Amid the ’90s nostalgia of 2017, no designer’s legacy is more pervasive than that of Martin Margiela. Considering that the Belgian nonconformist set out to challenge the fashion system—not just with his designs, but also with his way of conducting business—the industry’s current fixation on him is more than a little ironic.
Flashback to the late ’90s. The corporatization of the industry was creating a surfeit of celebrity designers: John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs. Margiela was not among them; he declined to be photographed and communicated with the press strictly via fax. By choosing to remain anonymous, Margiela focused the spotlight on his work, “making,” as one critic put it, “clothes about clothes.” One of his late-’80s collections featured a top made out of a plastic bag and a vest cobbled together from broken plates and wire; for his Fall 1994 collection, he enlarged a doll’s wardrobe to human scale.
Such iconoclasm seemed worlds away from establishment fashion and brands, the most bourgeois being Hermès, where Margiela was named creative head of womenswear in 1997. The appointment raised more than one eyebrow. “At first, this idea seemed really abstract to some people,” the designer admitted to Voguenot long after his debut. “But now that the collection has been seen, it’s no longer a question of two worlds—young/old, avant-garde/conservative—or opposites; it’s more about a shared point of view.”
Though Margiela’s designs for Hermès didn’t resemble the forward-leaning work he created for his own label, he did apply a deconstructivist philosophy to his work at the French luxury goods brand. Exploiting his access to the finest materials and craftsmanship, Margiela created adaptable clothes built to last: Seamless sweaters could be worn inside-out; a coat might have removable collars and closures. By highlighting quality, Margiela aimed to create a forever wardrobe. But he wasn’t playing safe; the subversive result was to discourage the conspicuous consumption our industry relies on.
At Hermès, Margiela created clothes that worked for the women they were designed for, rather than ones that caused a stir on the runway. As a consequence, they were partially overlooked in their time. That situation has been somewhat rectified by “Margiela: The Hermès Years,” an exhibition at Antwerp’s MoMu organized by curator Kaat Debo with help from Margiela himself. “Something that was really important for Martin [was] to explain the innovations he introduced in materials and techniques together with the team of Hermès,” Debo said by phone. “He also felt that at the time, people really didn’t grasp it entirely.”
Structured as a dialogue between Margiela’s work for his own maison and for Hermès, the exhibition indeed makes it clear that both endeavors were linked. “The interesting thing,” said Debo, “is that the ideas kept coming back at the maison and [at Hermès]. At the time, Martin himself was not really aware that he was doing that. It really shows that it’s one DNA translated into two different worlds.”
“Margiela: The Hermès Years,” has attracted nearly 50,000 visitors since it opened in March. As it nears its conclusion, we are adding eight of the 12 collections Margiela designed for the French house to our Runway archive. Images from these low-key affairs, presented in the brand’s Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré store to a greatly pared-down guest list, are almost as rare as vintage Margiela for Hermès pieces. (This in contrast to an active Maison Martin Margiela market in which museums and collectors vie for hard-to-find treasures.) “I think the reason is that a lot of women are still wearing [them],” explained Debo. “When we borrowed objects from private lenders, some women were really hesitating to give the pieces. All of them said, ‘We’re still wearing these pieces,’ which to me [demonstrated that] the concept really works how Martin envisioned it. It’s true that you can [wear his pieces for Hermès] for 15 or 20 years. And that’s amazing.”