Matty Bovan on Winning the 2021 Woolmark Prize

Matty Bovan presented his first solo catwalk show at London Fashion Week in 2018. One of Britain’s most colorful fashion stars, with distinctive rainbow streaks in his hair, he is known for his bold palettes and intricate knits. This week, Mr. Bovan won the 2021 International Woolmark Prize and the Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation, becoming only the second designer to win both awards in the same year. (The first was Edward Crutchley in 2019.)

The winner of the Woolmark competition — finalists use Australian merino wool to create collections — receives $200,000 AUD ($155,000); the Karl Lagerfeld award is worth $100,000 AUD ($77,000).

Here, Mr. Bovan explains why the awards matter and what he is going to do next.

Why is winning the Woolmark Prize so important?

The theme of the competition this year was “Less is More’,” with a particular focus on sustainable practices and supply chain connections, and showing how wool can be seen as a responsible material. These are themes that have been at the center of my work from the very beginning, and that are now more and more important to the wider conversation. So it was wonderful to receive attention for practices like using deadstock fabric and promoting local artisan crafts.

I’m based in York, about four hours north of London, and I worked with local craftspeople and manufacturers to make the pieces. I did a lot of the dying process myself, in my studio. Everything was made in Britain, but through the competition I learned a lot about raw materials and the processes behind them. The experience has opened my eyes to how I can be an even better brand and designer in that respect.

It’s a huge honor, and I am so excited about where the wins will take me. The money will help me develop the world I have already been building and bring it to new audiences.

What was the idea behind your collection?

I called it “Ode to the Sea,” and the six looks drew inspiration from traveling and escapism: going through a traumatic event, going down and being submerged under the waves before eventually coming out the other side. There is, of course, a parallel to the moment we are living in. But I also saw it as a great way of pushing myself to find new permutations of what you can do with wool.

Some of the black-and-white intarsia knitted garments looked like they had been blown in severe gales. We made custom jacquards and swollen, chunky handmade cable knits. And we created an interpretation of Admiral Nelson’s jacket — Nelson was a famous 17th-century British naval officer — that looked like it had been torn apart and warped before being put back together.

The last 15 months have turned the fashion industry upside down. What was it like trying to build a business in that environment?

It was very tough. There were so many unknowns, and it could feel very isolating at times. Handicraft has always been a huge savior for me, so I really just threw myself into my work. I’m not based in London, so I am used to working remotely. But I missed the camaraderie of fashion.

The whole fashion week calendar changed, and so that meant I went from massive runway shows to shooting my last two presentations on a very small scale here in York pretty much on my own.

But the pandemic made me ask myself a lot of questions: What is British design? What does it mean to be British designer? What do I want my legacy to be? The period made me realize I want to work on more special pieces, designs that could be future heirlooms.

Do you think it’s possible for designers to build brands outside traditional fashion capitals?

Totally. I hope I can be something of an inspiration. A lot has changed in the past five to 10 years as a result of the internet. Living in those major cities is so expensive, and you aren’t necessarily going to make a lot of money, or even enough to survive. The stress can be overwhelming. I love London — I am not against it — but leaving it allowed me to create my own space, make mistakes and really understand what I was trying to say with my designs.

I’m very committed to helping build a hub up here in the north of England. I teach, and there are a lot of talented students, too. The pandemic might change mind-sets. Lots of people are choosing to leave these huge cities in exchange for a better quality of life.

What are your tips to aspiring designers hoping to break into the fashion world?

Keep pushing your creative boundaries. We are all addicted to our phones and laptops, and it can get oppressive. Take yourself outside your comfort zone and add new skills to your repertoire.

It took me a long time to learn how to really be myself and have faith in my own unique point of view. It was only when I embraced my raw creative energy and eccentricities that things started falling into place. And lastly, be bold and reach out to those above you. Find an email address and send your portfolio. Send an Instagram DM and ask for 10 minutes of advice. Not everyone is as cold and scary as you might think.

This interview, originally conducted on Instagram, has been edited and condensed.

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