HOME AND AWAY
New York-based “non-Australian Australian” designer Matthew Adams Dolan talks about getting the attention of superstars, his new all-American collection and why he’s kicking traditional streetwear to the curb. By Zara Wong.
New York-based “non-Australian Australian” designer Matthew Adams Dolan on why he’s kicking traditional streetwear to the curb.
Each year at Thanksgiving, American flags would go up outside the Adams Dolan household in Sydney’s Castle Hill, an affluent suburb about 30 kilometres north-west of the CBD. Matthew Adams Dolan’s mother – an avid quilter and sewer – would ensure the decorations were in place and that a traditional American Thanksgiving would be celebrated. For Christmas, his relatives in America would send him OshKosh and L.L. Bean clothes that he would wear for the next year.
“I have always felt quite American,” says designer Adams Dolan in an Australian accent. Born in a small town outside of Boston, he grew up primarily in Australia, save for stints in high school in countryside Japan and in Switzerland on university exchange. His parents were meant to be in Australia for only a few years, but they enjoyed it so much that it was prolonged – and they still live in Sydney, his father is an agronomist and his mother a narcotics investigator. But he confirmed his outsider status earlier, conscious of his identity as a “non-Australian Australian”, as he puts it, living in Australia, “or when I was in Switzerland or in Japan, where I was obviously not Japanese, so you’re always distanced immediately from everyone because of that”, he says. “When you’re an outsider, you’re able to take a step back and look at everyone and everything else around you.”
Tall and limby, there is no missing Adams Dolan – his height would have ensured second glances back in rural Japan. There’s a comfortable gait that is in tune with the pitter-patter of his Lakeland terrier, Maisie, who he’s walking today. Weaving through the streets from his loft apartment-cum-studio at the southern wharves of Manhattan to Chelsea, Maisie’s best characteristic is to make sure that Adams Dolan leaves his apartment, where the 30-year-old regularly works till the early hours sewing or planning new collections.
The new living quarters is an upgrade from his Williamsburg flat share – complete with a sewing machine and a loom in the corner – where they Airbnbed the spare room to help with bills. Now his design equipment sprawls throughout his living space. Current and past season moodboards with early-90s fashion editorials (pastel suiting, Christy Turlington in bold gold jewellery and a white blazer) and photographs of John F. Kennedy Jr with Carolyn Bessette (red carpet and paparazzi shots) lean against the walls. “We’re all so concerned with politics now; it’s inescapable, so it’s interesting to look at the past,” he says. “Americans are always going to be obsessed with the Kennedys, because it was such a big part of the culture. What Jackie Kennedy wore shaped how women dressed, and how they did their hair.”
The lure of having an independent label was never a temptation for Adams Dolan, who feels – honestly – that it happened by kismet. He was interested in textiles, having written theses about weaving in America. “I always wanted to work in a big company in textile development, and when I finished school, I was going to amazing interviews and they would say: ‘Ah, we don’t have anything at the moment’ or: ‘We don’t know if this is the right position for you,’” he says in a quiet voice of the time when he was finishing his competitive masters degree at Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village. He had also completed his undergraduate double degree at Sydney’s University of Technology in design as well as French and Swiss literature – he has an intellectual curiosity that extends far beyond the worlds of fashion and design. But in the meantime, the graduate collection he did as part of his Parsons masters degree was gaining traction, requested for shoot after shoot. Stylist Alastair McKimm cottoned on early and enlisted him to work with his team to sew garments as required for a slew of his projects.
If there is a singular moment that defines the young designer – the one that cannot go unmentioned in any story about him – is the Rihanna moment. Rewind, go back – he had received a last-minute request for a sample that he didn’t have on hand. But, the sample was for a shoot with the singer and he stayed up all night to re-sew the particular look. The rest, as they would say, was fashion history – Rihanna loved the piece so much that she wore it out and was promptly photographed in it, causing a furore as to who the mainstream-wise unknown designer was behind her oversized denim jacket. “She wore it the next day, the next day, and the next. It was a lot of attention in one week!” Dolan beams.
The reaction was unprecedented. (Lady Gaga had worn his pieces before and the response was noticeably quieter.) His inbox exploded: Rihanna’s fans wanted to buy it, retailers in Japan and Opening Ceremony in New York were interested, even though wholesaling his graduate collection was not part of his original plan. “It was a matter of timing and circumstances,” he shrugs, in between passers-by stopping to pat Maisie. “And I have sewn many of that jacket since then,” he says with a laugh (most probably late into the night).
Rihanna’s interest in his work culminated in him working with her and her creative team on Fenty for Puma. While he tells me about how involved she was, and how there wasn’t a detail that she missed, he was more excited about the experience of working within a larger team. “I’d interned, but I hadn’t worked in a company out of school and especially a company at that scale,” he says earnestly. “I learnt so much about technology and costing, and knowing that if you’re going to make something, it needs to sell for X amount, and you’re going to make 2,000 units, and it was working intelligently with price boundaries,” he explains. He had stints working in retail, too, while studying: Ralph Lauren, Incu and Acne in Sydney and at Alexander Wang in New York, where he recalls how Scandinavian tourists would come in looking for studded handbags. “When you work in retail, you learn how to read people, don’t you think?” he proposes. “It’s important to know what people want to buy.”
Delving into the finer points of what sells for his label has fascinated him. Denim might have been his launch pad and his personal choice for what he wears himself day to day, but the label is also doing a roaring trade in knits and shirting, and he is a finalist for the trajectory-boosting CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund. His autumn/winter ’18/’19 took this a step further by playing with suiting, proportions and cuts to improve design, rather than for the sake of change. “I’m challenging shape and proportion,” he says. “From the front they look quite normal, but they have all these big curved sleeves or a very tightly nipped waist. It’s not just about it being oversized, but considering comfort, so moving the armholes forward, or having the shoulders curved. Because otherwise, what makes you want to buy a suit from me or someone else?”
Advancing comfort and ease is what governs how Adams Dolan designs, and it comes from his sense of identity and place. “American iconography has so many layers: when you think about something like jeans, they’re worn by teenagers in the 1950s and it was the first time that generation were even identified as teenagers, and then you look at punk and ripped denim, hip-hop, Western, workwear – they’ve moved through all these different stratospheres,” he says, touching upon his masters work for Parsons. The strictly streetwear world is one that Adams Dolan has evolved beyond. “There’s so much hype about streetwear, but who needs to buy another hoodie? How many hoodies do people want to see in store?” he asks with a laugh. “I like the idea of young people dressing up.” In his designs, he’s “addressing what it means to be American and not necessarily WASP-y, or Gossip Girl, or Ralph Lauren ads in the Hamptons. Looking at the American identity feels more authentic when you’re walking around,” he says, gesturing to students celebrating graduation in Washington Park, people eating lunch, skaters – different ages and ethnicities. “And it’s reflected in our show casting as well – we want our casting to look like the New York you see walking down the street.”
With a self-confessed obsession with the legacy and heritage of American fashion, he rolls off inspiration points that run the gamut from influential designer Claire McCardell, Dolly Parton to Aaliyah to the Lo-Lifes, a gang who would steal and wear Ralph Lauren. “Ralph Lauren is all about aspiration and elitism – it’s very WASP-y and not designed for them, but they reappropriated it,” he says of the Lo-Lifes. Of McCardell: “She was about having clothes that women could wear to work.” The combination of the two, sprinkled with pop culture references, is an oddly concise summary of Adams Dolan’s latest collection, with its shirts with elongated sleeves and enlarged collars worn with blue jeans, fuzzy cable-knit long cardigans for men in fuchsia and cobalt, and Clueless- style blazer and pleated skirt sets in grey suiting fabric or plaids. Reworked, recontextualised lexicons of American style as observed when growing abroad. They’re the clothes to wear, to get out and about in, the prep, the American sportswear, the denim, the street wear that is re-examined and re-made.
“WHO NEEDS TO BUY ANOTHER HOODIE? I LIKE THE IDEA OF YOUNG PEOPLE DRESSING UP”
Rihanna in Matthew Adams Dolan at a Parsons School of Design benefit (left), and in that oversized denim jacket in New York.