Not all superheroes wear capes. Matty Bovan – the 27-year-old York-based designer who might just be the saviour the fashion industry needs – is more likely to be found wearing a hi-vis jacket over a white mini-dress or a mustard velvet tunic over a pair of tie-dye leggings. Bovan has an extraordinary look – part Tank Girl, part My Little Pony – and an approach to fashion that is as cheeringly unconventional.
“There seems to be a consensus among people my age,” he says, “who are trying to find a way to operate in fashion that isn’t mass production. That, in my gut, just feels right. More than ever, we need less stuff. Mass consumption, mass production can’t go on for ever.”
Bovan will present his first solo catwalk show at London fashion week this Friday, having won over influential fans such as super-stylist Katie Grand with three previous collections presented as part of talent incubator Fashion East.
While many more established designers print their political views on their (mass-produced) T-shirts, Bovan’s views are reflected in his entire ethos and business model.
“I really like to be involved in everything – everything in the show we make in York – I really like every element to be touched by hand.” As machine technology booms, he says, “craft is more important than ever. Imagine if you could print your own jumper at home – I think that will happen – but you have to have the handmade element along with the tech element.” Otherwise, fashion and consumption will continue to spiral out of control. “We have too much of everything, on every level.”
Rather than scrimp and save to live in London, Bovan moved back into his family home in York after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2015. “I don’t know how anyone manages to [live in London] and stay above water,” he says. “Even my friends who are there are moving further and further out. To be creative,” he says, “you need some flexibility, some leeway if something does go wrong – well, it’s the same with life, really.”
Despite not having the cushion of family wealth, he isn’t chasing a regular paycheck from one of the big fashion conglomerates. In 2015, he was one of three new designers to win the prestigious LVMH Graduate prize – part of which involved going to work at Louis Vuitton. Describing that experience, he told i-D: “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. So I asked to leave before the year was up.”
Instead, he took inspiration from designers such as Vivienne Westwood. “For [her] everything, at the start, was made in the kitchen sink. I love that idea of being so hands-on; of it being about personal taste.” Bovan does his own thing and he keeps it small. So when he sells pieces to retailers, every item is numbered and slightly different. He is able to put on Friday’s show thanks to sponsorship from DIY fashion brand Wool and the Gang.
Bovan’s approach, and his remarkable work – which melds shamanistic totems, neon knits and an air of futuristic shipwreck – might once have been deemed marginal by an industry dedicated to selling as many pairs of trousers as possible. But today, with fashion deep in soul-searching mode, Bovan’s voice, and that of contemporaries such as Rottingdean Bazaar and Charles Jeffrey, is cutting through.
“I always say I’m not a political designer,” he says, “but I am very interested in politics – how can you not be?” Nevertheless, Bovan’s concerns about life for young people are stitched into every garment. “Growing up, it feels like everything is getting harsher and more extreme,” he says. “I went back to my old school a year ago, and the teachers were saying it’s crazy how much art subjects have been cut. Kids can’t see [the arts] as a viable option, which is really sad. It’s bleak if they don’t even start with a dream.”
It’s no coincidence that Bovan’s aesthetic is often described as utopian, or dystopian. “I love it when people pick up on those themes,” he says. “When I design, it is almost as though I am doing it for a film – it is very epic and inspired by sci-fi,” he says. He references Blade Runner, Mad Max, Alien and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9; imaginings of futuristic worlds which, he says, to some degree “will become a reality – maybe not specially these things but this [idea of] a dramatic, harsh world”.
Far from holding forth on the issues without doing anything about them, Bovan – in his own very brightly coloured, escapist, dystopian/utopian way – is presenting fashion with an alternative.