5 Ways Martin Margiela Challenged Fashion
Arguably one of the most subversive avant-garde designers from the late 1980s to present, Martin Margiela is the only Belgian fashion designer of his generation to establish himself in Paris as an haute couturier. Margiela challenges the normative practices of designers by constantly repurposing reclaimed garments and objects—a subversion of fashion’s pervasive need to renew itself.
He graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp in 1980, which produced other prominent names like Raf Simons and Dries Van Noten. He assisted Jean Paul Gaultier from 1984-1987, and follows in the ‘deconstructivist’ tradition of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
This retrospective from his spring/summer 1989 to spring/summer 2009 collections are curated by the museum’s director of contemporary collections, Alexandre Samson, and art directed by Margiela himself. Set in a site under construction, an intimate viewing of more than 100 silhouettes, videos, Maison archives, and installations follows the different labels ascribed to him—deconstructionist, minimalist, and conceptual.
Here are five intriguing things about Martin Margiela we walked away with:
1. Play the hand you’re dealt
Margiela repurposes garments and objects from past collections and flea markets into unique pieces. In his autumn/winter 1989/1990 collection, he made a vest from the catwalk dropcloth of his previous runway show. His ‘Artisanal’ line springboards from this piece, later earning him his slot in haute couture fashion week from spring/summer 2006.
His ‘Replica’ line, birthed with the autumn/winter1994/1995 collection, reproduces antique garments, with a large square cloth sewn into them detailing the piece’s description, origin and era. Among many other innovative repurposing projects, he’s transformed down comforters into winter coats, turned previous collections’ tops sideways, and used a bootleg live cassette tape found in the street of Italian singer Mina’s 1978 concert as the soundtrack of his autumn/winter 1996/1997 runway show.
2. Turn it inside out
Besides challenging fashion’s need for newness, Margiela also questions what constitutes a fashion piece by highlighting the beauty of incomplete objects. In his spring/summer 1997 and 1998 collections, he presented the Stockman dress form (tailor’s dummy) cover as vests and bibs, alongside half-skirts and half-coats, to propose these objects in stages of production as garments in themselves.
Exposed darts, linings, seams, labels, stamps, and fastenings have also become synonymous with Margiela’s deconstructionist aesthetic.
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3. One size does not fit all
Always one to break the mould, Margiela enlarged garments by 200 per cent for his third runway collection and later blew up dolls clothes to adult sizes, maintaining the cut and proportions. His autumn/winter 2000/2001 collection saw XXXL garments at size 78. These proved technically difficult for factories producing his garments, bringing to the fore the hidden biases of dominant creative expression.
He also used non-models to show his tenth collection. Seven women from Margiela’s inner circle, all of different ages, professions and nationalities, were filmed wearing his collection at various locations. This film was presented to invitees with Margiela giving a running commentary to convey, in his words, "The women who appreciate my clothes share a certain mentality, rather than a look or age."
4. What is a fashion show?
Besides the film, Margiela’s fashion shows took on various forms other than the catwalk. One ‘show’ had invitees use a voucher to claim a forty-page tabloid-style newspaper, which detailed the many themes of Maison Martin Margiela’s collections and the making of artisanal pieces. Invitees of catwalk show have also found themselves in a car park, a wasteland, and Saint-Martin Terminal, which is one of Paris’ ‘ghost terminals’.
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5. Let the clothes do the talking
Margiela has always been one to shy away from the spotlight, denying interviews and simply marking his creations with a blank white label. His first show also had models with their faces veiled to let the garments take centre stage.
Despite this reclusiveness, his creations and ideas that challenge common notions of fashion cement his status as one of the most important designers today. From rethinking the ideal shoe form with his iconic Tabi boots to his AIDS T-shirt that raises money for the French non-profit AIDES, this retrospective reminds us that while fashion itself need not change for the sake of newness, fashion can be a force of positive change.
‘Margiela/Galliera 1989-2009’ is presented at Palais Galliera, Paris, France, from March 3 to July 15, 2018, and is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm.