The Timelessness of Martin Margiela: Transcending Temporality
Why does Martin Margiela’s oeuvre still resonate today?
“Fashion is closely linked to the moment and society; which changes under all kinds of influence… at a rapid pace… you make fashion with both feet on the ground and your eyes and ears wide open to what is happening around you”
- Martin Margiela
Between 1988 and 2008, Martin Margiela presented 41 cerebral collections that altered the commodity of fashion forever. His iconoclastic vision saw a plethora of designs that are still, to this day, considered contemporary. For many, Margiela is perceived as one of the most innovative designers of the past three decades. His cult following of fans, the popularity of the ‘Tabi' and his rigour of work conveys his pertinence in popular culture. So, what is it about Martin Margiela’s designs that are so immortal?
The end of the 80s saw social, political and economic turmoil, with the AIDS epidemic and unemployment rates casting a shadow of despair around the globe. In this fragmented time, Margiela’s work was a perceptive mirror to the chaos that was occurring. Composer Frederic Sanchez expresses the relationship between Margiela’s fashion and the time: “he arrived with something that was right for that moment. That was very interesting.” As the 1990s dawned, a new wave of feminism appeared to make strides for women blazing a trail in popular culture. Bliss Foster, collector and archivist, depicts Margiela’s representation of this new woman: “when they're on the runway, it’s like the repressive past of these women is dragging behind them on the floor. They look like they’re bursting out of an old cocoon. It’s powerful stuff.”
When they're on the runway, it's like the repressive past of these women is dragging behind them on the floor... it's powerful stuff
Through his unconventional approach to design and commerce, Margiela challenged our preconceptions of dressing by repurposing materials to reproduce the ‘old’ in more novel constellations. Retaining a semblance of the past, the design processes are visible within the exterior of the garment; lining, seams, darts, white-basting thread, shoulder pads and patterns are all left deliberately unhidden and unfinished. Sanchez says that “in a moment where you can do everything with computers, I think Martin Margiela proved you can do things with your hands.” In our hyper-digitalised, artificial world, it can be difficult to distinguish the real from the fake, Sanchez continues, “there’s something quite beautiful in the fragility of his work. Poetry comes from art and craft, I think there is a need for that today.”
Anecdotally, Sanchez tells me about his first encounter with Margiela in Paris in 1988. Having dinner together at Martin’s home, the table was laden with perfectly crisp white napkins below a silver low-hanging chandelier. “The candle wax dropped onto the napkins, leaving a mark, and he told me this was his taste…suddenly you have this idea of time and things getting older becoming more beautiful,” Sanchez says. Margiela’s fascination with documenting the ravages of time is translated here, conveying the natural process of age and decay.
These garments-in-disguise reveal something that contemporary fashion attempts in vain to ignore; the graduation of time
His ubiquitous use of white is a clear reference to this transience of time and existence. In Margiela’s words, white signifies “the power of fragility, especially the fragility of passing time”. Over time, white eventually fades and discolours, taking on a grey hue. In the 1920s, Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born French architect, was the leading advocate for the white wall and pioneer of modern architecture. Within Margiela’s collections, there is a subtle reference to Le Corbusier’s drastically bare and aesthetically sparse, stuccoed spaces. Margiela propagated his own ‘white wall’ by covering clothes in white paint; a blank canvas. When worn, the paint eventually cracks, distorting the appearance and unmasking the item underneath over time. These painted garments-in-disguise reveal something that contemporary fashion attempts in vain to ignore; the graduation of time. Depending on the wearer’s demeanour and lifestyle, each item inevitably ‘changes’ in its own way and reveals layers of the hidden past.
Along with the Antwerp Six, Margiela brought an alternative perspective to fashion, introducing a new conversation. “Martin can make something magnificent out of nothing,” his long-term friend and makeup artist Inge Grognard tells me. “He knew he had a story to tell and he told it”. The great breakthrough of fashion from Antwerp made the 1990s one of the most significant decades in contemporary design. Together, the Antwerp Six and Margiela demonstrated deconstruction as the making and unmaking of codes. “There are a lot of people that make clothes, but he made fashion history. Even when we are dead, in years’ time, he will be remembered. He had a huge influence”. His legacy is still tangible today, inspiring generations of designers following in his wake.
Though he may not be in the limelight, he will always be in our periphery and at the forefront of design. What does the future hold for Martin Margiela? Who knows? Who knows where the formidable force of Margiela will go... Only time will tell.
Read more on Martin Margiela here.