In the early spring of this year, The New York Times's influential style biannual, T magazine, ran a feature extolling the Belgian designer Martin Margiela. "Even after 20 years in the business, Martin Margiela is still the most elusive figure in fashion," it read, "which might explain why designers feel so free to thumb through his archives for inspiration." In an unprecedented move, this brief and unusually direct text was illustrated by five catwalk outfits courtesy of Marc Jacobs, AF Vandevorst, Junya Watanabe, Hermès and Prada, above which were printed images of the Margiela originals that had clearly, well, let's just say "inspired" their work.
Only months previously, in September 2007, a by-now legendary spat occurred between the aforementioned Jacobs and the International Herald Tribune's fashion editor, Suzy Menkes, again concerning this determinedly press-shy designer. Jacobs, the darling of the New York fashion circuit, had kept his star-studded audience waiting two hours before starting his spring/summer show, and Menkes was not amused. When her review appeared, it was far from favourable. Not only had Jacobs been late even to the point of unfashionable, wrote Menkes, but his show was derivative, relying rather too heavily on the archive of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and, even more so, Martin Margiela.
Never one to let things lie, Jacobs responded immediately, and in suitably high-profile style, by telling the industry bible Women's Wear Daily: "I've never denied how influenced I am by Margiela or by Rei Kawakubo, those are people that inspire my work. I don't hide that... Everyone is influenced by Comme des Garçons and by Martin Margiela. Anybody who's aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced by those designers."
The people at Comme des Garçons sent Jacobs flowers – this was nothing if not an endorsement of a designer's talent, the sincerest form of flattery, if you will. Margiela, meanwhile, said nothing, did nothing. Because if Kawakubo is famously difficult to pin down, Margiela is fashion's invisible man. It is undoubtedly true that his ideas inform some of the world's most powerful talents – although hats off to Jacobs, because few would ever actually admit that fact – but he feels no need to acknowledge any referencing personally.
Since he started out, in 1988, the designer has never agreed to a single interview or been photographed for any magazine, however respected the title. Particularly in a climate where the superstar designer – from Jacobs to Prada, and from Tom Ford to Vivienne Westwood – might hardly be described as backwards in coming forward, one could be forgiven for thinking that Martin Margiela is a figment of the industry's imagination. And that's just fine by him. Suffice it to say that Martin Margiela makes Greta Garbo look like Victoria Beckham.
In March 1997, in Paris for the ready-to-wear shows, I arrived at my hotel to find a crumpled scrap of paper printed with a map of Paris among the by-now familiar mountain of invitations, and made a fatal fashion faux pas by throwing it straight into the bin.
If Margiela has always been famous for taking normal fashion-show requirements – minor considerations such as there actually being a catwalk, for example, or any models – and doing away with them, then his invitations are no less conventional. Not for this designer anything as bourgeois as a gilt-trimmed embossed card or hierarchical seating plan. When guests arrive at a Margiela show, they are, for the most part, seated on a first-come, first- served basis.
Margiela's collections have been shown, variously, on large, round dining tables in a dilapidated warehouse space; in disused subway cars; in the stairwell of a crumbling town house. On this particular occasion, the map in question marked the spot where press were instructed to travel – a wholly unremarkable street corner in the French fashion capital, as it turned out – and await the arrival of a Routemaster bus filled with the designer's friends – tall, thin, beautiful friends, admittedly – all wearing his new season's designs accessorised by fetching fur wigs, and with an appropriately lugubrious Belgian brass band in tow.
The video sent out after the event for anyone who hadn't made it – for anybody who had failed to realise her invitation was an invitation at all, truth to tell – only added to the characteristically surreal nature of it all. "Please turn your TV this way up," read the white-on-black print in English, French and Japanese. "Thank you." The entire show had been filmed on its side, complete with gawping passers-by, who might well stare in disbelief at the proceedings, not to mention the clothes. Shoulder pads were pinned to the outside of garments; coats and jackets were cut in half and attached to sludge-coloured, vaguely sci-fi sleeveless shells; floor-length skirts and dresses were made out of nothing more haute than the lightweight, low-budget silk normally only used for the linings of designer tailoring. Then there were the shoes: "tabi" boots with split toes reminiscent of nothing more obviously glamorous than a cloven hoof. Oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah went the Belgian brass band.
To the uninitiated, at least some of Margiela's designs may seem confrontationally anarchic, but to know them is to love them. After all, the common ideal that the designer is working against is far from forgiving. Until recently, Margiela showed his designs on "real" people, as those who work in fashion like to describe them, as opposed to professional models. The clothes themselves, meanwhile, have a timeless dignity – a humanity, even – which, in an industry that is often unashamedly fascistic where perceptions of beauty are concerned, is a rarity. Equally unusual, particularly for a conceptually driven designer, is the rich vein of humour that runs through the work. In Margiela's hands, for example, a feather boa becomes an oversized stuffed boa constrictor; a "fur" coat is crafted in tomato-red Christmas tinsel; and a sequined dress is printed on to white or black jersey – that's T-shirt material, then. And his creations are never knowingly red-carpet friendly.
While Margiela's aesthetic may not be obviously commercial – rightly or wrongly, this word tends to denote either fast fashion or characterless basics – his clothes sell extremely well, both in his own boutiques and less rarefied department stores, where a customer might pick up a Margiela jacket and buy it, just because it suits them, knowing little, or nothing at all, about the person behind its making, and proving that the customer might be more discerning than all too many would have us believe.
Everyone who's anyone in fashion, meanwhile, wears Margiela – French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière, Alexander McQueen, the list goes on. There are 14 Margiela stores worldwide, with plans to open new outlets in Dubai, Hong Kong, Moscow and Munich over the next six months. In November, Margiela will launch a small fine jewellery collection and eyewear – his first pair of sunglasses, an impenetrable black band that wraps right around the face is called "L'Incognito", aptly enough. Next year sees the birth of the first ever Martin Margiela fragrance, created in collaboration with L'Oréal.
"We appropriate, we do some vintage, individual vision no longer exists," said that god of French fashion, Azzedine Alaïa. "The last one is Margiela."
In London, McQueen is no less impressed. "Of course I like Martin Margiela," the British designer says. "I'm wearing him now. His clothes are special because of the attention to detail. He thinks about everything, the cuff of a jacket, the construction of an armhole, the height of a shoulder. I think it's very much about cut, proportion and shape, the simplicity of it, the pared down-ness of it. His clothes are modern classics.
"There's not a woman I know who doesn't have at least one piece of Martin Margiela in their wardrobe."
The designer Sophia Kokosalaki goes further: "First of all, I admire the innovation, the way he designs is so clever, so human. I also like his ethos, the fact that he has undergone many changes and has been going for years without compromising that. He has always kept to his beliefs.
"He has influenced a whole generation of designers, and will influence generations to come. The frayed hems, the visible darts, he has invented a whole new vocabulary, a vocabulary of construction. Martin Margiela changed the way we make clothes."
This is what little is known about Martin Margiela. He was born in Limbourg, Belgium, in 1959 and, aged 18, moved to Antwerp to study fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1979. Between 1984 and 1987 he worked as a design assistant for Jean Paul Gaultier, then at the height of his fame. It is said, in fashion circles, that Margiela's refusal to engage with the press is due at least in part to his experience of the havoc the wrong kind of publicity – or even just overexposure – can wreak on a designer, and specifically the experience of Gaultier, who was later to tell journalists that he was overlooked for the job at Christian Dior following Gianfranco Ferré's retirement because of his less- than-haute role as the kilt-and-Breton-T-shirt-wearing presenter of Eurotrash.
More generally, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that any hype surrounding a designer celebrity is likely to be short-lived. Best then to resist the glare of the spotlight and concentrate, instead, on the product itself. When, in 1988, Margiela opened his own house, in partnership with Jenny Meirens, the owner of a boutique in Brussels selling designer clothing, who described the unknown Belgian as "the most talented young designer" she had ever seen, he resolved to do just that. It is a measure of both his commitment and integrity that he has stuck to his guns.
Margiela burst on to the Paris fashion scene during the spring/summer 1989 season, and took the establishment by storm. This was not surprising given that his debut came at the end of a decade that exemplified all that was status-driven, and in which designer fashion realised the full potential of its power. This designer turned his hand instead to transforming a leather butcher's apron into a sinuous evening dress. He ripped apart a vintage tulle ballgown and turned it into a sequence of beautifully cut jackets.
Struggling to understand this fledgling talent, the press labelled his work "deconstruction" – seams were reversed, darts were exposed, loose threads were allowed to hang down like cobwebs, and tights, if there were any, were likely to be worn laddered and over shoes. Then there was the Margiela label, a kick in the teeth to power dressing if ever there was one. It was – and for the main line, still is – a blank, white rectangle, tacked roughly into the clothes. Leave it in place and, to those not in the know, the four large, white stitches disrupting the garment's surface look like a manufacturer's error. Remove it and no one will know that it is a designer purchase in the first place. And what, exactly, would be the point of that?
Margiela's use of an unmarked white label also signifies that he has never claimed to be the sole author of his work. Should anyone want to penetrate the murky workings of his mind, they are instructed to send questions to the house, to be answered by his team collectively. "The garment itself and the collection of garments around it may only be the result of the work of many heads, hearts and hands," reads one such statement. "It may be considered that a designer expresses a viewpoint and approach through his or her own work and the work of all the other members of the team that surrounds them. It is also true that the many others working on the garments and for a house – assistants, pattern-cutters, tailors, commercial staff – also express their expertise and sensitivity through the work of a designer."
The fact that anyone employed by Maison Martin Margiela wears a white coat – either the long version usually used by models between fittings, or the shorter design famously sported by the petites mains who staff the Paris haute-couture ateliers – also immediately identifies them as part of the team.
A more pragmatic approach lies behind the use of white in Margiela's working environment: "When Jenny [Meirens] and Martin started out, they collected furniture from all over the place, from the street, from flea markets, from stores all over the world," says a spokesperson for the house. "They had no money and it was all in different styles, so to make it seem coherent it was all painted white."
Such budgetary constraints no longer explain the dominance of white in Margiela stores and his Paris HQ today, however, which is more philosophical than practical in intent. White – or "whites", in Margielaspeak – allows the designer to express his enduring interest in the effect that the passing of time has on our lives. Walls may be freshly painted, or yellow with age: in any Margiela store, the customer will find both. In the London store, incidentally, they will also come across a basketball net bolted to one wall for no apparent reason, and the changing-room doors, imported from Paris, reading "ortie" – the "s" was already missing when they were found, by all accounts. Sketchbooks, armchairs, chandeliers, box files, all are covered in white calico. Make a purchase in a Margiela store and your clothing will be folded neatly into a white calico sack, which may not have quite the kudos of a glossy, tissue-paper filled logo-stamped carrier, but has found its use among insiders as the most fashionable laundry bag in the world.
Although it might easily be argued that Martin Margiela is the godfather of the European avant-garde, to pigeonhole him as anti-establishment would be to misunderstand his profound respect for the craftsmanship and rigour that underpin the design tradition. In 1998, his employment as creative director of womenswear at Hermès confirmed this fact. On the face of it, this was a bizarre and indeed risky collaboration on the part of the France's oldest and grandest status label. "We consider that, in the case of Hermès, products of quality become status symbols," the powers that be at Margiela explained at the time. "Our decision to collaborate with Hermès came about more through our love of traditional craftsmanship and expert technical ability, a point of fascination for us since the beginning of our company."
Over the five years that followed, Margiela created quite the most lovely understated collections for Hermès – from loose-fitting masculine tailoring to black crêpe evening dresses that were the height of discreet elegance – all unveiled twice-yearly in the distinctly conservative and ultra-luxurious confines of that label's rue St-Honoré store.
In 2002, and perhaps more surprising still, Martin Margiela sold a majority stake in his company to Renzo Rosso, owner of the more accessible denim company Diesel. Women's Wear Daily described this, somewhat uncharitably, as like a marriage between Greta Garbo and Harpo Marx. Although Margiela was a designer who had always valued his independence, following the mid-1990s and the buying spree led primarily by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and the Gucci Group, the economic climate was such that, for a designer to survive, he had to have the might of a corporation behind him. Maverick or otherwise, Margiela's business had outgrown itself, and to develop needed to move with the times.
Over the past two decades, Martin Margiela has been responsible for many of the most touchingly beautiful and quietly intelligent fashion statements of all time. If one season, he has taken fabrics normally associated with soft furnishings – flock wallpaper, wooden-beaded car- seat covers, quilted Chesterfield sofas – and transformed them into clothing; the next, he might create a predominantly white collection worn with ice jewellery dyed magenta, ultraviolet and lapis lazuli, designed to melt away on to the clothes, leaving permanent trails of bright colour behind it. Margiela's tailoring is both highly inventive and subtly empowering. His black dresses have the resonance and emotional content of vintage finds.
True to form, though, and despite any accolades, the designer remains as removed from the hysteria and histrionics that surround the fashion industry as ever. And that is just as it should be. While his silence is maintained, his work continues to speak volumes, after all.