Famed Fashion Designer Martin Margiela's Career of Firsts

Retrospectives at Musée des Arts Decoratifs and Palais Galliera, Paris showcase the designer's unique ways of relating garment to body

In 2001, Annie Leibowitz took a portrait of Belgian designer Martin Margiela for Vogue magazine. Instead of depicting the designer himself, his entire team, dressed in characteristic white lab coats, stood for a collective portrait. Among the crowd, one chair remained empty for him. His absent body reflects something of the ethos of Maison Martin Margiela under his direction from 1989 to 2009, as well as his work at Hermès from 1997–2003.  

Unlike his peer Rei Kawakubo, who declared that she has no desire to look back, Margiela has maintained a retrospective attitude, whether to his own work or fashion history. So, it seems appropriate that both exhibitions at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs and Palais Galliera were produced with the designer having some kind of directorial or advisory role. Both are chronologically arranged, taking viewers through the development of his styles. The Galliera show is more immersive and moody, placing as much emphasis on the process of production, with video documentation of his legendary runway shows, as it does on the actual items. It also includes three mise-en-scene vitrines called ‘Chambre de fan’, which recreate photographs by Kyoichi Tsuzuki of the tiny apartments of Japanese devotées who collect pieces from a single season. The Hermès show is far more reserved and focuses on the garments themselves, with bright video monitors providing examples of how they are worn.

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‘Margiela / Galliera, 1989–2009’, 2018, installation view, Palais Galliera, Paris. Courtesy: the artist and Palais Galliera, Paris; scenography: © Pierre Antoine

While many designers look to the past, Margiela does so in radically material ways, placing a tension on the relationship between body and garment. Starting with his 1990 ‘Artisinal’ line, he made clothes from used fabrics. In the 1993 Spring-Summer line, he used items purchased from a defunct theatre company, so that the fabric, often in need of repair, gestured to the history of the theatre company as well as periods in time that the item was supposed to evoke on the stage – the renaissance, the revolution. In the 1994–95 Autumn-Winter season, only five years into his career, the designer launched a line that reconsidered his work to that date, repurposing items for previous seasons.

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Martin Margiela, Tabi soles, Spring-Summer 1996, black leather. Courtesy and photograph: © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet

Throughout Margiela’s career, his number of ‘firsts’ is obvious. He was the first to use second-hand garments and to make clothing purely from materials used for lining, which normally act as a barrier between skin and garment. We also have Margiela to thank for the oversize phenomenon, with his 2000 Spring-Summer collection designed at XXXXL, a line that he continued for two years. (He even included a number of oversized items in his otherwise reservedly elegant Hermés collection.) There is also the use of trompe-l’œil prints on synthetic fabrics. Through erasure, exaggeration, or alteration, he highlights traces of the body.

Margiela is thankfully unsatisfied with remaining in the abstract. It’s not only the body but bodies that he continues to explore. Through video documentation, both exhibitions also highlight his use of non-professional models of various ages and races showcasing his designs for his own collection in locations including abandoned Metro stations, warehouses and even under bridges. For his Hermès line, Margiela further stated that he was more interested in the way the clothes would be used or worn than how they looked on the runway. This might sound like a commonplace, but within the logic of fashion, more specifically within his own, its practicality feels radical.

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‘Margiela / Galliera, 1989–2009’, 2018, installation view, Palais Galliera, Paris. Courtesy: the artist and Palais Galliera, Paris; scenography: © Pierre Antoine

Margiela constantly tests the relationship between garment and body. In 1989, during his first runway show, the models wore skin-tight masks so that the details of their faces were obscured, becoming as much a signature style as his cloven footwear. The effect of masking the models, it’s often said, highlighted the clothing, not the model. But that’s a platitude. Instead, his approach emphasizes that bodies wear his work, even if they are obscured or seemingly absent, a bit like the way an empty chair in a mass of lab-coats highlights what or who is not there. 

Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009 runs at Palais Galliera, Paris until 15 July, and Margiela, les années Hermès runs at Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris until 2 September.

Main image: ‘Margiela / Galliera, 1989–2009’, 2018, installation view, Palais Galliera, Paris. Courtesy: the artist and Palais Galliera, Paris; scenography: © Pierre Antoine

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books ‘Daily’, Artforum and The White Review, among others. 

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