Originally intending to join the army and later considering to study forensic science, Matthew Miller gave fashion a stab and enrolled in menswear at the Royal College of Art and has grown to become one of the hottest young generation labels to show at London Collections: Mens.
Inspired by words, images and current news, Miller's work has been sparking a fuse between fashion and politics aiming to create a canvas for the wearer's identity through a design aesthetic that merges utilitarian tailoring and luxe sportswear using innovative fabrications. Ahead of his show at London Collection: Mens this Sunday, STYLEFAN stepped into Miller's new design studio in Mile End for an exclusive interview with the humble and honest designer about his global venture.
Tuck Muntarbhorn: Tell me about the past five years of your life.
Matthew Miller: Briefly, I graduated from the RCA and freelanced for quite a few different companies, set up a business in London when menswear in London wasn't really that big and kind of grew the business with London Collections: Men and that's how I'm here!
TM: What inspires you Matthew?
MM: A multitude of things it's never just one thing - it's words, it's images, it's events around the world or it could be a singular moment in time.
TM: Could you tell us a specific moment that inspired a collection?
MM: Last season for AW14 I got ten different people to write down the way they were feeling unanimously and turned that emotional anarchy into clothing. It had nothing to do with seams or anything like that - everything came from the fact that people were being able to say what they want and how they feel and then translating that into clothing.
TM: What inspired you to become a fashion designer?
MM: I don't know actually - I'm not your standard fashion designer. I went to college and did something that's called 'foundation arts' where you basically get to try out every type of design and art discipline for two weeks. At the time, I was interested with identity and how clothing defines identity in other people's eyes and that you could project different things through clothing. It started off very naively and for some reason I just ended up where I am. It was never pre-planned...it was just something that happened to me.
TM: How would you relate the concept of 'fashion' to that of 'style'?
MM: They're two different things but they do intertwine and interact with each other at certain points. Style I would say is timeless and fashion I would say is of a time.
TM: What adjectives would you use to describe your style?
MM: I don't even know how to start that there's so many words!
TM: How did you develop your sense of style over the years then?
MM: My sense of style developed through experimentation as a teenager and I'm probably still experimenting with it now. I deal with clothing and identity and self-projection everyday so it's something that is constantly evolving and is an on going question I suppose.
TM: When and why did you add 'Untitled Mixed Media Dimensions Variable' to your clothing tags and labels?
MM: My label is still under my name but I believe that clothing is a canvas that people wear so therefore it should be labelled as such. So, when you get a piece of my clothing it has a tag with my name on it as I made the canvas, but, from then on...the person who wears it adds an inherent value to it that no one else can, so therefore, adding something to it that I can't. So, it goes back to identity - the way that you wear things and moments in time. When you fall over and stitch your jeans I believe you shouldn't stitch that up, as it's a moment in time that you should never forget!
TM: Why did you choose these words specifically?
MM: If you look against any piece of modern art in any gallery, generally when an artist can't give something a generic title - that's the 'Untitled' part. 'Dimensions Variable' relates to the human form - we are different so there is no exact measurement. 'Mixed Media' means that the clothing and the canvas is always going to be made of different things so when the person is wearing the canvas they're going to add things to it - whether it'll be a scuff, a mark or a scar that means it's 'Mix Media' and can be made of different things.
TM: Describe the Matthew Miller man and woman. What's their lifestyle?
MM: The Matthew Miller man and woman is someone who understands the design philosophy. Someone with a deep understanding of the world and life and is not necessarily the most flamboyant person in the world but understands the beauty of everyday I suppose.
TM: How is this reflected in your castings each season?
MM: It complete reflects in the casting each season. I always look for someone with character. You look at a lot of the big models on runways and the models are always chiselled - an image of perfection. I do quite the opposite - I'm looking for a scar, a juxtaposed nose or something that makes you look at someone and go 'wow' they're stunning but I don't know why. They're not 'magazine beautiful'...they're beautiful in a completely different way.
TM: Where are you from originally?
MM: I'm from a place called Stoke-on-Trent which is north of London and south of Manchester - a small industrial city, famous globally for ceramics.
TM: What was it like growing up there? What were your childhood and teenage years like?
MM: Growing up on Stoke-on-Trent I would say was quite isolating in good ways and in bad ways. It's good because you can get into trouble but you can never get into too much trouble because there wasn't that much there. But on the other hand, we didn't really see what was going on in London, New York or Tokyo.
TM: Is there any chapter from your teenage years that has marked and influenced your creative development as a menswear designer?
TM: In my early years, I grew up on a council estate in Stoke-on-Trent and I just always questioned identity and what made the people who lived there, them. That whole question was when I started experimenting more with clothes and I was obviously the whacky one dressing up!
TM: To what extent does your designs reflect upon your past experiences and memories?
MM: I think to an extent we are all impacted by our past. You don't know anything that you haven't experience or read or been told about - you can't just make things up. You have to reference your own history or someone else's. There's no denying that we're all basically referencing our history and our past.
TM: Why do designers like you keep referencing the past throughout their collections?
MM: I think there are a lot of designers who do look towards the future but I don't think you can move towards the future unless you fully understand the past. People need to understand something - a time or something to put it against. It's just the way the human brain works. We're all humans who want to say 'that's that and that reminds me of that'. It's not just designers who do it, people on the streets do it, journalists do it all the time - if you read a review they tend to reference new designers to old ones - it's a way of creating a story in the reader's mine of how things work. It's not just design it's communication.
TM: You originally intended to study forensic science at university. What made you change to fashion?
MM: I went to university and I didn't know you could make a career out of drawing or art. I was originally going to go in the army when I was sixteen! I went to an army college but I didn't like being told what to do, and then I ended up just going to university for six months. Then I went back to Stoke and I then enrolled onto my foundation and then went to Manchester.
TM: When did you move to London? What was it like when you first moved to London?
MM: I moved to London straight after my BA to go to the Royal College of Arts. But when I moved here it was terrifying - I felt like I was an immigrant from another country. I ended up working on a building site for a cash-in-hand job because I needed the money to pay the bills. So it was a really weird experience moving here to be honest with you and I witnessed a lot of incredible poverty and people trying to get by in life. Finding my way for the first six to twelve months was incredibly difficult. It's an amazing place London, but it can be incredibly hostile at the same time.
TM: What makes London unique compared to other cities?
MM: The people. It's exactly what you said earlier about diversity and multiculturalism. You don't get it anywhere else in the world as much as you do in London. It's not the indigenous population, it's not the typography, it's not the environment; it's the people who come together, who are completely different and make something that no one else could do.
TM: What aspects of living in London do you draw upon for inspiration in your collections?
MM: London can be quite a volatile place, and that volatility I think always comes through angst and aggression that always comes through my clothes. In London there's that freedom to say what you want and be who you've always wanted to be - the rest of the world would attack you for being that but in London it's free to do it and I think that's incredibly inspiring. It makes you as a designer think 'well I can be free and do what I want to do'.
TM: What did you gain most out of studying your MA at the Royal College of Arts?
MM: I can't put one thing down to it. I'm a massive fan of the Royal College of Arts - they gave me so much for so little back and I've been a supporter of them ever since. Every time they've asked me to do something - I would do it for them. It was such an inspiring place - I had eleven people in my class, probably five from the UK and six from around the world...everyone had these design ideas, mixed with product design and car design and they constantly had new design concepts. It was two years of constantly talking about design and how personal it was for you - it was just insane, it was so good!
TM: As part of your MA, where did you conduct work experience?
MM: During my MA I won a few design awards - one was called the Umbro design award which allowed me to work on a project for Umbro which lasted around six to eight months. It was a really unique experience - we were designing the future of fashion and that opened my mind up to technology and smart fabrics and how forward thinking sportswear was. I also as part of the RCA, worked with Brioni and went to their headquarters in Penne, in northeast Italy.
TM: What did you learn from these companies that wasn't taught at the RCA?
MM: I think whenever you go through education you've always been taught about fashion and when you're in a company you're always taught about product. How it has to turn around into a product that people can find value in and either paying to that, subscribing to it, or whatever you want to do and that's a complete difference.
TM: What's your starting point every season?
MM: I usually start my collections every season with a series of words. I find them very powerful and as soon as you hear one you can get a thousand images in your head and generally from words we do research and expand on the words to start the collection.
TM: Do you incorporate other art forms into your designs let it be art, film, music or literature?
MM: I think music's really important - it's incredibly important. We always really struggle to choose the music for a show. It can make or break a collection in my eyes - it has to say something, it has to be inclusive and it has to grab people's attention and drag them in. Music's one of them things it's just like words - you hear it and it can send you to another planet and you can get a thousand images, so is literature - words are very powerful, more powerful than bombs!
TM: What do you find more beautiful - perfection or imperfection? How is this reflected in your designs?
MM: I find imperfection more beautiful than perfection. It's reflect in the casting it reflects in the fact that we take really expensive fabrics, rip them up and hand sew them back together to give them scars, to give them decay and to give them a sense of texture that perfection couldn't give them. It's the fact that they've been destroyed, which gives them unique quality - nothing else. It's that kind of view of things that really underpins the aesthetic of our design.
TM: What do you find most difficult in your design process? What do you do when you hit a brick wall?
MM: The most difficult [thing] in design is time - there is never enough time. We have to really change a collection every six months and that is a difficult thing to do. It's the most challenging part.
TM: Is it the industry that is forcing you to producing every six months?
MM: The whole point of the six-month calendar is starting to be questioned. Will it change? I don't think so. I think it's even in the communication of design, in the reporting of collections. If in the reporting of the collection there's something that wasn't new - it's bad. So it's not even designers who need to change...it's the communication and consumption which has to change as a whole. There's a whole process of people involved from factories, textiles to designers, reporters and magazine distributors to the end consumer - all of them have to align and re-evaluate the whole process and that's such a hard thing to do.
TM: What do you think about the extravagance of the fashion industry whereby designers may be forced to spend large sums on shows or presentations to establish their names?
MM: I think they get tricked into doing it - to be honest with you. Two seasons ago we just photocopied invites on a piece of paper - it was on the worst paper that we could find and the whole point of it was to say that this is just as beautiful as invites that would cost five-thousand pounds to make. It goes back to our belief as a brand and a design house - the fact that beauty is not the most expensive thing in the world.
TM: Do you think young designers could start out independently and maintain that independence even while growing to a global scale? Will you remain independent forever?
MM: I think independence is something I've been thinking about more and more recently because obviously a lot of young designers take on investments and bigger companies come in and support them financially. I've been thinking is there a way of doing that without that support - so far I haven't come to a conclusion to be honest with you. It's certainly an option and so is independence - both sides of the coin are one you could grow very quickly with the right support and the right finances but obviously you lose your independence and the other side is that you keep your independence but you don't grow as quickly and you maybe won't ever achieve the wider goal through the lack of resources.
TM: As you are stocked internationally, which market is most responsive to your brand? Why do you think so?
MM: My first stockist was IT in Hong Kong and I've had that stockist ever since - fingers crossed we keep that stockist! That was the first market to respond...but then recently over the last year, the British market really responded and this last season and the season before it really has exploded here in the UK. So I'd say at first it was Hong Kong and Asia and now it's slowly growing across Europe.
TM: Do you find it quite ironic that Asia picked you before Europe?
MM: Yeah! But not so - I think Asia at the moment is much more rapidly forward thinking in terms of identity and clothing to be honest. The UK has always been a pioneer in it but at the moment it's certainly Asia.
TM: Do you consider having your own store one day? What will it look like and where will it be?
MM: I've considered it a lot. To own your own store you can project your own concept and your own identity straight away. But I am actually opening my online store and that's going to be the first step of it and the packaging is going to be the concept and the way of projecting the brand philosophy.
TM: What is the significance of the packaging?
MM: I just think that when you receive something the first thing you touch is the packaging - it's really important because we're all very tactile people. We all have these insane senses of touch, smell, perception, depth and taste and to actually get something and touch it - that's the first thing that you touch even before the product.
TM: What do you think about e-commerce and how it has changed our way of consumption?
MM: It's still changing it's insane. It's a market that's so volatile though. We've seen so many e-commerce sites collapse, major e-commerce sites over the last twelve to fourteen months - it just shows how volatile the market is and if you get it wrong you can collapse a business over it. I think we are changing - I think in Europe we are the leader in mobile phone shopping, in the UK there has been an insane take up and it's not going to stop - it's going to carry on evolving!
TM: Do you think this will this ever lead to an absence of a physical store?
MM: I don't think it makes sense to do that. We sell physical products - it's nice to actually walk into a store and chat to someone and know about someone's world rather than just being digital, it's nice to have both - you can't really just have digital without touch. Until digital technology can create physical touch you won't be able to get rid of stores because people love to touch fabric and love to know about the sense of proportion and sit back and look at something and a screen doesn't really have that emotional attachment yet.
TM: Fashion is moving at such a fast-forward pace in this digitalised era. What role does technology place in fashion?
MM: Technology has allowed my label in particular to communicate with the world on a massive scale...and it allows us to grow quickly. But it also allows everything to be consumed straight away. It's a double edge sword it has its pluses and it also has its negative sides.
TM: What are your thoughts on celebrity endorsement in fashion and how fashion is represented in the media?
MM: I struggle with celebrity endorsement in fashion because I just think it's a really lazy way of promoting a garment. Where I find that in a product or garment the real value is in the skill of the worker, the manufacturer, the material producer you know that's where I find the inherit value and to take this away from this beautiful chain where several different people have handled it...and really manipulating it to something that is a beautiful final product and then just to say 'let's just put that on a celebrity and that's going to make it better!' - it completely distorts the whole idea of that beautiful object, it bastardises it.
TM: How important is the role of social media in fashion? How have you used social media to shape your label?
MM: Social media for me is important but it's not really shaping the label. Social media is just reporting on the design philosophy - we're not a brand with a completely boring product that needs social media to make it more exciting. We are an exciting brand in which social media communicates to the world what's going on.
TM: Do you feel that technology is the most efficient way to innovate in menswear?
MM: It's the easiest way to innovate at the moment because we're in a technological and software boom. Everyone now has a smart phone and access to the Internet - it allows an individual to reach a vast market straight away.
TM: Is it challenging to constantly innovate and push boundaries as a designer?
MM: It is challenging; it’s really challenging to innovate and push boundaries but it is that challenge that I enjoy so it's not really a chore - that's the exciting bit! The exciting bit is research and development, it's the questioning, it's the ripping up, it's merging two things together - that's the really exciting and energetic time of a collection.
TM: Finally, where will your label be in five years’ time?
MM: I honestly don't know! I don't know where I'm going to be in five years’ time. Your guess would probably as good as mine! I didn't think that I'll be in London now; I didn't think that I would move to Manchester from Stoke when was in when I was sixteen. I didn't think that last year I would travel to Hong Kong, Japan and New - I take every six months as it comes really!
TM: Perhaps where would you like to be in five years time?
MM: I'd like to be just happy doing what I'm doing. Whatever that seems to be, whether it'll be design - I'm a great believer in doing whatever you want to do and just being the best at doing that. So I've always said that if I ever chose to go and be in the army I was going to be the best at it, if I was going to be a forensic scientist - I want to be the best at it, if I was going work in the kitchen or if I was going to sweep the street - I would want to be the best at it, and as long as you just want to be the best at whatever you do - that should be enough!
Matthew Miller Autumn/Winter 2014 Looks:
Matthew Miller Autumn/Winter 2014 Campaigns:
Interview: Tuck Muntarbhorn
Video: Xiao-Wei Lu
Photography: Haley Ma
Assistant: Shrai Popat
Imagery: Courtesy of Matthew Miller