Interview by Filep Motwary, June 2010
For the past three years that I serve as the guest biannual curator of Isterografo’s Fashion Issue one of the main goals I had was to grant an interview with include Maison Martin Margiela.
It wasn’t an easy one, as proved repeatedly, since I tried so many times to get through and finally manage to even have a neutral response from their PR office. The mystery around MMM was growing bigger and bigger each time thanks to a majestic silence, yet I was not going to give up. The question on what makes Maison Martin Margiela such an intriguing House remains!
MMM has almost a self-masochistic behaviour compared to how other Houses function. There is a syntactic order somehow, that leads to a completely individual outcome each time. After twenty years the House was first launched, it is still considered as a pure inspiration for both art, fashion and even literature.
A conceptual label that keeps on going, with no boundaries set by the changes of society, the world or even the market itself.
MMM is continually overexposed, as the collections routinely reveal the designer’s techniques and interests in their very construction; bearing visible stitches, exposed hems, tailor’s markings, and external shoulder pads, the collections never fail to intrigue, shock or delight.
Martin Margiela was born in Belgium in 1957. Early in his career, he became part of the Antwerp Six, the group that put Belgium as a solid member on the map of Fashion and its members included, Dirk Van Saene , Dirk Bikkembergs , Marina Yee, Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, and Walter Van Beirendonck , at the time all graduate students of Antewerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1984 he joined Jean-Paul Gaultier’s design team, an experience that would profoundly shape his fashion sense. Leaving Gaultier in 1988, Margiela launched his own label, which soon became known for his theme-oriented collections. The exact opposite of Gaultier’s celebrity affiliated name, he’d hidden his model’s faces on the runway so that the press and audience would focus solidly on his clothes.
His “Flat Collection” moved sleeves and armholes to the front, so garments would lie perfectly flat when not worn. His 1996 “Photoprint Collection” consisted of crepe garments printed with images of fur coats and heavy sweaters. Other collections have used broken dishes and bacterial mold; still others have featured no new designs, only favourite pieces from previous collections that have all been re-dyed in gray color.
Margiela always puts on a show, using vacant lots and old subway cars as runways, and marionettes and hangers as models. In 1997, Margiela was hired to design the women’s ready-to-wear line for Hermes. His first Hermes collection proved he could colour inside the lines when required to;
In late 2009, Martin Margiela quietly left the House he founded without a replacement.
Since then, his dedicated team took over, stepping on the worries of failure the press spread around the world.
The Margiela brand remains vibrant and vital without one creative force and its initiative will be studied by the many historic brands trying to stay relevant in the 21st century.
Starting on June 3rd until 5th September 2010
Somerset House of London ,hosts Maison Martin Margiela ’20’ The Exhibition; celebrating the 20 years of one of contemporary fashion’s most influential and enigmatic designers.
Following the success of recent exhibitions ‘SHOWstudio: fashion revolution’ and ‘Skin and Bones: parallel practices in fashion and architecture’ this unique exhibition will explore the designer’s artistic and conceptual approach to fashion and continues Somerset House’s commitment to showcasing the world’s most celebrated creative talents across fashion, art and design.
Conceived in close collaboration with Maison Martin Margiela and curated by the Mode Museum, Antwerp, this exciting show makes its London debut where it will be specially reconfigured for the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House, following critical acclaim at the MoMu, Antwerp and Haus der Kunst, Munich last year.
MMM answered some of my questions and our conversation was published in ISTEROGRAFO’s 7th issue, dedicated to Fashion.
FilepMotwary: 20 years of Martin Margiela. What was the goal of the House, when it first started out and how it has changed in comparison with today?
MaisonMartinMargiela: We view our work as a proposition to wear what we feel at any given moment.
FM: How difficult it was for a Belgian brand to break into the Parisian bourgeoisie considering that the Margiela heroine is far from bourgeois?
MMM: At the beginning, it was just Martin and Jenny (Jenny Meirens was the co-founder of MMM) starting a company in Paris. Then, the team started to grow as the company developed. Today, Maison Martin Margiela is a team of more than 70 persons from 19 nationalities in Paris’ headquarters only. Does that make MMM a Belgian brand?
FM: Martin Margiela dresses in the past ten years evolved into something more than ready-to-wear. What motivated the team into conquering couture, menswear and design objects?
MMM: We leave the interpretation of our work to others. As for ‘couture’, we have always shown handmade garments as part of our ‘Artisanal’ collection (line 0) where we rework/transform vintage and used garments of many varied époques to form unique pieces that are made available to our customers around the world. Though certainly not to be considered ‘Haute-Couture’ as it is understood today – our Artisanal production can maintain certain crafts involved in the production of hand made individual garments that have been alive for many centuries and that are difficult to keep within the industrial methods of clothing manufacture today.
Over the years, all the other lines (please see our flyer as per attached) came naturally as a complement to the original ones as the company was developing.
FM: In the early years the brand tag on Margiela items was less visible than it is today. Could you please analyze the transformation and the importance of the signature visibility?
MMM: The four white stitches only appear on unlined garments. They were devised so as to, realistically and ideally; offer the option to those confronting the garments for the first time to react to their form and energy, and not just the idea of “brand” as expressed via a label.
What most people consider as our logo – the four stitches in the back with the white label inside the garment – had in fact the opposite purpose: it was meant to be cut off so the garment would be without a label and logo!
It has not changed at all except that before the label was completely white and with the creation of new lines, we added the numbers and circled the appropriate number of the line the garment is part of.
FM: Why is the Margiela team and boutique stuff dressed in white?
MMM: Original idea: Unity. An expression of the term team. A reference to the working ‘Atelier’/Studio’s of the past and present, those ‘blouse d’essayage’ that models wear between fittings at couture Ateliers.
Accidental plus point: A way of quickly recognizing each other amid the fray of a fashion show. We approach white as an expression of our union as a team and also as an evidence of option, an option of expression, be that ours – or that of those who choose to wear the clothes we propose.
FM: What is the philosophy of a MMM boutique?
MMM: That it represents as best it can the spirit of our work and home. We wish our shops to bring an atmosphere of intimacy, calm, encouragement, stimulation and ease. We want that those who visit any of our stores feel as at home there as we do.
Though all spaces inhabited by the Maison share common themes, no two are alike in form, theme or decoration. Great care is taken to respect each building’s unique structure and original use. The atmosphere of each shop, adapted and decorated by Maison Martin Margiela, also draws on the prolific and iconographic use of whites – of furniture, objects, fabrics and textures, old and new – typical of the spirit of the Maison Martin Margiela’s Paris premises, a former school of industrial design. Furniture and architectural elements salvaged from shops and houses across the world are brought to build on the space’s personality.
FM: What has MMM achieved in its 20 years of existence?
MMM: You are in a better position to answer this question than we are.
FM: The Artisanal line brought a whole new chapter in Fashion, What was the main idea behind it?
MMM: Line 0 is Collection « Artisanal » for women & men. Since its beginnings in 1988, Maison Martin Margiela has been gathering garments, accessories, used and – sometimes- new objects across the globe. That these garments and objects may be given a second life whilst respecting and maintaining the traces of the passage of time and use remains one of the keystones of the creative expression of the Maison.
Each garment is reworked entirely by hand in the atelier of the Maison in Paris. The complexity and specificity of each step of such a creative process of transformation will naturally limit the quantity of garments produced.
The individuality of the materials used to create each garment ensures that each is as unique as that which was used to create it. The label, numbered 0, is sewn, embossed or stamped depending on the material used to create the garment or accessory.
FM: How important is for MMM to feel connected with its customers considering the fact that the House itself is a mystery?
MMM: Crucial! We hope that they are convinced that they can be completely ‘at one’ with a garment and be happy wearing it and that a garment can reply to the needs and emotions of the person wearing it is a beautiful thing.
We are lucky enough to have a very wide group of men and women who wear our garments. From our point of view we have always paid particular attention to designing for as large a cross section of women and men as possible. We are lucky in that so many people of different ages, shapes, social role and background are following our work! For us femininity is all embracing and is not just limited to one body form or one attitude. Since our beginning our fashion shows have reflected this reality of our collections in that we have always chosen to show our collections on women of varying ages and from varying walks of life. We feel that we are lucky in that this approach is also reflected in those who wear our garments.
FM: To what extent is MMM connected to the ARTS?
MMM: We prefer not to interpret our work, preferring to leave that up to others better placed to place our work in an overall context. We all have work that we love, though, possibly regrettably, as a team we have no real connection to the Art world.
Fashion is a craft, a technical know-how and not an art. Each world shares an expression through creativity though through very divergent media and processes.
FM: Paris radiates its own platform when it comes to fashion. Why is the city of light so relevantly fashionable?
MMM: At this stage, the inertia that this town has amassed over the years. An inertia that draws creativity and those attracted to it into its core. Yet Paris is not essentially different from any other great city ‘of personality’.
It stands as itself in much and the same way as New York, London, etc. Almost a ‘brand’, its ‘branding’ is of a town that embraces a more individualistic creative expression. Those wishing to begin in fashion tend to start and show here because of the concentration of fashion professionals passing through town throughout the year (that inertia again!).
FM: Would the House wish to link again with another like the past connection you had with HERMES?
MMM: Such collaboration was a personal project of Martin Margiela, not of Maison Martin Margiela.
FM: Today there is a blossom of pseudo couture, a lot of designer get credibility without actually deserving it. Many faces come and go in a glimpse of an eye…Everything is moving so fast.. What does it take for a HOUSE to remain in charge in such times?
MMM: Courage and instinct.
FM: What are the differences between your men and women customers?
FM: How is sex appealing in the MMM collections?
MMM: It is to others to interpret.
FM: Has MMM experienced relevant tragedies like the recent worlds financial crisis?
FM: MMM is a result of teamwork. How do new members enter the team and to what extent is the difficulty for a member to leave the House?
MMM: We suppose just as easy and/or difficult as in any other team. More generally, there are over 70 people at the Paris HQ. We often compare our way of working to the building of a wall: everyone brings a stone and eventually the wall is built. And everyone needs to bring the stone, otherwise the wall collapses. Everyone has a role within the team, but everyone also has a voice within that team… This is one of the reasons why Martin never appeared publicly, as we all know that if he would have, the light would have been on him, and without him in the light, the message would be different: the work is the collaboration of a team and not just about one single individual.
FM: What is the most valuable moment in the History of Fashion and why?
MMM: More often than not we are so close to our work it is genuinely impossible for us to define the ‘how or why’ and especially, experience tells us, to predict the ‘buttons it will push’ in those who are confronted by it. This is as true of the reaction any individual will have to a garment hanging in a store as it is for the professionals of our industry to a fashion show.
FM: What serves to inspire you the most?
MMM: Our main inspiration has always has been the extremities and changes of daily life. Our work is solely a proposition to wear what it is we like to create, a presentation of a way in which we see things at a given moment.
As a team we all share so many interests and sources of inspiration, these are all very varied and would take far too long to list here. It is often hard to quantify or describe inspiration. It is often more by osmosis than an active decision.
Each member of our team seeks to explore their own stimulation, be that visual or another. Such stimulation and dialogue varies in direction and importance for each of us.
FM: What are the morals of MMM?
MMM: Such notions are not part of our vocabulary.
FM: MMM suffers from a lack of self exposure. Does it happen out of modesty and if not, why is the House hidden in shade from the Glossies?
MMM: Even though people tend to think we do not communicate, we feel we are. But we do not use any physical image of a designer to promote our work. If people are touched and like to wear what we propose they are free to buy and wear it. What our designer looks like has, for us, little or nothing to do with this process. We prefer that people react to a garment through their taste and own personal style and not their impression of the individual and group of people who created it as translated and hyped by the press. Unlike actors or singers we do not need any physical form to express our work.
FM: What is modern?
MMM: An abused notion that became meaningless…
FM: What is old?
MMM: Our headquarters’ building.
FM: How will MMM be on its 30th anniversary?
MMM: Let’s speak again in 2018.
FM: A final quote on SEX.
MMM: Sex is good.
The interview was first published in Isterografo‘s biannual fashion issue, curated by Filep Motwary, in 2010. Isterografo was a supplement focusing on the Cyprus and international Art’s scene, published by Phileleftheros and compiled by the publisher’s in-house team.
Twice a year, the issue focused on fashion and was wholesomely put together by Motwary as a guest curator/author.
Martin Margiela graduated from the Fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1980 and embarked on his career as the assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris in 1984. Four years later, he presented his first catwalk show in Paris with his own models, joining forces with Jenny Meirens to establish Maison Martin Margiela. In 2009, Margiela quietly withdrew from his label, which still bears his name and whose creative director has been John Galliano since 2014.