Out of sight, not out of mind: Celebrating two decades of Martin Margiela magic

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Liner fabrics as outer layers, jackets made from plastic tags, and a designer who refuses to take a bow: Martin Margiela is a true fashion visionary. As he steps down, 20 years of innovation are celebrated in one unique collection

To those who paddle in the shallow end of fashion's infinity pool, the murky depths of conceptual fashion may seem far off and unapproachable. The best way to describe Martin Margiela, then, is as a gentle undercurrent, whose influence works its way from high-end catwalks to high-street pavements by an almost unnoticeable process of diffusion.

So you think you're fashion-forward in your shoulder pads this autumn? Margiela showed them for spring 2006. Ditto high-waisted skirts, capes, leggings and almost any other mainstream fashion item du jour you'd care to mention.

The Belgian designer's first collection, for spring/summer 1989, included a leather butcher's apron reworked into a seductive evening gown, and an old tulle dress, which he had remodelled into several sharply tailored jackets. Known for his deconstructionist take – often using traditional lining fabrics as outer layers, and leaving hems and seams rough and trailing – much of Margiela's magic comes from working in unexpected media and reinvigorating what most would see as detritus.

"I think that people today don't realise how it was," believes Bob Verhelst, who has worked with Maison Martin Margiela (as the fashion house is known), and curated the anniversary exhibition of the designer's work at the Mode Museum in Antwerp earlier this year. "After the first show, everybody came out and nobody spoke. Margiela had recalibrated the sewing machines so the overlock was not cut automatically, but was left dangling from the seams. It was confusing, as everybody knew it was ' strong, but they were not sure if it was good. And then we saw the next season that a lot of people changed direction immediately, and the influence was undeniable."

In September 2007, the International Herald Tribune fashion editor Suzy Menkes and the designer Marc Jacobs had a spat when her show review claimed that Jacobs' work was too reliant on Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and Margiela. He was unapologetic, and told 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."

Yet Margiela, known as "fashion's invisible man", is not a designer who takes a bow at the end of his shows. He doesn't give interviews, very rarely has his picture taken, and any correspondence that journalists or buyers enter into with his atelier is plurally signed "Maison Martin Margiela". In an industry that relies so heavily upon recognition, contacts and relevance, he is an anonymous anomaly, but to those who know fashion, his is practically a household name. In fact, it is a household name, given that it now stands only for his work and his company.

He has many reasons for his intense privacy: first, he aims, by suppressing himself, to focus attention on his designs, however confusing or outré they may be, which is why he also often sends models down the catwalk backwards or with their faces covered. In the current cult of celebrity designers, this seems a watertight argument. Having gauged reaction to lines by Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham or the Olsen twins, who's to say whether consumers now buy pieces because they like them or because someone famous appears to like them?

That's not to reason, of course, that buying Margiela isn't buying into a movement, and this is another reason for the designer's anonymity as well as his eponymity: you're being let in on a delicious private joke. Those who know Margiela's clothes know who wears Margiela's clothes – the only identity now left to this man comprises four diagonal white stitches, arranged in a square, on the back of a jumper, a dress or the outer side of a scarf. It's where the labels are sewn in, and it's the essence of Margiela's methodology: he's the anti-designer with an anti-designer label. Margiela perpetuates a system of inconspicuous consumption.

That label celebrated its 20th anniversary last year with a catwalk presentation that featured a walking birthday cake and an oom-pah band surrounded by Margiela's lab-coated assistants. It was, if not a greatest hits collection, certainly a resurrection of some of the pieces that made the biggest waves in the fashion pool. And a selection of these one-off pieces have just gone on sale on the shopping website yoox.com.

His wig jacket, for example, is an ironic rendering of a super-luxe fur coat in brown acrylic hair, which took 51 hours to sew together. The equally tactile plastic-tags jacket is made from thousands of those irritating needles that hold labels on to new clothing. And the disco-ball top, an asymmetrical armour vest, is made from hundreds of mirror squares assembled around the body. Each of these pieces comes from his "artisanal" range, one of 11 carefully codified lines that the house produces, each assigned a number, all of which make up the esoteric numerical system seen on Margiela's otherwise plain white labels. His flagship store in Brussels is painted entirely white and an explanation of each numbered range is stencilled on to the side of the building; it is a place of pilgrimage for many fashion followers.

Margiela stores can be found in slightly weather-beaten, reclaimed buildings far from the fashion streets of the world's style capitals. The original London shop was in Mayfair's Bruton Place. The walls were white- painted bricks. The products and displays were scarce and the tills were like supermarket check-outs with metal chutes which your sartorial alimentation slid down before being bagged up by one of the many lab-coat-wearing assistants. It simultaneously took the glamour out of buying designer clothes, while injecting the process with humour and quasi-ritualistic pomp. The new shop, just around the corner in Bruton Street, is a challenge to find and, on entering, the space itself is a blizzard of silver and white – it is, the Maison says, a "found object".

Entering any of the Margiela stores worldwide is an experience rather than a shopping trip. Likewise, wearing Margiela is much more than quickly trying something on. There are often dozens of sleeves to negotiate, for a start, or you find that a jumper is supposed to be worn with the neck around your hips perhaps, or the lining becomes a Mobius strip of silk and is somehow the outer layer too. Such geometry requires more than a changing-room, more than a mirror, more than one pair of hands.

The company was bought by Diesel in 2002 and the cognoscenti were sad to hear the rumours that Margiela himself had stopped designing after the anniversary show. Although the news was not confirmed until recently, several rather wobbly collections were proof that he was no longer in the building, and there are whisperings of fellow Belgian Raf Simons, currently at Jil Sander, and acclaimed new talent Haider Ackermann being courted for the job. But both are understood to be nervous, because of the anonymity clause that comes with the territory. "We appropriate, we do some vintage," the fashion demi-god Azzedine Alaia once said. "Individual vision no longer exists. Margiela is the last one."

Proceeds from the sale of Maison Martin Margiela's artisanal pieces on yoox.com will go to the Rosa Spier House in Holland, a non-profit organisation that offers housing to retired artists and academics

Suggested Topics
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

    SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

    Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

    £85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

    Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

    £55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering