Fashion show spring / summer collection 1990 of designer Martin Margiela, ici sur l'image, in a squat in northern Paris, France. September 1989 - 1989 © Jean-Claude Coutausse / Divergence ------- Défilé de mode, collection printemps/été 1990, du couturier Martin Margiela (here on the picture) dans un squat du nord de Paris, France. Septembre 1989 - 1989©Jean-Claude Coutausse / Divergence

Martin Margiela: The Silent Designer

Since the late eighties, Maison Margiela has been a brand on the name of everyone’s lips. Mystery has always been an element played within Margiela shows, with masked models walking the runway, but perhaps the biggest mystery behind the brand is its founder, Martin Margiela.

From the peak of his fame in the late nineties, and even beyond that, Martin Margiela has remained firmly behind the curtain, refusing interviews and never willingly revealing his face to the public. Aside from his obvious creative flair and passion for design, fans of the brand have never known much about the intriguing designer, until now, that is.

Director Reiner Holzemer has released a new documentary titled Martin Margiela: In His Own Words revealing Margiela’s experiences from his time in the fashion world. Those expecting to get a glimpse of Margiela’s face will sadly be disappointed; the documentary shows only his hands and footage of the archives and influential work that those hands created.

Martin Margiela was born in 1959 in Limbourg, Belgium. He lived with his mother, who used to enjoy buying second-hand furniture and remodeling it to create something new. This is strikingly familiar to Margiela’s process of doing the very same thing with clothes, upcycling materials and creating something new out of something old. It feels entirely ahead of its time in today’s era and is an example of exactly what makes Margiela’s work so special.

In 1980 Margiela attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He was said to be the unofficial member of the famous ‘Antwerp Six’, an avant-garde fashion collective of six designers, including Dries Van Noten.

After graduation Margiela headed to one of the world’s major fashion capitals, Paris, to intern for Jean Paul Gaultier. It has been said that Margiela sat in Gaultier’s waiting room for three days, before finally being introduced to Gaultier himself. Gaultier later referred to Margiela as one of his best assistants, saying “I knew he could do something great, but I didn’t know to which extent.”

Not long after Margiela set up his label, originally known as ‘Martin Maison Margiela’. As Gaultier’s student, the two designers did share a common theme in their work: an obsession with the body. In Gaultier’s designs, this theme was always apparent in the body’s enhancement, while Margiela’s designs always tend to conceal it, in an aim to take away its identity.

Margiela’s most memorable and iconic show was carried out just a year after he started his eponymous label. A derelict playground on the outskirts of Paris doesn’t exactly sound like the place where great fashion moments are born, but after originally scouting the location for a magazine shoot; the local children who played in the area inspired Margiela. Seating for the show operated on a first-come, first-served basis, pushing editors and fashion crowd members out of their usual front-row views. The front row was occupied by the very same children that usually gathered at the playground, who were sat on the edge of the runway in front of the guests. From these actions alone it was immediately clear to the fashion crowd that this young designer was a far cry from anyone who came before him, here to shake up contemporary fashion.

From the moment the show started, it was clear that nothing about it would be ordinary, models stumbled their way across the uneven ground in designs made from papier mache and dry cleaning bags. The children in the front row were as fascinated by what was happening as the rest of the crowd, and at some point, they got up and paraded alongside the models.

The show has never been forgotten in fashion’s vast history, it’s hard to think of another occasion in that time where the tone has been set so firmly for fashion as a public spectacle. For iconic designer Raf Simons, this was the first fashion show he ever attended as a young designer, it has been said that this is the show that made him decide on a career in making clothes, once and for all.

Margiela’s success only grew after 1989, showing that he was more than just a one-hit-wonder. All the while as his designs spoke louder, the designer remained silent. In 2008, Margiela directed his last runway show for the label. Naturally, the official announcement of this came much later, with fans of his work left heartbroken and confused at the news.

At the time, many people believed that the designer had simply said everything that he had needed to say, without speaking. Since then we have a little further insight into what may have been behind his disappearance.

Last year, the Belgian Fashion Awards awarded Margiela with its Jury Prize, honouring his entire career and obvious impact on the history of fashion. Margiela didn’t turn up on the evening to claim his award, but he did make an accepting statement.

Published by Dazed, the statement suggests that Margiela may not have liked the changes he was seeing in the industry at the time: “A beautiful tribute to a period of hard work and dedication starting at early age and lasting for more than 30 years, until 2008—the very year I felt that I could not cope anymore with the worldwide increasing pressure and the overgrowing demands of trade. I also regretted the overdose of information carried by social media, destroying the ‘thrill of wait’ and cancelling every effect of surprise, so fundamental for me.”

It comes as no surprise that an icon so dependent on being private felt that he could not continue his work in a world of social media where there is almost no privacy.

Today, the label lives on and continues to inspire young talent, under the creative direction of John Galliano. “In His Own Words” offers a small window into the mystery, but it’s clear that we still may never know who the elusive figure really is. And that’s how it should be. Truly great work speaks volumes over any voice, and Martin Margiela’s work never stops talking.

Credit: Photo by George Chinsee
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