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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

Martin Margiela: an exhibition celebrating the 'invisible man' of fashion

We look at a new exhibition devoted to the work of one of the fashion world’s most low-key characters

Martin Margiela showcased oversized silhouettes, repurposed and recycled clothes, minimal make-up and undone hair on models, decades before they were in vogue GettyFoc Kan/WireImage/Getty Images
Martin Margiela showcased oversized silhouettes, repurposed and recycled clothes, minimal make-up and undone hair on models, decades before they were in vogue GettyFoc Kan/WireImage/Getty Images

Martin Margiela, often described as the “invisible man” of fashion, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Palais Galliera in Paris, which opened on Saturday. Entitled Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009, this is the first retrospective of Margiela’s 20-year fashion career to be staged in Paris, the city where he was based.

Born in Louvain in Belgium, Margiela studied fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp before moving to Paris to work as Jean Paul Gaultier’s assistant in 1984. In 1987, Margiela opened his eponymous fashion house but, famously elusive, spent his career spurning the press, refusing all requests for interviews. Only one photograph of him is known to exist (which, fittingly, is out of focus).

Seen in the context of our present obsession with 24-hour connectivity and accessibility, Margiela’s work feels refreshingly subversive. In terms of his designs, he was years ahead of his time, and this new retrospective provides an opportunity to see anew the work of this extraordinary intellectual, who was every inch a designer’s designer – Demna Gvasalia, of Balenciaga and Vetements, and Phoebe Philo are both self-confessed fans. It is also a chance to revisit themes that are only now being tackled by other fashion labels.

For example, the exaggerated silhouettes currently so in-vogue first appeared at Margiela’s autumn/winter 2000 show, where models wore clothes that were scaled up by 200 per cent. Meant as a commentary on the evil of mass consumerism (another hot topic today), the clothes had shop tickets and security tags hanging from them.

Pioneering the idea of repurposing and recycling for spring/summer 1991, Margiela redyed vintage ballgowns and styled them over jeans; a year later, for spring /summer 1992, he created dresses from old head scarves; and for autumn/winter 1997, models’ wigs were made from old fur coats.

At his studio, Margiela requested that his team don white coats, which is what the craftspeople of haute couture tend to wear. They also provided a sense of anonymity – an idea that was repeated through his collections. For his very first runway show, in 1989, plain white fabric was used for the runway, while the company’s label was a square of white fabric, with numbers instead of a brand name.

White coats also appeared in the finale of his autumn/winter show that year, when models and backstage staff threw handfuls of confetti scooped from pockets over the bleak, gritty derelict playground where it was staged. Now acknowledged as one of the most influential shows yet, invitations were made by local children, seating was first-come, first-served, and models stumbled about on the uneven floor. Surrounded by graffiti and inner-city deprivation, the show was the polar opposite of the Versace-esque excess that was dominating fashion at the time and, despite earning Margiela a savaging in the press, secured his avant-garde reputation. As his contemporaries celebrated bling and the notion that more is more, Margiela put ripped and shredded clothes on the runway in an anti-establishment statement.

Unafraid to ignore conventions, Margiela consistently pushed the boundaries of what constitutes fashion, just as Richard Rogers re-imagined architecture by exposing the working guts of buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyds Building in London. Margiela was the first designer to deconstruct clothes, making a feature of the hitherto secret world of seams, padding and the basting stitches that held layers of fabric together. By spring/summer 2005, even the concept of the fashion show was up for reinterpretation, when he sat his models in the audience, to clamber on to the stage when the venue was full, crowding the runway two-deep.

So important is his work now, that this Paris show barely mentions his tenure as womenswear creative director for Hermès (a position he held from 1997 to 2003). This period has a dedicated exhibition in Antwerp – Margiela: The Hermès Years – which will run from March 31 to August 27.

The innovations Margiela brought to fashion are still relevant today. If, for example, you own a pair of split- toe trainers, then you must thank Margiela, who was the first designer to bring the Japanese tabi style to a western audience, when he had models walk the runway at his debut show in tabis dipped in red paint.

Martin Margiela’s split-toe tabi boots; right, the autumn/winter 2018 Maison Margiela runway show Getty Foc Kan/WireImage/Getty Images
Martin Margiela’s split-toe tabi boots; right, the autumn/winter 2018 Maison Margiela runway show Getty Foc Kan/WireImage/Getty Images

As with so many elements of Margiela’s work, only the passing of time has enabled us to process the ideas he presented. The distressed clothes he pioneered are only now making an appearance on high-end runways, while today’s trend for models with barely any make-up and undone hair has taken decades to become acceptable. Even though he departed his label more than 10 years ago (in 2007), his voice is still relevant. His label, retitled simply Maison Margiela, is today led by the equally complex John Galliano, who is rising to the challenge of following in such storied footsteps. When Galliano was appointed, Margiela is said to have delightedly exclaimed: “I asked for a designer, and instead you have brought me a couturier.”

Models present creations for Maison Margiela during the 2018/2019 fall/winter collection fashion show on February 28, 2018 in Paris. AFP
Models present creations for Maison Margiela during the 2018/2019 fall/winter collection fashion show on February 28, 2018 in Paris. AFP

Despite the insistence on privacy, the designer is listed as artistic director of the Paris exhibition – he wrote all the captions for the looks, and even oversaw the wigs and make-up on each mannequin. Curator Alexandre Sampson has confirmed that the designer has been very hands-on. He may have left the industry more than a decade ago, but there is still so much we can all learn from Margiela.

Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009 is running until July 15 at Palais Galliera, Paris; www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr

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