Palais Galliera, Paris
The most influential showing of fashion during the Paris Fall/Winter 2018 season did not take place on any of the sumptuous runways staged by the giant legacy brands or even at more subdued presentations from younger designers who favored raw spaces for their collections. Rather it was the retrospective exhibition of twenty years of Martin Margiela clothes on white mannequins accompanied by old videos, accessories and panels of written words that narrated the stories behind the creation of these clothes laid out in a careful vignettes setting draped with white cotton curtains inside the walls of the Palais Galliera, the late 19thcentury edifice now the Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris. Margiela’s influence is everywhere in fashion today - in fact it’s so ubiquitous that like the air we breath yet little of what is happening now in fashion is attributed to the two decades of the designer’s ground breaking oeuvre. The Belgian designer was a giant in fashion because he challenged fashion from a design perspective, worked mainly to alter how fashion was made and consume and created a new poetic sartorial vocabulary that resisted the obsessions of a logo and label conscious era. Now that fashion is dictated and perhaps driven by Instagram, it may be a prime moment to see an exhibition about the profound ideas that once innovate and change fashion and how we see clothes.
“Given the Palais Galliera exceptional Martin Margiela holding with over 400 pieces and now that fashion is drawing on his heritage, it seemed obvious for us to devote a retrospective show. Originally planned in 2016 but it took two years to realize the show. Mr. Margiela showed immediate interest when we contacted him and he became the art director of the exhibition and was very much directly involved in the staging of the show,” said Alexandre Samson, the Palais Galliera director of contemporary collections, via Whatsapp. Presented in chronological order from the inception Spring-Summer 1989 to the final show for Spring-Summer 2009, the exhibition traced Margiela’s creative process that disrupted the entire known fashion system from design to consumer. “We worked together on the course of the exhibition, the collections, and the outfits we wanted to show. He then imagined a set design in the course of editing, always according to his taste for the opposite of things so that the visitor can be surprised by the scenography and content of more than 130 outfits, videos and the many item from the archives.”
Born in 1957 in Genk, Belgium, Martin Margiela graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1979 then worked as freelance designers for five years before a three years stint working as assistant to Jean-Paul Gaultier from 1985 to 1987. After leaving Gaultier, the designer spent nearly a year with a business partner Jenny Meirens to prepare for the launch on October 23, 1988 of the Spring Summer 1989 collection shown at the Café de la Gare in the Marais, an underground venue little connected to fashion. The show veered on the borderline performance art rather the conventional high gloss shows taking place across Paris at the time. A telegram was sent as the invitation. The girls who wore the fifty-two looks in range of white, red and then black outfits made from contrasted materials and a finale of all simple white lab coats were friends of the house rather than famous top models prevalent on other runway shows. Chiffon or sheer nylon veils covered some of the models’ faces so audiences can focus solely on the clothes. Some were barefooted and others wore the cylindrical leather Tabi boots based on Japanese socks. When they entered, the models stepped on a container with fresh red paint and left traces of random red markings on the white cotton sheets covering placed around the café in lieu of a formal raised runway. The soundtrack was just a mixture of rock tunes from the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop or the Velvet Underground’s “Guess I’m Falling in Love.”
It is a rare phenomenon that a designer’s debut show would contain so much of the seeds that would germinated into the major intersections of his work at the cross road of a fashion system moving in the opposite direction. Margiela established immediately his ethos, his meticulous approach to the physical garment and his methodology to dissecting actual clothes and creating new ones rather than fathoming a collection of clothes around specific inspirations like a voyage or an exotic country, themes that had little to do with fashion creation. Look 14 was a tight crop two buttons wool jacket with round and narrow shoulders with a raised sleeves and paired with a loose rugged pants both with precise uses of darts to highlight the couture construction and tailoring now seen on the outside of the garments. This round shoulder silhouette was so contrary to the late 80’s norms of glamorous broad shoulder forms that dominated fashion then. The seemingly imperfect fabrics and the intentional mixtures of different types of materials regardless of added to the act of rebellion against the artifices of consumption in the late 80’s and 90’s.
What was possibly an old butcher apron was now transformed of a simple evening dress and what were once old tulle dresses now remade into jackets. The audience could see the black make up lining in the back of the models legs seen from the high slit of the long skirts – an allusion to the period of wartime scarcity in the 1940’s where women would draw a black line on their legs to replace the missing line of the stockings. Look 39 was a photo print white tulle sleeveless tee shirt of the tattoo taken from a sketch of a tattoed man on the island of Nuku Hiva in French Polynesia worn with sleeve gloves. The cotton jabot from an 18thcentury picture was remade in exact reproduction into cotton bracelets and necklaces, a precursor for recycling processes not only of materials (the white cotton sheets splattered with red paint used as runway carpet was used to make vests for the next season) but of remaking the actual old and found garments themselves (like the separate Replica collection launched for Fall/Winter 1994).
The clothes from this first show, old and new, de-constructed and re-constructed, were the springboard for all of Margiela’s later work in exploring with greater depth how clothes are actually made. Here were the genesis of many of the Margiela ideas that had profoundly challenged and transformed all facets of fashion in a similar way to the advent to ready to wear in Paris in the early 1960’s that eclipsed the allure of haute couture. In a way, he can be seen as a traditional fashion designer in the sense that he understood how clothes are made and the fashion system surrounding the marketing of clothes and raise serious questions about them both.
“There were several exhibitions dedicated to Martin Margiela around the world and all approached his work thematically, as if the theme was the only way to explain the concepts of the creator. Yet, working with him on his memories, I was captivated by the consistency of his work and his determined creative journey,” Samson answered when I asked if presenting the work in a chronological order in different tableaux by season rather than grouping the clothes around specific themes. “The humanity of this creator "without face" hit me and I wanted the public to enter the exhibition as if he was reading a personal story filled with anecdotes, which many visitors can identify,” he said about a designer who had never allowed himself to be photographed or interviewed so that the clothes have to speak for themselves. Even the clothes lacked a clear label and only have a white label sown with large threads with four slanted visible in the middle of the upper back of each garment. But chronology itself was an essential component of Margiela’s concept of fashion.
A central tenet of the Margiela fashion concept was each item of clothing contained element of history and that idea for one garment can built and developed into another garment as part of a process of evolution. Giving second life to clothes and also to re-employed vintage clothes by tailoring them into new versions by playing with proportions, showing the intricacies of construction on the surfaces, or reversing the role of soft inner linings as fabric of dresses. The tattooed print tank from Spring-Summer 1989 spawned an entire collection for Spring-Summer 1996 where photographic trompe d’oeil print of dresses with sequins, stripes and knits that created a faux impression of what the actual garment actually was from its visual representation of simple garments that looked complicated.
Fashion ideas, not just physical garments, do not exist without a historyand can evolved from one collection to the next or at time paused then treated again much further down the road. Ideas from one season can inform the next season like the flat clothes from Spring-Summer 1997 to the flat shrink wrapping tee-shirt dress from Fall Winter 1998. Take for example the treatment of shoulders which Margiela initiated with the tight round shoulder jackets in Spring-Summer 1989 to the rigid structure space age protruding shoulders in jackets from Spring-Summer 2008 to finally the total suppression of shoulder for Fall-Winter 2008-2009 where the fabrics of jackets and sweaters simply followed an upward projection instead of closing around the shoulder and neckline leaving the entire neckline in an open air situation. Or Margiela’s work on revealing the structure of clothes often refer to as his deconstruction period which started with the first Stockman collection for Spring-Summer 1997 and continued into Fall-Winter 1997-1998 and Spring 1999 where heavy linen toile became the fabric of actual clothes rather than just mock ups and where the designer dissect and reconstruct clothes with irregular hemline and frayed finishes like the nylon liners as dresses from Fall-Winter 1990-1991.
The broken ceramics plates assembled into a vest for Fall-Winter 1989-1990 affirmed the notion of recycling and of reusing and transforming garments into new clothes. The entire Spring-Summer 1992 collection expanded on the idea of re-usage of materials as the garments were made from vintage square scarves and other pieces of tapestry as models with painted limbs walked inside a close subway station on rue Saint Martine with candles along the steel railings for Fall-Winter 1989-1990. Recycling different item like old records into garments spawned a specialized ‘Artisanal’ line that specialized in finding and inducting items found regardless of what the principle use were like the vest made of paper magazine prints for Spring-Summer 1990. In the exhibition, there was a ‘how to make’ scheme for a white sweater made entirely of socks in Fall-Winter 1991-1992. The Replica collection launched officially as Group 2 of 5 in Fall-Winter 1994 to remake found items from the past like peacoats, shirts, pants, doctor’s coats into classic commercial clothes reflected the notion of one garment bears the memory of another and the incarnation of a previous life.
Margiela first experimented with the size and proportion of clothing in the Spring-Summer 1990 show where he enlarged a cotton tank top over 200% to become a sheath dress or a white gauze a tank shirt squeezed unevenly underneath a sheer nylon fitted short sleeve tee shirt showing the extra fabric of the tank draping around the body. The exploration of proportions continued with the ‘doll’ collection for Fall-Winter 1994 where the actual dolls’ clothes were resized to fit a human adult albeit with the outsize large zippers, buttons and buttonholes keeping in proportion of the resizing process of 5.2 times the actual doll clothes sizes. Oversized denim skirts, big sweatshirts and large pants made their debut for Fall-Winter 1996-1997 and large duffle coats appeared in Fall-Winter 1999. But the most striking oversized collection was the XXXXL collection for Spring-Summer 2000 at the Jean Bouin stadium where each garment shown – molded to Italian size 78 on dress forms - was so massive and so contrarian to the skinny silhouette dominating fashion at the time. The term ‘Oversize’ rose from the underground that will greatly affect hip-hop style of the early aught and recently made a come back. The Spring-Summer 2000 XXXXL silhouette should be seen in the same light and influence as Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look in terms of proposing a novel and ground breaking proportion.
Showing at the Café de la gare wasn’t an aberration in the choices of location for shows but rather these out of the way and seemingly odd places like SNCF railway station, abandoned subway, hospital, underground disco, public courtyards, restaurants, concert hall, theater, supermarket, circus tent, or oh yes parking lots were the perfect setting outside of the norms for fashion shows at the time in Paris inside the Louvre Carousel. This too was central to the designer’s aesthetics creating the environment where these fashion ideas are created and nurtured.
The clothes, arranged in different vignettes on white faceless mannequins contouring around the Palais Galliera with respective references, really speak for themselves. Within the exhibition is the inclusion of three glass enclosed ‘fan rooms’ that dealt with the three retrospective seasons during Margiela’s career. “The "fan rooms" were born of a discussion. We needed to talk about the three retrospective collections presented by Martin Margiela at key moments in his career (Spring-Summer 1994 / Spring-Summer 1999 / Spring-Summer 2009). It is indeed the first fashion designer to present a collection made of clothing from previous collections, only five years after its debut. We had to imagine a presentation that surprised the visitor, without mannequins, to illustrate more the concept of a retrospective (which is already an exhibition in itself) than a fashion collection. I was captivated by the work of Soychi Tsuzuki, "Happy Victims", two of his subjects collecting Margiela. When Mr. Margiela confirmed his wish to create these fan rooms, it also evoked the period rooms of the classical museums, reproducing historical interiors. We enjoyed doing the interior reconstruction work of 1994, 2006 and 2009 collections,” said Samson.
My first experience of Margiela was on September 7, 1994 in New York at the Charivari 57 store that hosted the last of the multi cities live unveiling of the Fall-Winter 1994 collection. Just after 7PM non professional models wearing ‘replica’ clothes tore the white paper that covered the store window on West 57thStreet and ushered a cocktail party as well as the immediate availability of the merchandise worn by the models on the sales floor. At the same time there was a special tee-shirt made to gather funds for AIDS research. This was about a quarter of a century before the ‘see now, buy now’ become the rage in fashion retailing. Mr. Margiela was present at the Charivari 57 presentation which was the last in the series of nine stores around the world including Tokyo, Milano, London, Bonn, and Paris. I remembered also the Spring-Summer 1998 joint show with Comme des Garçons at the Conciergerie in October 1997 as an ode to the process of creation. There in the vast emptiness of the Conciergerie on one end men in white lab coats showed completely flat clothes on hangers. Memorable too was the XXXXL show under white spotlight at the stadium on the edge of Paris and the ‘streetwear’ as high fashion for Fall-Winter 2000-2001 shown under the Alexander III bridge. And off course the final show in October 2008, a twenty year retrospective, where for the first time there was a note on our seats that said – ‘Twenty years, forty shows, hundreds of garments, what is there left?”
“Martin Margiela is the antithesis of Instagram: freed from the cult of personality, the anonymous creator focuses on the real garment, not his image. His spontaneity and absence give him a freedom that envy our era which he is the opposite: he has proven that creativity is favored by ideas, not by money,” Samson answered when I asked him about why Margiela is so influential now a decade since his retirement. I may add the total lack of conceptual fashion in the last decade and a new generation of consumers who have never been really exposed to real ideas. Maybe it’s the reason why Demna Gavsalia and his Vetements team reharshing the Margiela aesthetic to a young public who did not know the Margiela years have worked wonders. “Today we have the necessary perspective to better understand the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. The anonymity, consistency and determination of his work have made him an icon.” said Samson.
“The total questioning of his system: from his conception (revealing the structures of the clothes, his interior, his stages of manufacture ...) to his consumption (being the first creator to sell old clothes recovered and reworked by his Artisanal line) through his presentation (scrolling in places beyond standard or seeking alternatives to the fashion show),” Samson mentioned as Margiela’s contribution to fashion. Oh and no one gave Margiela the credit for the shredded denim jeans (Spring-Summer 2008) a rage that is still worn today. On my second visit to the museum on a sunny Thursday afternoon, there were throngs of young people all carefully inspecting each galleries with great interests. It’s great to see the new generation absorbs the ideas for the clothes they are actually wearing now.
What is perhaps more crucial is that all of the ideas that spawned all these unusual clothes on display are not just bygone vestiges of the past and a sort of cheerleading efforts at preserving a heritage. Margiela’s ideas not only survived beyond the walls of a museum or collective memories to be the driving force for fashion and for pop culture now.
This can’t be said of any other major heritage fashion brands where the prized legacy are packaged and repackaged seasons after seasons even to the point of making their own DNA seemed at best superfluous pantomimes and at worst lacking in concepts that can transform fashion. “The cult of the money driven by the birth of major fashion groups, the explosion of the Asian market as well as the ubiquity of social networks, have profoundly changed the fashion of the 1990s / 2000’s, our relationship to time and clothing. The frantic pace imposed on creators is a collateral damage to this race for profit,” Samson said of fashion now.