Not many things fire the imagination as much as something that is barely or not at all known. This principle creates the basis for the myth Martin Margiela, probably the most prominent phantom of the world of fashion. Not that nothing is known about this fashion designer. Indeed, it’s quite the contrary: Born in the Belgian town of Limbourg in 1959, he graduated from the Antwerp Royal Academy of fine arts at the tender age of 20. Five years later, he was already assistant to Jean-Paul Gaultier. In fall 1988, he presented his first collection in Paris, which received a great deal of attention. For almost two decades now, he has been successful in the business, always imbued with the nimbus of an avant-garde designer. In addition, he was responsible for the women’s wear of traditional label Hermès from 1998 until 2004, proving that he can also work successfully for a commercial luxury label. The symbol of his own label, a plain white tag imprinted with the numbers 0 to 23, is sewn in with four characteristically visible tacking stitches, which makes everyone wearing Martin Margiela identifiable to insiders.
Pictures of Margiela himself hardly exist though; neither does he show up at the end of a defilée, as is customary for designers. Even the café owner next to his studio in the eleventh arrondisment, a run-down neighborhood populated by Chinese, Arabs and countless homeless people, has no idea what he looks like. He knows Margiela’s co-workers, who come by often, rather well, but not the master. A British fashion editor who met him in the early nineties vaguely remembers a slender man with dark curly hair. She must have been one of the last people to whom he explained his designs, because shortly after that, Patrick Scallon began to represent him before the press. Even the highly influential chief editor of the US-Vogue, Anna Wintour, wasn’t able to lure him with an invitation to lunch although she had a twelve-page story to offer (which, by the way, was not produced after he cancelled.)
Maybe the press wouldn’t be as offended if Margiela were a shy eccentric. But he is not: he goes out, meets his friends, is eloquent and entertaining. It is only to the media that he is not available, and meanwhile there is no longer any talk of Martin Margiela, but only of Maison Martin Margiela, i.e. the house of Martin Margiela. As if the snail had retreated into its shell.
As is fitting, the building the fashion label resides in is reminiscent of a stronghold – dark and impregnable with mighty walls. But on the other side of the threshold, that first impression is entirely changed; the contrast seems almost absurd. There are white walls, white tiled floors, a stately chandelier covered with sheer, white, fabric hanging from the ceiling. The couch and armchair are covered with white antimacassars and in the middle of the room there a white trailer in which a friendly receptionist rules. At the back, in an idyllic courtyard, young people are sitting in the sun, chatting and laughing.
The building used to accommodate the orphanage of the Sisters of Mercy; later on it was a college of industrial design. When Margiela moved in with his 85 employees, the building had been vacant for ten years, but apart from a thick coating of dust, appeared as if it had just been deserted. Questions from final exams were still written on the chalkboards, papers were lying around and bottles with dried out ink were still sitting on the desks.
Actually, not much has changed. The original atmosphere remained and has only been complemented by the ubiquitous white. White is something like a synonym for Margiela. “But our white is no ordinary white, it has nothing to do with the aseptic white you find in hospitals or in galleries”, Patrick Scallon says. “Our white is different, matt, it has a used look to it, it is worn by time. It is strong because it appears vulnerable.” This sounds somewhat pompous but, by all means corresponds to the central theme in Margiela’s work.
From the very beginning, he focused on the worn. His first source of inspiration was used jeans, the seams of which he undid and then recomposed or combined with other fabrics. Over the years, he extended his experimentation first to suits and then to leather, furniture covers, plastic and all sorts of everyday objects. His first dress made of shopping bags remains legendary to the present day. In the mid-nineties, Margiela developed the „Replica“-concept for things he finds perfect just the way they are: accordingly, they are simply replicated true to the original. Eventually, in addition to the fading outer shell, he placed special emphasis on the underlying layers of clothes – stitching slipped outwards, edges dissolved, lining became visible. At the point when trousers became skirts or gloves became tops, the boundaries blurred completely and meanwhile Margiela makes dresses from paintings and jewelry as well as handbags from motorcycle helmets.
Thus, his fashion remained fascinating over the years and many of his innovations are now firmly established in the mainstream. In the late 80s, only poor students or fanatics of a certain vintage era were interested in that style. Americans, in particular, at first could not understand what Margiela liked about these pathetic clothes. Years later, they finally got it, and the vintage wave rolled back to Europe. Now, Martin Margiela even suffers from the hype because well-fabricated and well-preserved used apparel, now an important raw material, is becoming more rare and expensive.
A consequence of all this is the so-called Artisanale line that is being expanded by one piece each month, handmade from painstakingly collected items and only available at his 13 own boutiques. “The demand exceeded our capacities, we had to draw a line,” says Patrick Scallon. He also says that some of these pieces are actually collected by certain customers. Regarding Martin Margiela’s fashion as art does not require any stretch of the imagination: No other designer makes anything comparable: every piece is unique and his clever ideas go
beyond the actual concept of fashion. Thus, probably no designer besides Margiela will come up with a tinsel coat next November. Nevertheless, Patrick Scallon emphasizes that one doesn’t have to be an intellectual in order to understand Margiela. “Many people regard us as conceptual, but we are emotional. Anyone can have nice ideas, but if they are not emotive, no one will be touched by them.” Basically, it is all about discovering the value and uniqueness of items – moments or situations we don’t perceive anymore because we have gotten used to them.
Therefore, it becomes possible to surprise people in a world where everything has dared to be done, shown and said. In early July, the house presented its new collection for fall/winter, which is – how could it be any different at Margiela – a progression of the spring/summer collection. The very graphic, minimalist construction has been more strongly emphasized and further developed. Especially the shoulders, which are now 50 cm wide, seem accordingly exaggerated in relationship to the rest of the upper body, especially in relation to the filigree, tapered legs. Skirts become trousers by virtue of a seam here and there, flowing capes and dresses seem to merge seamlessly. Overstuffed slings and hoops covered with rabbit fur make vests, scarves and necklaces. Shoes and boots are veiled with transparent chiffon, almost everything is black and white. In between, there is confrontation with two incredibly in-your-face neon colors: yellow and pink. The result is a new form of femininity, reminiscent of Amazons without being tough.
The subtitle of the collection – “rings, hoops, tubes and loops“ – matches the omnipresent slings, rings and hoops. The loud neon colors have even been printed on natural fabrics like cashmere and wool. The house has been experimenting with this for a long time, without really achieving a breakthrough. “So far, neon colors stick best to synthetic fibers. On natural fiber, the neon effect fades after a while,” Patrick Scallon says. “On our cashmere scarves from the current collection it will have vanished within two years.” He doesn’t mind; it suits the concept.
Text > Susanne Haase
Fotos > Daniel Sannwald / www.danielsannwald.com
Produktion > Betty Sommer
Haare & Make-up > Deborah Brider / www.m4motion.de
mit Produken von Bumble & Bumble and Chanel
Model > Daniela Mirzac / www.marilynagency.com
Fotoassistenz > Stefan Wolf Lucks & Virginie Ganier
Dank an > die Maison für den Support