Em Poncia explores the history of the secretive brand where clothes, rather than big names, take centre stage.
Maison Margiela, founded by the clandestine Martin Margiela, is a brand whose name has become synonymous with secrecy. Becoming famous for deconstructive designs and fashion shows that obscure the models’ faces, the brand has long been a design, and ethos, pioneer.
MR. MARGIELA HIMSELF
Belgian-born Martin Margiela is the elusive founder and from whom this fashion house takes its name. He attended the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Paris and working under Jean-Paul Gaultier as a design assistant. The brand was launched in 1989, originally under his full name, as Maison Martin Margiela.
Preferring the focus to be on his designs from the very beginning, Margiela’s face has never been publicly broadcast, with no photograph of him ever being officially verified. He would refuse to bow after his shows, take interviews (other than by fax answered as ‘we’), or pose for paparazzi, resulting in his status as a mythical creature amongst designers.
This unorthodox approach matches the brand’s ethos of being counter-culture, preferring for clothes to speak for themselves, dismantling the idea of the individual creative genius that has been the modus operandi in the fashion industry for decades. This anonymity also extends to the models that Margiela employs, their faces usually being covered either by garments or through hair and makeup. However, although the point that fashion is over-commercialised and focused on celebrity is made well by these gestures, the attention that Margiela has garnered from such creative decisions is distinctly opposite, earning him the mysterious and intriguing title of the ‘invisible man’ of fashion.
Margiela’s designs have long been innovative, often using existing garments and transforming them into monuments to the design and manufacturing process.
The Maison Margiela Artisanal collection, begun in 2006, is testament to this attitude. A travelling band of designers take vintage, rare, and interesting clothing and transform them into pieces that overturn design expectations. The pieces, made by hand, have included the repurposing of plastic as a fabric, scarves dismantled and turned into dresses, and chainmail being created out of interlocking gold rings.
This architecturally innovative approach to design is one that has been the hallmark of Maison Margiela since the brand’s inception. The repurposing of fabrics and garments that are already in existence speaks to a focus on the limits of these items, the idea that materials should be pushed to the total end of their potential.
In the 1998 summer collection, the main feature of the garments was their flatness. When not worn by the models, the items in this collection appeared like paper patterns, with details such as arm holes being cut into the front to increase this effect. When worn, they took on their true three-dimensional shape, making the act of donning the clothes somewhat akin to the design and manufacturing process.
Equally important to this idea of stretching garments to their limits is the return of popular silhouettes season after season. The Tabi shoe for example is an item that has been reimagined for different collections, with classic versions being available and seemingly never unstylish.
Faceless, and Logoless
Remaining with the theme of anonymity, a key choice incorporated into items by the Margiela label is the use of large, blank, white labels. Attached to the garment via distinctive white stitches, the tag has no indication of brand or size. By creating this logoless label, Maison Margiela establishes a conundrum in its branding. The pure white label is instantly recognisable to anyone who knows the brand, anyone who is ‘in the know’. It is equally, if not more, effective as having an actual logo.
The Maison after its Maker
Having maintained anonymity throughout his career, it wasn’t immediately made known to the public when Margiela left the brand.
In 2008, a majority stakeholder revealed that Margiela the man had not been involved in Margiela the company ‘for a long time.’ Years after this stepping-down, he wrote that he had grown tired of the growing pressure, and also that social media and its increasingly sporous reach into life had ruined an element that was essential to him, the ‘thrill of the wait.’
In 2009 an official press release announced that no new creative director would replace the company’s namesake, and that the design team would be working collaboratively to fill this role. Reportedly designers Raf Simmons and Haider Ackerman both turned down an offer to succeed Margiela.
In 2014, John Galliano, previous head of Galliano and Dior, took over the reigns of creative director, ending the period in which Margiela had operated as a republic without a leader.
The overarching theme of this brand is critique of the established and historical form and functioning of the fashion industry, both its abstract qualities and the designs that it churns out.
Margiela’s approach, however, is one that can be slightly repudiated for a certain lack of both consistency, and perhaps even genuineness, although this is a large accusation to levy.
Perhaps it is cynicism coming from an age of fashion houses greenwashing and using political causes as jumping off points up to greater profit margins, but the hype created by the ‘invisible man’ appears to have been more effective at drumming up attention, rather than quieting it. By being elusive, Margiela has garnered more attention than other designers who are perfectly visible. Equally, his designs, whilst innovative and visually interesting, lean into commercialisation to a certain extent, being tied to a label, put at high price points, and advertised in the same way as other design houses have done and are doing.
Regardless of these quandaries, Maison Margiela has certainly provided an opportunity for reflection, a stark contrast to other fashion houses that requires pausing to fully understand. Perhaps by fully showing the branding power of anonymity, Margiela’s point is fully realised: today it is even possible to capitalise on nothing and no one.