Martin Margiela is the new designer at Hermes, the latest in a line of funky recruits at fusty fashion houses. Even as the announcement was made in April, the Belgian designer was busy preparing for a 10-year retrospective of his work at an exhibition in Rotterdam. Typically, this was no ordinary show. Margiela, who led the deconstuctionist movement in shredded hems and inside-out clothing at the end of the Eighties, took one design from each of his 18 collections and made it up in plain white. He then gave them to a microbiologist, who grew bacteria on each garment, and the clothes were displayed in the museum grounds, like living sculptures. Margiela, 40, never compromises.
His appointment did not generate the headlines Stella McCartney received by joining Chloe. Margiela doesn't do interviews and never appears on the catwalk at the end of his shows. He has even been known to refuse having his collection photographed.
Inevitably, a cult has grown up around him. Cognoscenti look for the tell-tale four white stitches on the back of his clothes which attach his plain, white rectangular label - Margiela's response to the power-dressing excesses of the Eighties.
His shows are held in obscure locations around Paris - one was in a Salvation Army depot. There was a black-and-white collection when two shows were held simultaneously in two venues, one all in white, the other in black. At other times, the press would simply be shown a video, and talked through the collection. Then there was the circus tent, when the models, faces covered with masks, weaved their way in and out of the rows of press.
The clothes pictured here were introduced to press and buyers by Margiela's publicist, Patrick Scallon. "This is the basic foundation of the collection," we were told, as a model stepped forward wearing a bodice made to look like a dressmaker's dummy. On to this was pinned a section of a black tulle ballgown, a piece of couture in progress, or a half-section of a jacket with the workings exposed.
For women who don't want to go to the extremes of Margiela, there are, of course, pieces to be worn without the help of the stockman foundation. His clothes are the fashion equivalent of the "how-it-works" picture books you read as a child, showing the workings of an engine or an aeroplane. With Margiela, the guts of the garment are already on display.
Margiela was first noticed in 1984, when he left the Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp. He was one of the Antwerp Six that included designers now among the world's most influential: Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs. It would have been inconceivable then that such an avant- garde designer would one day be in charge of the design team at a label that reeks of bourgeois luxury.
Next October, Margiela will present his debut collection for Hermes, in the same week as he shows his own label. No doubt, the first thing he will at Hermes do is look at the archives and, literally, take them apart, before putting them back together. The Kelly bag is famous for its intricate construction. Just the sort of thing Margiela will love to get his hands on. Hermes may never be the same again. Tamsin Blanchard