An attempt to demystify fashion’s invisible man: «He could have all the glory and fame – instead he decided to step away to let the garments and the Maison speak for him»
Martin Margiela’s last show
The venue was filled to the brim for Martin Margiela’s twentieth anniversary collection. It was a sight to behold, a resurrection of some of his greatest hits: not a sentimental rehashing, but rather a reminder of the Belgian designer’s contributions to fashion. The show started in the house’s conceptual rigor – it ended with a celebratory procession as a pair of models strutted around wearing a giant birthday cake. A marching band followed, then a swarm of Margiela’s lab coat-wearing assistants. The designer, as usual, was nowhere to be found. Throughout his career, spanning two decades, Margiela has kept himself elusive. He has never taken bows at his shows and the only interviews he has ever given were written in the collective, signed Maison Martin Margiela. In one such interview – a series of emails exchanged between Joseph Kosuth Studio and the Maison, published by Interview Magazine, in 2006, the latter collectively explains: «He wants the light not to be on him but on what really matters. What some consider a sort of snobbism is more like a sacrifice: he could have all the glory and fame. Instead he decided to step away to let the garments and the Maison speak for him. We prefer people to react to a garment through their taste and own personal style and not their impression of the individual who created it, as translated and hyped by the press».
Margiela’s influence on fashion
Even those oblivious to Margiela’s status in the world of fashion have felt his influence on their wardrobes, courtesy of his trailblazing fascination with upcycling, deconstruction and oversized silhouettes. Among his devotees is Demna Gvasalia, whose creations at Vetements and Balenciaga frequently reference Margiela in their proportions and fascination with replication and recycling of ordinary objects, like the DHL courier t-shirt or IKEA tote. This comes as no surprise, as Gvasalia worked at the fashion house for several years. Yet, designers who haven’t come through the Maison’s door remain influenced: Thom Browne, Phoebe Philo, Marques Almeida, and even Marc Jacobs, who, when accused by Suzy Menkes of borrowing too heavily from his work, said: «Anybody who’s aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced by Margiela». He featured friends and people found in the street in lieu of traditional models, staged his shows in unconventional places on the outskirts of Paris and upcycled garments found in flea markets – all of which was previously unheard of, although today considered commonplace. Still, despite his notable contributions to the world of fashion, Margiela himself remains a mystery. The closest the general public has ever got to him was through the 2019 documentary Margiela: In his own words, directed by Reiner Holzemer.
Reiner Holzemer’s Margiela: In his own words
Holzemer’s introduction to Margiela’s work started with an exhibition of the latter’s designs for Hermès, presented in 2017 at the Fashion Museum Antwerp (MoMu). Holzemer, who had already directed a documentary about Dries Van Noten, was looking for a new subject of a similar caliber. Not discouraged by Margiela’s elusiveness, together with his co-producer Aminata Sambe, he reached out to Olivier Saillard, director of the Musée Galliera in Paris, who was preparing an exhibition with the designer, to pass on their interest. Some months later, Margiela’s former model, Manon Schaap, sent out another email to the designer encouraging him to work with Holzemer; so had Vicky Roditis, Margiela’s former sales manager. It took three separate endorsements, brought on by «coincidence and luck», to get Margiela to agree to a meeting. Holzemer describes his first impression of the creator as «kind, friendly, direct and very normal». Margiela was adamant about focusing the documentary on the exhibition. «I thought, it’s boring to make an exhibition film», says Holzemer, «but the point was about working with him, and I was hoping once he’d seen my process he’d become comfortable with more». Establishing trust was a process that «started once we met and ended on the last day of editing», says Holzemer. He made sure to include Margiela in every decision about the film. «I didn’t want to make him feel that I was doing something about him, rather that I was doing something with him. We considered ourselves a team: me, Martin, and Aminata». Everything, from camera angles to people interviewed, was decided upon mutual agreement. It was clear from the beginning that Margiela had no intention of showing his face on the screen – a rule Holzemer was happy to abide by. The challenge was convincing him to narrate the documentary. The filmmaker was convinced Margiela was the best person for the job: «He was able to explain his biography and his point of view on fashion in a very brilliant way». Margiela was resistant, reportedly telling Holzemer he hated his voice: «When I see the movie later, I want to enjoy it too. If I hear my voice, it will be terrible for me». They compromised – since there were little to no sources about Margiela’s life and career, they’d tape him telling his story, and after shooting and editing the footage they’d consider using a voice-over actor instead. To get over the shyness that was blocking Margiela from relaxing when the camera was rolling, Holzemer decided to shoot nonstop, so that he felt less pressure about presenting himself while on record. The total recording ended up being approximately 200 hours of just their conversations.
Martin Margiela – a biography
Holzemer sometimes had to prod Margiela to talk about more intimate subjects. The latter was, at first, determined to keep the documentary strictly about his days as a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and his figurative final bow as creative director at the Maison. During one of their dinners, he mentioned to Holzemer how, aged seven, he already knew he wanted to be a fashion designer in Paris, but when Holzemer offered to include the story in the documentary, he was reluctant. What finally convinced him was finding out that his mother, Léa Bouchet, had kept all of the memorabilia from his childhood in near-perfect condition: drawings, sketches, dolls. «That was a big surprise for Martin and touching for him», says Holzemer. «It was the first time in decades that he looked at these things and the memories came back». Margiela shared how, as a boy, the adults in his life discouraged him from becoming a designer, but his grandmother, a seamstress, provided both support and inspiration in his first attempts at dressmaking. The motifs from his childhood would later come up in his body of work: a Courreges show he saw on the television in the mid-sixties motivated him to cut the toes off the boots of his Barbie dolls; in 1994, Margiela made a collection based on what Barbie’s wardrobe would look like if it were scaled up to life-size. His lifelong fascination with hair, manifesting in his work via giant wigs obscuring models’ faces or surrealist wig-jackets, can also be traced back to his upbringing in Genk. Margiela’s father worked as a barber his entire life; so did the senior’s two brothers. He and Margiela’s mother owned a barber shop, which moonlighted as a wig shop in the evenings. Their other son, Luc, ended up opening his own hair salon, which Margiela helped decorate. Margiela went to study fashion design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He graduated in 1979, a year earlier than members of a group that would come to be known as the Antwerp Six, the avant-garde fashion collective which helped shift the direction of fashion in the late Eighties. Students of the Academy, Margiela included, worshipped at the altar of Jean Paul Gaultier, who’s social status at the time equaled the celebrities he was dressing. Holzemer’s documentary reveals that Margiela, along with his classmates, once sneaked into a Gaultier show using fake access badges manufactured from yoghurt lids. Several years later, he became his assistant; Gaultier his mentor. Though Gaultier initially told Margiela there was no reason for him not to to start his own brand immediately, Margiela preferred to stay and learn how to operate a fashion house. Working under Gaultier he got to observe how the cult of personality impacts a designer; it was likely the moment he decided to safeguard his privacy. «He was very touched when talking about his time spent at Gaultier», says Holzemer. «When he mentioned that Gaultier told him ‘Martin, you already have a style’, I almost saw tears in his eyes and I wished we could show that on screen. Recognition from the great master of fashion, Gaultier, it was a stamp of approval».
Jenny Meirens met Margiela in 1983. She was one of the judges of the Golden Spindle Award; Margiela was an entrant. The winner ended up to be Dirk Van Saene, a fellow graduate of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and one of the Antwerp Six. But it was Margiela who caught Meirens’ eye, and not long after she offered to sell his collection in a store she’d recently opened, Crea. From there resulted a creative symbiosis and one of the most impactful partnerships of Margiela’s career. They decided to go into business together and, with joint effort, in 1989 started Maison Martin Margiela. The Maison’s headquarters were painted white all over, including the phone. The furniture was thrifted and covered with white cotton. Margiela liked the way white aged, passage of time manifesting in its discolorations. It was also financially savvy, an extension of the make-do-and-mend attitude that extended itself to reworking vintage pieces, like the 1950’s ball gowns sliced in the front and tied with ribbons over white t-shirts and jeans. Such designs were the reason why, though the house never used this term, critics frequently labeled him a deconstructivist. Utilized by Alison Gil, author of Deconstruction Fashion: The Making of Unfinished, Decomposing and Re-assembled Clothes, the term was thrown around loosely about any designs which were «unfinished», «recycled» or «grunge». Yet Margiela belonged to the few who took apart and investigated not just the garment, but also the system that produced it. He dissected ideas about haute couture, tailoring, high or low fashion, commercialism and innovation; questioning fashion assumptions in search of alternatives. The label’s biannual shows rejected the hierarchy of a seating chart, instead arranging press and buyers on a first-come, first-served basis – if there were seats to begin with. The shows took place anywhere from a derelict school playground to a graveyard: for spring 1993, Margiela showed his collection at the Montmartre cemetery. For fall 1997, models were ferried between three Paris locations on a rented bus, accompanied by a Belgian brass band.
Jonathan Hallam Le Femme de Cabine
The shows and collections were shrouded with secrecy up until the very last minute. Jonathan Hallam, who was one of the few photographers Margiela trusted enough to let in backstage, never knew what to expect from his next assignment – even though his then-girlfriend worked in Margiela’s press department. The designer wouldn’t allow outsider press backstage, so he prepared a press package to send out; Hallam was the one behind the camera. He remembers a small team working behind the scenes. «Everybody pitched in. Nobody asked me, but I just grabbed the bin liner and started to clean up. That’s how the house run, everybody did what needed to be done. The team spirit was strong». Right from his first assignment, he was given rolls of film and the benefit of the doubt in the form of the vaguest of briefs: «Take pictures», so he did. «The ones they chose, I used as a template». There was never any outspoken feedback, so Hallam alternated his formula with experimental photos. The only rules? «Never show anything too literally; never show four white stitches in one image». His collaboration with Margiela evolved into Le Femme de Cabine, a series of portraits of Margiela’s staff taken between 1997 and 2004. What began as a personal project for Hallam ended up being incorporated into A Magazine curated by Maison Martin Margiela released first in 2004 and then again in March 2021. As is his custom, Margiela preferred to shift the limelight away from himself: «He wanted to show something of the personal work of the people who surrounded him». Photoshoots for the project were an intimate affair: «Martin organized for the models to come to my house, and I shot them in my living room. I photographed directly onto paper, and it came out as negatives», explains Hallam. «I had a set-up in my bathroom of tupperware boxes, and I developed my pictures as I went».
Selling to Only the Brave
Around the time of Le Femme de Cabine, though related to different matters, frustrations were building up inside Margiela.The designer was irritated by the immediacy of the Internet and its impact: «There was something quite unpleasant going on for a while in the fashion system. For me, it started when we had to go on the internet the same day as a show. I liked the energy that comes with surprise, and this was lost. I felt this was the start of a moment where there were going to be different needs in the fashion world, and I was not sure I could feed them». This coincided with the sale of majority stakes to Only the Brave: «I became, in a certain way, an artistic director in my company and that bothered me because I am a designer, I am not a creative director who directs his assistants». Not long after, Jenny Meirens left the brand. Though their falling out was barely touched on in the documentary, Holzemer learned about their tumultuous professional relationship. «Martin would not be Martin without Jenny, and Jenny would not have been Jenny without Martin. They were linked as business partners, but they struggled each day and towards the end, both of them wanted to have the staff on their side». Holzemer adds that power struggles for creative control were also an issue: «He’s not an easy person. He’s vulnerable, but he doesn’t compromise or very rarely, and on one hand you admire this, but when you have to work with someone like this, it becomes complicated».
Benjamin Shine collaboration
The twentieth anniversary collection turned out to be his last one. He stepped down quietly and graciously, withdrawing from the world of fashion in full. In 2015, the hole he left at the Maison was filled with a different trailblazing designer of the Nineties, John Galliano. His appointment caused as much bewilderment as Margiela’s stint at Hermès, and just like the latter, it turned out to somehow be a natural fit – a brand renowned for renouncing the status quo, embracing a star-designer-turned-outcast. «I was quite surprised by the pairing based on each designers’ different styles, but it made a statement that there was a desire to breathe new life and direction into the house», says Benjamin Shine, an artist who went on to collaborate with Galliano for Maison Margiela’s Artisanal collection in 2017. The result was a white trench coat, somewhat reminiscent of the Maison’s uniform, with layers of tulle sculpted to a near-photorealistic face. Shine explains their adaptation of Margiela’s inside-becoming-outside detailing: «If you look inside the coat, the tulle lining appears to be sucking out through the back open seam as if the lining was escaping». Though Margiela has moved on from fashion, fashion has not moved on from Margiela.
Martin Margiela, born in 1957 in Belgium, is a fashion designer. In 1989 he started his own label, Maison Martin Margiela, changing the way fashion was conceived. By refusing to ever show his face he became a ‘mystery man’ in the fashion world. After twenty years at the helm of his maison, he decided to retire from fashion.
Reiner Holzemer is a german movie director and producer. In 2019 he directed the feature documentary Martin Margiela – In his own words. He was one of the few people who was able to get so close to the designer.
Jonathan Hallam is a multidisciplinary artist and photographer. He was one of the few photographers Margiela trusted enough to let in backstage.
Benjamin Shine is a multidisciplinary artist most known for his pioneering work in tulle. In 2017 he was called by John Galliano to collaborate on the new collection of Maison Margiela