The new year brings with it news that Martin Margiela – the incomparable Belgian designer that defined fashion for some three decades – will be the subject of a new exhibition in Paris this year. Opening in April at the Fondation Lafayette Anticipations, the retrospective follows other recent (and highly praised and well-attended) exhibitions in the City of Lights, such as at the Palais Galliera back in 2018. Yet by contrast, this exhibition will make its focus more on Margiela the artist rather than Margiela the designer, comprising drawing, sculpture and collage. And yet those definitive descriptions fail to do justice to the oeuvre of Margiela, who consistently blurred the line between the art forms and prompted his audiences to consider fashion as art, rather than an industrial reflection of its ideas.
Maison Martin Margiela is one of the most successful contemporary fashion houses characterised by its intellectual platform as much as its wit. The eponymous designer was one of the Antwerp Six, a collective of European designer’s who were responding to the work of Japanese avant garde designers such as Rei Kawakubo. The house still bears the name of its creator despite Martin Margiela’s 2009 retirement, though this seems barely relevant as creatively the label has always played with the notion of personality and visibility, allowing speculation to swirl in the lead up to his retirement about whether he was still in the role. Margiela is never photographed, and has never appeared on the catwalk post parade. He is that rare thing in fashion, an elusive enigma, particularly in a social media personality driven fashion world where brand is confused with person.
And yet despite his anonymity he enjoys considerable critical acclaim and fame, proof that less is more. He describes fashion’s conundrum about how to get and retain authenticity; Margiela’s loyal fans frequently describe themselves as collectors rather than shoppers. Margiela’s critical engagement with fashion could be described as almost absurdist or surreal, as though he recognizes the inherent folly of fashion. His collections regularly employ non-traditional materials (lining as outer wear) and play with what constitutes a finished garment.
His conceptual approach has involved pushing the limitations of clothing to create improbable surreal pieces: a jacket made of collaged gloves, a ‘hair’ jacket, a trench coat made from belts, for example. In making something ludicrous he eschews the possibility for it to be recreated. Marigela frequently plays with shape and volume, creating clothing that is almost like a surrogate body – inflated and expanded, or divided: one arm and one leg. These pieces are the showstoppers to more wearable collections but they underpin each collection.
An important aspect of his work has been reinvigorating and upcycyling vintage clothes. In 1994 he made an entire collection out of work from past collections. Margiela’s agenda is less about conventional notions of beauty, indeed at times his style seems almost about a suppression of the female form. Interestingly, in 2012 the label collaborated with high street retailer H&M on an instantly collectable more wearable version of some Margiela favourites, such as a large size duck down jacket.