Fashion: Reality check

Idiosyncratic Belgian designer Martin Margiela doesn't present traditional catwalk shows, he won't use real models and never does face- to-face interviews. There are people who say he doesn't even exist. Susannah Frankel looks for some answers. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Martina Hoogland-Ivanow
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artin Margiela is the fashion designer's fashion designer. Cited by everyone from Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons to Alexander McQueen as exceptionally innovative and inspired, in fashion circles he is universally respected - even revered.

The designer famously turns down requests for face- to-face interviews, preferring for questions to be faxed to his office and the answers faxed back. "We would like to point out that our answers to your questions have been reached as a team with the input of Mr Margiela and are offered here in the name of the Maison Martin Margiela and not Martin Margiela as an individual. This explains the use of the first person plural instead of singular."

That's us told then. And as if that weren't peculiar enough (plain spooky, some might say), it continues: "We would prefer that all questions and answers, and non-answers [eh?] be published in full." Even for fashion, this is remarkably controlling, but then, with this particular designer, it may be worth putting up with.

Very little is known about Martin Margiela, leading, perhaps inevitably, to not entirely unreasonable speculation that he doesn't actually exist. These are the facts. He was born in Limbourg, Belgium, in 1959. At the age of 18 he went to Antwerp and studied fashion at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts, then spent three years assisting Jean Paul Gaultier. In 1988, he set up his own label in Brussels and burst on to the Paris fashion scene soon after, alongside Ann Demeulemeester and Helmut Lang. They took the establishment by storm. This was not entirely surprising given that this was the decade that exemplified all that was brash and oozing with status and Margiela, in particular, thought nothing of transforming a butcher's apron into a slinky dress or a vintage tulle ballgown into jackets - all to very lovely effect.

Struggling to get to grips with his style, it was labelled "deconstruction" - seams are reversed, loose threads hang down like cobwebs and tights are worn laddered (oh, and over shoes). Then there is the Margiela label. It's a blank white square tacked roughly on to his clothes. Leave it where it is and it makes a mess of your jacket. Remove it and no one will even know your clothes are designer. And what's the point of that? The idiosyncrasies of Margiela seem all the more peculiar given his appointment, two years ago, to Hermes, the most famous status label of them all. So far, this is a very happy teaming - perhaps the most inspired, if unlikely, collaboration of them all.

Margiela's current own-label collection is a retrospective of his work of the past 10 years: as such, it might be seen as an anniversary, although this most elusive designer would rather die than describe it as such a thing. After all, that might entail some sort of celebration. And that would be rather too frivolous. We can't have that! So over the following pages we celebrate his great contribution to fashion for him.

Why did you choose to show your collection on people who aren't professional models?

We have always chosen to present the collection on women varying in age and background. Our approach to the casting of our shows is the same as our views on personality-based interviews, personal photo portraits of the designer, etc, etc.

We have nothing against professional or "top models" as individuals at all, we just feel that we prefer people attending our shows to focus on the clothes and not on all that is put around them in and by the media. It still helps to be thin though, doesn't it?

It can be frustrating that our industry is organised in such a way that the garments manufactured for a sales collection and a fashion show are made up in a size 42 (Italian sizing). More often than not it is too costly and labour-intensive to produce fashion show and press samples in varying sizes and so, usually, for a fashion show and later in the fashion stories in magazines, women are found to fit the clothes rather than vice versa. This, thankfully, is quite the opposite to the reality of how a collection is purchased by a store and, in turn, by the women who wear the clothes in daily life. Your latest show focused on favourite looks from previous collections: why did you choose to do that?

To get the chance to bring ideas that we like from varying seasons forward a stage and to see how these disparate ideas could work together in a collection. Sometimes, even as late as six months after a collection has been finished and presented, we can go "**@!... why didn't we do that with that idea!?!" Or in other instances, there was no time to include certain ideas before the collection had to be closed at the factory. Spring/summer 1999 allowed us to revisit themes and garments in order to perfect them or present them in another way. It also allowed us to play with garments from one season using the techniques of a later season. This is not the first time we have taken this approach to our work. For spring/summer 1989 we presented a very literal retrospective of our first 10 collections, each season was represented by reproduced outfits from the collection all overdyed in grey. The date of the original collection was painted around the neck of the model or on her arm. For spring/summer 1999, our 20th collection, we have chosen to look back over our last 10 collections, but in a different way. You showed in a house without using conventional lighting or backdrop - how do you feel that your show venues in general complement your clothes?

We like to think more in terms of atmosphere than venue and opt more for stimulation than going against convention! We are often accused of renouncing a convention yet, for us, this seems a very simplistic reaction to how we are trying to find our way to keep our job as interesting for us as we can. Most times we seek an atmosphere that complements our view on our work and the stimulation we require to continue our work.

The "convention" of venues, catwalks, and indeed fashion shows in general, has changed greatly since our first shows. The mood of how a collection might be shown is changing. We needed, and continue to need, to be free to bring clothes into an atmosphere more true to how we view their life and spirit and that which stimulates us as a team.

Clothing is designed to be worn. When it is worn it is seen by others from close. This is not the case with a catwalk. It is not seen at the same close quarters as in life. Clothing is as much a story of fabrics as form and, in our opinion, fabrics and details of form are best seen from close. This proximity may be attained at a show without a catwalk, and at a showroom (something many professionals of fashion are choosing to forget these days). What are your favourite pieces in this current collection?

Those garments that most successfully respond to the combined demands made of them, be these the demands of the wearer or of the creator. Do you prefer designing for men or for women?

Each poses its own questions, solutions, problems and challenges. We feel that it is as valid to choose/compare and contrast the two as it is apples and pears. Where does your Six collection come from? A number between five and seven!!! And also a name we have given a small group of garments that complement the principal Martin Margiela collection. This group combines linings of garments, T-shirts, woven garments, knitwear, a few accessories and some garments in denim adapted from past Martin Margiela collections (including, for a former season, more industrial versions of the painted jeans we have always had in the collection). Garments in the "Six" group have a lower price than the other groups of the Martin Margiela collection. How are you finding designing at Hermes?

We are very happy with our collaboration and how it is evolving. We are also very happy that the Hermes customers are welcoming our work with the same open arms as the Hermes company did two years ago and continues to do so. Do you think the two collections feed into each other?

We hope so as that was/is our intention. You seem uninterested in fashion as a trend - do trends and the reinvention of the wardrobe season after season bore you?

Not always! We do not judge others in their work, yet, for us, we prefer to reflect the reality of our view on clothes in our collections. We have always had garments that we continue to propose for many seasons in a row (in some instances 12!). It remains more important for us that someone finds their way of dressing as opposed to a way of dressing as prescribed by anyone else or an overriding trend .

Do you think fashion is an art or a craft?

Fashion is a craft, a technical know-how and not, in our opinion, an art form. Each world shares an expression through creativity though through very divergent media processes. Who are the designers you most admire?

Those with an authentic approach to their work. What makes you most happy?

Non-answer

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