A Designer Inspired by Dutch Still Lives and Gay Pulp Fiction

As a child growing up in the center of Paris, Matthieu Blazy, the 39-year-old designer at the helm of Bottega Veneta, had a robust imagination. Though his father, Jacques, an art expert, and his mother, Christine Philips, a historian and researcher, would often take him and his twin sister, Julie, and their brother, Quentin, on trips abroad — to China, Mali and Burkina Faso — Blazy discovered more adventures in stories and cartoons. “I loved comics,” he said this past June at a cafe near his apartment in Milan. “Tom Sawyer was my childhood hero.” By his own account, he was a similarly spirited boy, which partly explains how he ended up at a Catholic boarding school in France and later at a military academy in England.

The tension between freedom and constraint would also come to define his career, which began in 2007 in Antwerp, Belgium, when he went to work for Raf Simons. The pair had met a year before at the International Talent Support prize in Trieste, Italy, where Simons, a judge of the competition, was introduced to Blazy, one of the finalists. In 2012, Blazy was hired as a head designer — albeit an anonymous one — at Maison Margiela Artisanal, where, even though the brand famously prefers to present as a collective, he was encouraged to indulge his own inventive whims. “It felt very liberating,” he said. “Up to the moment when it wasn’t anymore. With so much freedom, you stop challenging yourself.”

A stint at Celine followed in 2014, and with it another period of restraint. “I told Phoebe [Philo, then the house’s creative director] that I wanted to make clothes that are worn,” he said. “The idea of making a great trouser, for me, was enough.” But two years later, he was back with Simons, who brought Blazy to New York for his short-lived tenure at Calvin Klein. “We all got let go,” Blazy recalled. “It felt like a movie: I was on the street with my cardboard box.” Searching for a salve after the creative claustrophobia of working for a large corporation, he headed to Los Angeles to help his friend the artist Sterling Ruby, who was working on a fashion collection. After the launch, Blazy was invited to join Bottega Veneta’s design team in Milan.

Barely a year later, in 2021, Daniel Lee stepped down as the Italian house’s creative director. “When they offered me the job, I was ready,” said Blazy, whose stellar first collection last year included skin-baring patchwork dresses, simple tailoring and his most quietly experimental work to date: trompe l’oeil jeans, tank tops and shirts, all made from painstakingly printed soft nubuck leather. “My fashion education was done,” he said. “It was my turn to lead.”

At top: “I learned about [the Italian architect and designer] Gaetano [Pesce] during my first year of university [at La Cambre in Brussels]. At the time, I didn’t like his work — I didn’t know how to take it. But I always came back to it. Here, I’m visiting him at his studio in Brooklyn [in 2022, to discuss their spring 2023 collaboration]. He showed me a couch he was working on that’s made of fruit. I asked him, ‘Why fruit?’ And he said, ‘Why not?’”

Credit…Left: Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, “Flowers in a Glass Vase,” 1614 © The National Gallery, London. Center: Isa Genzken, “Nofretete,” 2014, collection of Maja Hoffmann, courtesy of Galerie Buchholz © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Right: © Agnès Varda Estate, courtesy of Institut pour la Photographie des Hauts-de-France Photographic Archive

Left: “Ambrosius Bosschaert [the Elder]’s paintings were among the first made for the sake of beauty. [This one, titled ‘Flowers in a Glass Vase,’ was created in 1614.] My parents often took us to museums as children, but it was never didactic. Nothing needed an explanation. If I’d say, ‘I don’t like it,’ my mom would tell me, ‘Look twice. Maybe you’ll like it later.’”

Center: “Women have challenged the definition of sculpture in the past 30 years. I love Isa Genzken, particularly her Nefertiti work [‘Nofretete,’ 2014]. What I like about this piece is how she married the ancient with the new, something that works very well in Italy. The Modernists in Italy always [had a way] with antiques.”

Right: “The ceramist and sculptor Valentine Schlegel [pictured at home circa 1959] used to live in the same Paris neighborhood I did when I was a kid. I’d been following this woman on Instagram who has an account based on Valentine, and who also happened to be her neighbor. We were chatting one day, and she told me Valentine’s house was for sale, so I bought it. I’m renovating it now to create an open studio to hold ceramics classes and exhibitions.”

Credit…Left: courtesy of Matthieu Blazy. Center: Arminius1000 via Wikimedia. Right: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, “Wrist Action,” 2010 © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London

Left: “I got these [1948 Georges Jouve sconces] at an auction in Paris 10 or 15 years ago. I like the mermaids — the mythology of chimeras and monsters. Auctions are a stimulating mess of things coming together: a perfume bottle from 1900, a pre-Columbian artwork, a contemporary African painting. I search auction websites every morning. It’s like a drug.”

Center: “I was 12 the first time I went to Africa [with my family in 1996]. We visited the Bandiagara cliffs, in Mali’s Dogon country, which were incredible. The next place I want to go is Tuto Fela [an area, pictured here, in southern Ethiopia’s Sidamo region where hundreds of gravestones jut out from the ground like spikes]. There’re all these phallic monoliths, which were later engraved to look like faces.”

Right: “I love this piece by Lynette [Yiadom-Boakye, titled ‘Wrist Action,’ 2010]. The first time I saw her work was a shock. I liked the dignity, the poetry of the beautiful men she painted. I wondered who they were and what they were doing. It’s like when you read a book and want to be friends with one of the characters. I wanted to know them.”

Credit…Left: courtesy of Matthieu Blazy. Center: Brian Zak Getty. Right: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Left: “I grew up in the 1990s, when the Backstreet Boys were huge. But this T-shirt, for me, is about Martin Margiela. A lot of people see him as being very cerebral. But they forget he’s also really fun and embraces pop culture.”

Center: “This image [of Natalie Portman in the final scene of the 2004 film ‘Closer’] was part of the conversation at my first meeting [at Bottega Veneta]. I think she looks so strong and independent. That’s exactly the energy I wanted for the first look [of the fall 2022 collection]. I told the team I wanted to open with denim and a tank top; I wanted to push [their fabrication] to the maximum. At Bottega, that meant printing on leather.”

Right: “In 2001, when I was 17, I traveled to New York with my dad. We went to the Strand bookstore, where, on the third floor with the rare books, I discovered gay pulp fiction. It’s ironic, funny and dirty, but also part of the story of homosexuality over the past 50 years. I imagine a lot of men escaped the world a bit with this kind of literature.”

Credit…Left: courtesy of Matthieu Blazy. Right: © 2023 Hergé Tintinimaginatio

Left: “This show [for Maison Martin Margiela’s spring 2014 Artisanal collection, which Blazy had created anonymously] was about my interest in rare fabrics. I went to Flagstaff, Ariz., for a private collector’s Frank Lloyd Wright textiles. I went to New York to find a woman who had Fortuny scraps. I traveled to France, Belgium and Italy. After the show, when I was outed as the designer, I wasn’t happy. The anonymity had felt so good: It was protection and freedom. But now I’m at peace with it. I spoke to Suzy [Menkes, the journalist who’d revealed his identity] about it recently and we had a laugh. In retrospect, it was one of those days when things changed.”

Right: “My first experience of traveling was by reading [the comic series] ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ at my grandparents’ house. Through those stories, I could go to China and America. I like this volume [‘Tintin in Tibet,’ published as a book in 1960] because Tintin is looking for his friend Chang, who got lost in the Himalayas and had to be rescued by the Yeti. And then there’s Professor Calculus on a Jean Prouvé chair. I’m a big Prouvé fan, so it connects all the dots.”

Credit…Left and center: courtesy of Matthieu Blazy. Right: © 2023 The Richard Scarry Corporation AG. Lowly Worm and the Apple Car design are trademarks of the Richard Scarry Corporation AG

Left: “This photo was taken at my grandparents’ house on Christmas a few years ago. My grandmother would always put on some Irish music, and everyone would dance in the kitchen. My grandfather [pictured in the middle] recently passed away. He was my partner in crime and reminded me of a typical Clint Eastwood character — old-school but still very open to the new world.”

Center: “I think I’m 7 or 8 in this picture, at school in Brittany. I was always turning my boots down like this for them to resemble those of [Puss in Boots, the sword-fighting cat]. I wanted to be like Tom Sawyer. It was the idea of costume — the fact that you can become whoever you want. For me, when I was wearing these boots, I was someone else.”

Right: “I loved Richard Scarry’s books as a kid, especially this one [‘The Adventures of Lowly Worm,’ 1994]. I think his outfit is exceptional. The fact that he has one shoe, that he’s a worm and that he has a hat on — and that his car is an apple — I don’t know, it’s just so joyful.”

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