Denim Dreams


Two years ago, Matthew Dolan graduated from Parsons with a MFA in fashion design and society. Unemployed, the American-born Australian-raised designer was hoping to land a job and an established brand. “I was never one of the kids in my class that was like, ‘I want to have my own label,'” he explains over the phone. “Ever since I started my MFA, I was really excited and interested in getting a job at a big company, doing work in textiles research.”

Things changed, however, when Rihanna was photographed wearing an super-sized denim jacket from Dolan’s graduate collection, not just once, but everywhere: on the town, on the cover of magazines like i-D and NME. Other celebrities followed suit, and Dolan was dubbed “Rihanna’s favorite denim designer.”

Here, Dolan talks to German-born, New York-based model Lina Berg.

MATTHEW DOLAN: How’ve you been?

LINA BERG: Pretty good. Just came back home actually, I had a casting today. I’m pretty relaxed.

DOLAN: Where were you?

BERG: I was in Pier 59 Studios. Just an everyday life of a model. [laughs] I read a bit about you. You’ve actually lived in a lot of cities already in your life. You were born in Massachusetts, but you moved to Sydney in Australia and grew up there. Then you went to high school in Japan, but also studied in Switzerland before you studied in New York, right?

DOLAN: Yeah, correct. There was a lot of moving around.

BERG: Tell me a bit about Australia. Why did you move there?

DOLAN: I moved there for my dad’s work. It started as something temporary and then he ended up staying there and he’s still there now.

BERG: Do you consider yourself more as an American or more as an Australian?

DOLAN: I’m pretty American. My parents are both American so I used to come back here a lot. I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I did spend a lot of time in Sydney, but at the same time with the way I grew up was much different to a lot of my Australian friends—what my mom would cook or the holidays we’d celebrate. It was not the same as everyone else. I felt like a bit of an outsider, but at the same time I did live there for a long time. I think I got the best of both worlds.

BERG: I would say your whole aesthetic is pretty Americana. It’s a bit of a genderless style. Where do you think that comes from? Does that maybe have to do with your immigration?

DOLAN: I think so. When I started studying for my MFA here, a lot of what I became obsessed with researching and studying was coming from watching people in the street. When you travel around a lot or you live in different cities you really pay attention to the people you see around. It’s like a way to navigate the culture and the space. That was something I was really interested in. The thing about jeans and denim that I’m so obsessed with is that no matter where you go, there’s going to be people wearing jeans. It’s such a global uniform. That was one of the big attractions to that Americana.

BERG: Do you like to go vintage stores? Do you like that old denim style?

DOLAN: That’s something that I haven’t explored since my graduate collection—the idea that denim takes on a life of its own as you wear it and it really breaks down and the color changes a lot. There’s so much textile-wise that’s really interesting about vintage denim.

BERG: That’s true. I love denim. I heard that your mom was into sewing. What kind of things did she make?

DOLAN: Since she was a little girl she used make her own clothes to wear to school. Even when we were growing up, she didn’t make a lot of stuff for me but she would sew a lot of dresses for my sister. They were great, these puffy dresses with all this embroidery that she hated wearing. Once we grew up, she moved away from clothes and got very into quilting and patchwork and embroidery. In my house we always had a big room for sewing. I was always surrounded by it growing up.

BERG: Did she teach you how to sew or did you learn that later?

DOLAN: Yeah. She taught me some things, but I didn’t learn how to sew clothes until I went to school.

BERG: Do you remember the first thing you ever made yourself?

DOLAN: Yes, it was—oh my gosh—so bad. It was boxer shorts. I did it in Japan actually, in a home economics class. I was so terrible; I could hardly sew anything. [laughs] I would just make boxer shorts with puppies on them. I think I still have them somewhere.

BERG: You have to keep that kind of stuff. Would you say that you were been a fashionable kid?

DOLAN: No, definitely not, opposite!

BERG: Did you follow anyone in particular in style or did you just throw on whatever got into your hands?

DOLAN: When we were in Australia, my grandparents used to send us for Christmas our clothes for that whole year. That was just what we got. We never went shopping. When I was in high school, I was always jealous of the surfer boys and the skaters, I wanted to wear that kind of stuff. I don’t really think I bought clothes for myself until I started working. I definitely did not have a fashionable childhood. [laughs]

BERG: I would say the same about me. I am not fashionable. It has to be comfy.

DOLAN: Yeah, I wear the same thing everyday.

BERG: You wanted to become a zoologist when you were younger. Is that correct?

DOLAN: Oh yeah, I was very interested in animals.

BERG: When did that change? When did you decide to get into the fashion world instead?

DOLAN: In the later years of high school, I was really interested in art and was really interested history. I did not like math and I didn’t like science. I think that was one of the main problems—if you don’t like math or science. That’s when I started taking a lot of art classes and art history. I fell into that world. When I was growing up I never was like, “I want to be a fashion designer.” It wasn’t until I started university, really.

BERG: I guess it was more that you figured out for yourself that you like being creative and creating things, and that’s when it went into that fashion direction.

DOLAN: For sure, for sure.

BERG: You only graduated in 2015, so you became pretty successful pretty quickly. Was it an overwhelming feeling? I saw that Rihanna and Lady Gaga wore some of your designs. How was it for you to see that happening? Who was your first celebrity fan?

DOLAN: After I finished school, I was trying so hard to find a job. I was going to all of these places with my portfolio. It was so frustrating because I’d been at school for 10 years once I finished my masters, and all I wanted was a job! [laughs] It was a lot at once—especially as I had spent months and months was looking for work. It was definitely good. It was a pretty busy time. I’ve been nonstop since. I’m very lucky though.

BERG: Luck is a part of this whole business. You have to have some luck, but obviously if you don’t bring anything yourself it’s not going to work out. How do you get inspiration when you work? Do you need to listen to certain music?

DOLAN: I love reading. I read something and become really obsessed—like I’m reading about some kind of cheese or something. You read so many things and end up in the weirdest place. I think getting your head working in that way, through reading, is probably how I start thinking about most things. Or looking at people when I’m designing—looking at how people are wearing clothes with attitude. It depends on what kind of work I’m doing. I don’t really listen to music that much while I’m working because I feel like I’m too distracted. My head is going so quickly.

BERG: I totally understand that. When I go running—I love running—I always see people listening to music while they’re running and I can’t. The reason why I go running is to clear my head and if I listen to music at the same time—

DOLAN: You’re stuffing in something else!

BERG: Exactly! What is on your radar at the moment, on your mood board? Do you have a certain direction want to go in?

DOLAN: I’m just starting now, and I’m moving towards something a lot softer. Up until this point I’ve only used super raw denim. I want to play a lot with washes and the idea of texture. Last season it was a very optimistic feeling I guess. I was looking at women on the frontier and in space. This season I don’t really know what is going to happen yet. In terms of textiles, I want to look a lot into texture and softness.

BERG: Do you think that there’s a certain kind of person who stands for your brand?

DOLAN: I don’t think anyone in particular. It’s so inspiring to see people that wear clothes really well. They can be an old lady or someone in the supermarket or some old man. It’s not confined to anyone. What I find so interesting is this sort of attitude—you always see someone and you’re like, “That person is so cool.” You just want to know them [laughs]. It could be that they’re wearing this t-shirt and a pair of jeans—so simple—but they look like the coolest person, if that makes sense. I think it’s that idea of an attitude, someone who doesn’t really care what people think.

BERG: Do you have a specific way that you like to you see your clothes presented? I looked on Instagram and on your website, and, for me, there’s always this kind of weirdness to the pictures. Obviously the model was beautiful, but not shot in this typical girly, beautiful way—more with weird movements or funny arms. The hair and makeup was not obviously beautiful. Is that exactly the way you like to present your clothes? When you go on the runway to present your stuff, is there a certain look you would like to have the models look like?

DOLAN: That’s always been something that I’ve talked about with the photographer and stylists that I work with about—about certain things that we like, and we always like a similar thing. At the same time, I think it’s so exciting to get an editorial back and they’ve used a piece in some way I never would have thought of using it. That is so much more interesting. You always have this idea in your head of what kind of girl you like or what kind of hair you like or what kind of hair you hate, that kind of thing, [but then] you hand over the clothes and they give something back that is really cool.

BERG: You get inspired by the rest of the team and the work.

DOLAN: Yeah, for sure. It’s such a team industry. It’s really great to surround yourself with people that inspire you.

BERG: Do you have goals for your label, a next step you want to do?

DOLAN: I’m trying to grow in terms of a team since I’m still doing so much by myself. I’m really trying to look for who is the right person to bring on right now to help the business develop. It’s such a big step from being a student. That’s something that is super important at the moment, which I’m just figuring out. It’s a big change.

BERG: Did you ever get a particularly important piece of advice from someone in university or from another designer? What do you think is the best piece of advice for where you’ve gotten now?

DOLAN: It’s not even from anyone in fashion, but when you’re honest and treat people well it goes very far. If you’re friendly, sometimes people are surprised, “Oh my gosh, he’s so nice.” In a way, it’s not expected. I just try to be honest, and I think being humble is super important.

BERG: Oh definitely. If you were working with another aspiring designer, is that something you would tell them?

DOLAN: Yeah. Work hard, don’t expect things to be given to you, treat people well, and be honest.