on Instagram, where he has more than 31,000 followers. Today, there is a patch of blue glitter on his right cheekbone.
Bovan’s look – described, variously, by an increasingly intrigued fashion press, as “walking, self-painted billboard”, “colourful androgyne”, and (my favourite) “part Tank Girl, part My Little Pony” – is inseparable from his work. He’s been hailed as the “great bright hope” of British fashion, a designer with the vision, the genius and the persona to make the world sit up and listen again, an eccentric revolutionary in the tradition of Vivienne Westwood. In person, he is gentle, thoughtfully spoken and, yes, quite fascinating.
Bovan is in demand, recently collaborating with Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu, stylist Katie Grand and many others. Last month, he modelled at Paris for the Vivienne Westwood/Andreas Kronthaler show. A fortnight earlier, he presented his first solo show at London Fashion Week, having previously exhibited under the Fashion East young designer banner. On May 4, he will join Fashion East’s Lulu Kennedy for an In Conversation With event at Leeds International Festival.
The Yorkshire landscape helped inspire the AW18 collection. Bovan says: “You never can be unimpressed by it. Yorkshire is always an inspiration.”
Much has been made of the fact that Bovan lives and works up North. “How amazing to think that this tatty grandeur – wonky crinolines, balloon headdresses, and all – should have come out of a suburban garage in York,” said Vogue. Now 27, he moved back to his home city after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2015 with an MA in Knitwear Design. It was for financial reasons, he says, “but then, it’s become quite enjoyable. People find it quite unusual that I’m based up here. You don’t ever really leave when your parents are still here. I’d come back over the holidays and I’d work in the garage.” London, he points out, is just two hours away on the train. He’s there and back all the time.
Plum and Nick, his parents, have been his constant support and inspiration provider. “When I was a kid – I’m an only child – we’d drive out and go on the moors, to Whitby and a lot of the coastal places. My dad’s from Bradford, so we’d go to all the amazing fabric shops there and I’d buy scrap bags of stuff.”
He knew he wanted to make clothes from the age of five. “We didn’t have much money, so we used to tie-dye all the bedding and tablecloths bright colours and paint the chairs,” he says. “My mum was always doing stuff in the house. She’s naturally very creative. Both my grandmothers were.”
It was his late grandmother, Joan, who introduced him to knitting. She was also part-inspiration for his AW18 collection. “She was very smart, very together, very classy, everything matched, full make-up every day, nails always done,” he says. “She loved pearls. She owned a school in Norfolk and was headteacher.”
Despite his early conviction about a creative career, his state school education – he went to Millthorpe School in York – was not especially encouraging. “We were not pushed to do the creative subjects,” he says. “It felt very much like, ‘this is not a career for people like us, it doesn’t really happen’. Not that all the teachers thought that, but they just wanted you to be more realistic, and facilities were pretty primitive.”
He worries now that lack of funding and support for creative arts in schools has worsened even since his own experience. “People shouldn’t be discouraged and not shown it because it’s ‘not a viable career’. Up North, I feel it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s not a real job’.”
At 16, he went to York College to do a diploma in Fashion and an A-level in Art. “I was just so grateful to be able to do what I wanted,” he says. “I was kind of like a sponge and I still am – you never stop learning, do you?”
There followed a foundation at Leeds Beckett University (where he now teaches), then a BA and an MA at Central Saint Martins – eight years in education made possible only through the scholarships he won. At school, he didn’t know what BAs or MAs were, “as naive as that sounds,” he says.
He’s now moved his work out of the garage to a studio on the outskirts of York city centre. “I very much want to keep my hands on it,” he says of his designs. “Everything is slightly different, everything is numbered, but that’s the way I see doing it. The world is pumped full of so much stuff.”
But there will be T-shirts sold through Matches.com, “which makes it more accessible, but even then, I want them to have something exciting about them”.
The Hepworth, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Leeds Art Gallery are favourite sources of inspiration. He has concerns about young people relying solely on the algorithms of social media and the internet for their creative development. “It all goes round in circles, so it’s showing you what it thinks you want to see.”
Bovan enjoys the idea of the polymath, bringing designing, creative directing, styling, make-up artistry, film-making, teaching and modelling all within his dizzying remit. Designing, he points out, takes up 75 per cent of his time. Last year, with friend and frequent collaborator Lucy Alex Mac, he created a short film for Barbie, featuring girls in and around York. Now he’s working on a “big thing” that will take place in Yorkshire next month. He can say no more. There’s a lack of opportunity up here, he says, so he likes to offer his support. “Why would I not? There’s so much talent.”
The invitation to model for Vivienne Westwood came after meeting Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s partner, at a Vogue dinner. Bovan says: “You don’t get these opportunities a lot. It’s so much fun to see it from the other side. I’m a huge fan of Vivienne and Andreas. It was an honour to be asked.”
The shift in attitude towards gender fluidity seems to have come as a surprise, albeit a welcome one. “It’s a very quick change,” he says, adding that the students he teaches, around 10 years younger than himself, see the world through very different eyes. “That conversation is way more open with them about everything, race and sexuality and gender, and I think that’s amazing. It’s just a complete shift. When I was growing up, it was never discussed.”
Bovan collaborates with his mother artistically, creating jewellery pieces to show with his designs. “I trust her opinion completely about a lot of things, and we are very close, as I am with my dad,” he says.
He has no plans to return permanently to London, although he did find it a haven when he moved there to study. “I felt more at home because I never really fit in that much, because that’s how it is when you look like this,” he says.
“I was very lucky to have supportive parents,” he adds. “When you have that stable background, it means you can face a lot of things. If you don’t have that stable background, I don’t know how you do it.”
* Matty Bovan will be taking part in In Conversation with Fashion East at Leeds International Festival Spiegeltent, Millennium Square, on May 4 from 4.15-6.30pm, with Lulu Kennedy, Per Götesson, Mimi Wade and Art School. Tickets cost £10. The Fashion Space at Leeds International Festival runs to May 6. Visit https://leedsinternationalfestival.com/ See also the catwalks in shipping containers on Briggate this weekend.