Maison Martin Margiela is regularly cited as the fashion industry’s greatest enigma. Perhaps a greater mystery, however, might be how the ultimate insider’s brand is not only still around after its visionary founder’s departure, but is thriving both critically and commercially.
The house’s opaque quality isn’t only due to its famously invisible namesake. (Despite starting the label in 1989, when he emerged as part of the Antwerp Six to more or less instant acclaim, Margiela himself managed to mostly evade the press for two decades. A 2009 New York Times article on the house’s 20th anniversary noted that he had, at the time, never given an interview. It also featured the first widely circulated photograph of him, dated “circa 1997”.) Nor does its inscrutability reside in its determined lack of branding, nor in the fact that its clothes are often difficult to understand in the traditional context of items that flatter or otherwise shape the wearer’s body. It is odd because pretty much everything about Maison Martin Margiela shouldn’t work, yet does. It doesn’t advertise or place products on celebrities. Its press office, the one division that may be reliably expected to actually speak to the press, is famously difficult to reach for comment. This policy was explained by Patrick Scallon, once Margiela’s right-hand man, as “absence equals presence” and “the cult of impersonality”. And no, Scallon is not a pseudonym of Jacques Derrida, although the influence of the father of poststructuralist theory can often be sensed in the work of Margiela, to whom the label “deconstructivist” has been affixed since his first-ever collection.
Even the house’s 2002 acquisition by the very visible, very outspoken founder of Diesel, Renzo Rosso, looked like a dumb move, but it has proved all the smart money wrong. Rosso, who was beginning to build a luxury group that now includes Viktor & Rolf and Marni and that will one day compete with the likes of LVMH and the Kering Group (formerly PPR), picked in Maison Martin Margiela an unusual investment candidate. Not for Rosso the rediscovery of a heritage leather-goods brand in glorious decline, with bulging archives that could be dusted off and faithfully repackaged for enthusiastic customers in China and Russia. The job of building the house of Margiela looked as daunting as it would be thankless, the perils of killing the goose far outweighed by the potential market value of its small, precious eggs.
Fashion insiders were more than a little sniffy about the clash of cultures between the two companies. Diesel is Italian, brash and brassy, with roots on the high street and a history of high-octane, in-your-face advertising. Maison Martin Margiela’s clothing and accessories don’t even deign to include the brand’s name on their labels: there are only the four distinctive white stitches holding a mysterious numbered tag in place, a signifier to be deciphered by the cognoscenti. Despite its eccentricities, though, it was one of fashion’s most deeply respected houses, and soon proved that its resistance to populism was in no way a resistance to popularity. “The decision to become a bit more open and visible was taken when the wedding between the company and Martin took place – almost 11 years ago,” CEO Giovanni Pungetti remembers. “The idea was to get married to someone with higher financial capabilities to develop the house. This is normal life in every business in the world: you have to evolve, and we are trying to evolve this business without destroying it. All the fashion people were completely worried about what could happen, and in reality none of it has happened. We are still here and we are still not too visible. We still have our white label without branding. We still do very conceptual, arty projects. But, on the other hand, we have developed in many ways. When I arrived, I remember saying to Martin, ‘You do incredible and beautiful things and nobody is able to see it.’ The philosophical point is that we do beautiful things and we have to be proud of them, because more people will meet us and see what we do.”
At Maison Martin Margiela, the very concept of fashion is re-examined and questioned in every action and product. From catwalk shows to shopping bags, nothing is too sacred or small to be the subject of deep consideration. A label, bearing only the numerals 1 to 23, is like a note written in invisible ink, passed from one spy to another: an invitation to think about ideas of size, uniformity and individuality. Everyone at the house, from shop assistants to press officers and members of the design team, has always worn a working uniform of white lab coats, evoking biochemical researchers.
Experimentation is the house’s design vocabulary and form of expression, its alphabet and its syntax. Experimentation calls for fixing stuff even when it isn’t broken, an idea that is too easy to reference and near impossible to do well. Nearly all designers like to call their work experimental, but only a handful are faithful to what such a declaration actually demands. How many explore the most fundamental questions about clothing – what is the front and what is the back, and what happens when you swap them? What if you obscure the most emotionally engaging part of a model’s body – her face – in order to draw attention away from her and towards the clothes? Most fashion communication relies on the model’s charisma and beauty to enhance and amplify the impact of the clothes, which is, of course, why supermodels command super-fees. The “cult of impersonality” does the opposite: by obscuring the girl’s identity, it offers the ideas of the clothes to every girl.
Maison Martin Margiela’s working practices and design processes are equally, quietly radical. Usually, the loftier the expressed vision of a brand, the more conventionally pyramid-like the shape of its organisation. Not so here – even while Margiela himself was still at the company, “the Studio” began to be credited as the author of its creations. Shyness may have been a factor, but it was undeniably rooted in a coherent set of beliefs and executed with integrity. “Martin was not the creative-director dictator, deciding everything,” Pungetti recalls. “He was part of the team, contributing as other creative people in the company were doing. A lot of the time he would discover things he didn’t check and he would say, ‘What is this? I don’t like this.’ And we would say, ‘Martin, you were not there, so we did it,’ and he would say, ‘OK, fine.’ This was exactly his way of working – this was how he taught the company to work. And when he left it was not painful. We were used to working without him.”
The Replica collection is a perfect example of one of the house’s conceptually brave yet, on the face of it, foolish ideas. Most brands employ armies of “cool hunters” to scour second-hand clothing emporiums from Los Angeles to Tokyo, looking for “inspiration” in vintage clothes and accessories that are often simply copied and presented on the catwalk as new. Maison Martin Margiela foregrounds this practice by precisely reproducing around 30 vintage items each season, their tags carefully annotated with the original garments’ provenance. It reveals the truth that there are only so many ways to cover, drape and adorn the human form. But that’s just clothing: fashion’s gift is to renew our spirits, attitude and feelings every season. Clothes are merely the skeletons on which new moods are fleshed out; fashion is the software as well as the hardware. Replica items are therefore as much “original Margiela” as any other design from the house, recalling Derrida’s investigations into the space between words and their meanings as much as they do Marcel Duchamp’s readymades.
The comparison again feels glib, but is deeply sincere. Art, as an “intellectual” accessory to fashion, has of late acquired a deservedly dodgy reputation. Too many commercial marketing initiatives use the fig leaf of art to embellish, distract from or add gravitas to the straightforward promotion of products. While Maison Martin Margiela has been the subject of numerous art-institution exhibitions, almost certainly more than any other fashion house in history, its philosophy has remained refreshingly clear and self-critical on the subject. “To our mind the work of a fashion designer is so different from that of an artist!” the Margiela studio (interviewed via email and responding collectively) told the Joseph Kosuth studio for Interview magazine in 2008. “We usually work in a necessarily more collaborative manner. We present our work twice a year, using the same medium, respecting the same human form, within an industrial framework, using industrial means of production, and having our work translated through the chain of distribution for our work. Artists are freer to determine the medium with which they choose to express themselves, the intervals at which they present their work, the means by which they produce their expression, as well as the way in which it is sold.” (Kosuth’s studio responded with an elegant refutation of such modesty: “Art both questions signification itself and does so as a signifying activity. It posits apparent limits, which, by the nature of its activity, then vanish.”)
The company may have grown from similarly modest beginnings, but when Diesel arrived to fill the tank, Maison Martin Margiela’s turnover was reported to be in the region of €15m – perfectly healthy for a niche brand. What Rosso and Pungetti offered was a way out of the niche cul-de-sac. OTB, Rosso’s holding company, is privately owned and does not publicise its figures, but in 2011 Pungetti stated that the house of Margiela’s turnover had jumped to €75m. The growth has partly had to do with an increase in licensing, such as fragrances and sunglasses, as well as a collaboration with the Swedish high-street giant H&M.
But sales and money are only half the story, and not the most interesting half (although, for Pungetti, even the prospect of growth in new markets is an intellectual proposition – on expansion into the BRIC countries, he says, they seek “to make people understand our way of being, of communicating”). In recent seasons, the collections have been greeted with an increasingly positive critical response. Ever anticipating the industry’s leading edge, and perhaps responding in some way to the financial crisis, the house’s output has bent away from surface and impact, and towards depth and ideas. The new, explicitly collectively produced collections are arguably more “Margiela” than ever before. Yet the public refuses to let go of the idea of authorship by a lone genius. Last October, WWD claimed that the British designer Marios Schwab was “ghost-designing for Margiela”, fuelling a rumour that ran like wildfire through the blogosphere, as well as some mainstream publications, for weeks. The house remained characteristically tongue-tied, but in Pungetti’s brief response, all these months later – “The collective has permanent staff and talent passing through” – one can read an indifferent, “Yes, so?” Once more, in trying to tell the story of Maison Martin Margiela, the poor journalist is reduced to reading tea leaves. But they only remind us that we could do better; that we could stop speculating and start thinking. Somewhere in Paris, over a coffee, we hope the real Martin Margiela may be permitting himself a smile in response to that rare prospect, “the thinking journalist”, as another measure of his success. §