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My first reaction to the name Martin Margiela was memorably ill-informed. In the summer of 1994, I found myself sitting in a friend’s kitchen talking to a young and relatively unknown fashion designer named Raf Simons. We chatted arbitrarily about Farrow & Ball paint, Bic biros, and the Britpop band Elastica. He was notable that day for his shyness, holding strident opinions, and the characteristic flickers of Flemish gloom; but he also told me about his great admiration for Margiela, a slightly older Belgian designer, with unusually florid enthusiasm. To Simons, Margiela was a magical touchstone. He cited his hero’s second fashion show—Spring/Summer 1990 Kinderfashion—as a eureka moment. “I knew at that point this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was a pivotal experience.”

“Martine Margiela?” I bluffed. “Yes, I hear she’s the next big thing.”

Although my ignorance was decidedly uncool (I swear it was the pronunciation), I was right in asserting that this ambiguous name would scale the heights of fashion to become one of the era’s consummate stars. As a new century was brought to life by urgent proposals and rescaled ideas, the fashion world, dominated by conspicuous consumption, needed change too. The industry was in flux, churning out clothes with a disregard for demand, while cautious about pushing the envelope. Margiela did things differently, from a distance, without branding himself a celebrity. His designs and their anti-perfectionist stance were an antidote to the slick glamour and party-girl artifice of the day. His were statement clothes, emboldened by art, and delicately ‘unfinished’. They were the future.

His designs and their anti-perfectionist stance were an antidote to the slick glamour and party-girl artifice of the day. His were statement clothes, emboldened by art, and delicately ‘unfinished’. They were the future.

But who is Martin Margiela? Not a woman, clearly, although we know little about this most private of individuals. From the outset he has wished to remain anonymous, avoiding photographers—there is only one image in existence—and retreating to spaces unfettered by outside attention. As he witnessed his colleagues in fashion become increasingly media-tised, he saw it as a real advantage. “It was smart to be the Greta Garbo of fashion,” said Suzy Menkes, “and by keeping his anonymity, people became more excited wondering what he was like. A mystery surrounded him.”

Margiela emerged at the end of the 1980s, although he had spent the best part of the decade studying at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and working under designers such as the redoubtable Jean-Paul Gaultier. “I knew he was good, but didn’t know how good,” said Gaultier of his protégé, “but I wasn’t his teacher. He didn’t need that.” A little older than the fabled Antwerp Six, whose ranks include Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Walter Van Beirendonck, he became their unofficial seventh member, heralded by the press as a Belgian dream team ready to dispense with the rulebook.

While his colleagues forged strong and enduring identities, it was Margiela who was seen as the most innovative of the bunch. “He was fucking with the system, challenging fashion dogma,” says Gill Linton of Byronesque, an ardent fan and dealer who views vintage Margiela as a precious commodity. “When you have no money, creativity is the only currency you have. Frankly it’s more powerful. If more brands had less money, the fashion industry would be more creative and might take more risks because there is nothing to lose. The Tabi shoe became an untouchable icon of the house, not by a stroke of marketing genius but by his creative genius. He reused the same shoes from show to show, painted them, fucked them up and covered them in stockings to reinvent them. He was the godfather of reinvention.”

When people think of Margiela they think of deconstruction. In fashion terms, this means taking a garment apart and then rebuilding it both in proportion and finish to some sort of dishabille conclusion. Frayed hems, exposed stitching and the demolishing of taste became the designer’s calling card. As a child, his mother would recycle furniture in a way that was completely out of sync with the times. Later, as a student, Margiela would scour flea markets for clothes in much the same way. He proved that you could make things with nothing: a very comforting idea for a maximalist world blinded by excess.

Although not the first to deal with deconstruction—both Vivienne Westwood and Rei Kawakubo have continually toyed with the technique—Margiela was the first to make it believable, much in part through his exceptional cutting. “I think he found beauty in imperfection and wanted to make this apparent to people by highlighting the overlooked or ignored details found inside clothing,” says James Anderson, contributing editor at i-D magazine, one of the first publications to champion the designer. “By exploring these themes and also incorporating ‘found’ items into his designs, for example, old gloves and ties, he was also pre-empting the subsequent wave of enthusiasm for ‘vintage’ and for recycling and upcycling and sustainability—all of which are now buzz words and themes and concerns now being actively promoted within fashion design courses at universities.”

For all the radical touches and artful detail, there is also something radically normal about Margiela’s oeuvre. Next to the paint-splattered jeans and tromp d’oeil effects, you will find well-cut, classic shapes that eschew trickiness in favour of wearability. The price tags remain high but so does the level of quality. “It’s low-key weird,” says Anderson. “If you look at Margiela’s stuff on a rail in a shop it often looks surprisingly conventional, and yet there is often just enough of a tweak for it to be slightly off-kilter. This, as well as the history and narrative of the brand, has gradually built up a devoted following of those who like to feel they belong to a bit of a secret club. It is not secret, of course, but it just has that feeling of being beyond the obvious.”

Margiela differed from others in that he never compromised his point of view. He established a vision and concentrated on reconfiguring an entire system of fashion. He not only introduced new clothes, but commented on the system, which was, by the early 2000s, very perverted and dominated by money. What an acolyte of the brand wanted was an assured look, modern, textured, but with a twist; something that said: by all means notice me, but please don’t stare.

The clan is identified by a simple trademark device, something so subtle and understated it has never been bettered. On the back neck of any Margiela top, you will find four white cotton stitches holding the label in place. It’s a secret code, the membership to an exclusive club that only the aficionados would recognise. It is at once elitist and democratic. On one hand Margiela was saying this is fashion, take part in it; on the other giving you only the vaguest of clues. Margiela’s work is upfront and decidedly obvious in its intent, but can also leave you guessing. “The entire concept behind the brand and the collections he created were a middle finger to the fashion industry,” says Gill Linton. “But in the most abstract, poignant and prolific way. If I told you I’m going to create one of the most important luxury brands of the 21st century out of old used leather gloves, old socks, plastic garment bags, children’s proportions for adults or oversized clothes based on already plus size silhouettes, you probably wouldn’t believe me.”

Margiela’s influence cannot be overestimated. It is safe to say his ideas have overwhelmingly permeated the industry. Everyone from Marc Jacobs to Miuccia Prada has ‘taken’ something from his catalogue of innovation, which in retrospect is probably more flattering than annoying. “The influence upon Demna Gvasalia at Vetements is really apparent,” says Anderson, “not only in the designs but also the casting of non-model models, and the non-conventional venues in which the collections have been presented. Vetements probably works best for a younger generation who didn’t see these sorts of ideas road-tested first time around with Margiela. But years ago, after he first started to really become more popular, I recall lots of designers suddenly unleashing designs with frayed edges and fake distressed detailing, much of which could be traced back to him.”

“Demna simply filled a gap that wasn’t being filled by any other brand,” says Linton, “and the time was right for it. Fashion needed a kick up the arse. It needed a new Kawakubo, who pissed off the French fashion aristocracy in the late eighties. It needed a Margiela, who drastically changed the shapes and silhouettes we wore and still wear. It needed creativity to preside over commerce and challenge the system that is so desperately outdated. Those who don’t get it will catch up in twenty years and wish they’d bought it and kept it. And now that Demna is royally flipping it to the system and not succumbing to the circus, he’s truly carrying the Margiela torch. More designers need to, it’s the only way fashion will get its integrity back.”

The almost Salingeresque nature of Margiela was further ensconced when, in 2009, after selling majority shares in his company, Martin Margiela retired from the house. Like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander before him, he instinctively knew when it was time to go. “Martin said what he had to say,” commented Raf Simons, “and it’s ultimately admirable when a person knows that when he or she has said what they need to say, they go. It’s what more people should do.”

“I heard a rumour,” says Anderson, “that one of the reasons Martin retired from fashion was because Kanye West name-checked him in one of his songs and this mainstream celebrity endorsement was just too much for shy Martin to bear. Is this an apocryphal tale, or just the ultimate Margiela statement?”

In 2013 Maison Margiela hired the seemingly odd choice of John Galliano to guide the label into more cohesive territory. “I’m trying to synthesise old Galliano and the house of Margiela into something that shares the same instincts,” he revealed. “In the eighties—like many others—I was turning things upside down, back to front, revealing the innards of clothes. It was about deconstructing to reconstruct. Martin told me to forge my own identity but also respect the DNA of the brand. I wear a white lab coat in the atelier like it’s the most important job in the world. That’s the respect Margiela deserves.”

For more visit www.maisonmargiela.com

Image Credits:
Image 01. Photo by Victor VIRGILE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
Image 02. Photo by Victor VIRGILE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.
Image 03. Photo by Karl Prouse / Catwalking / Getty Images.
Image 04. Photo by Karl Prouse / Catwalking / Getty Images.
Image 05. Photo by Karl Prouse / Catwalking / Getty Images.
Image 06. Photo by Nathalie Lagneau / Catwalking / Contributor.

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