How Margiela Reimagined the Fashion Show

Martin Margiela's SS 1990 show; a hive of excitement and anticipation with restless children running amongst the models. Photographer, Jean-Claude Coutausse. 

The first ten collections of the Maison Margiela challenged fashion’s preconceptions through a subversive approach to shows. The SS1990 collection was an eminent moment for Margiela, one that would launch his work into the global fashion arena. What was it about this show that sparked such controversy? And how did it signal the dawn of a new decade for contemporary dress?

Amid the rubble, graffiti-daubed walls and concrete covered ground lies the district playground ‘Passage Josseaume’, in Paris's 20th arrondissement. Demolished and dilapidated, but no less adored, here two worlds were harmoniously united. On October 19 1989, at 7:30 pm, Martin Margiela held his third show. A visceral merge of counter classes combined in the face of fashion.


“I’m still shivering when I think about it” says Inge Grognard, a renowned make-up artist who has worked on all of Margiela’s shows, and has been his close friend since they were teenagers. “Nobody knew what was going to happen, but not knowing was all part of the Margiela allure.” Surprised, shocked and somewhat suspicious, the guests arrived in droves at the open lot, waiting on tenterhooks for the first model to appear from behind the white cotton curtain. Neighbourhood children sat interspersed amongst the elite fashion press. Worlds apart, the two came together in a ceremonious collision.


Nobody knew what was going to happen, but not knowing was all part of the Margiela allure

“There’s still tears in my eyes. It was really touching” she tells me over the phone, whilst preparing dinner at her home in Belgium. ‘The music, the atmosphere, the ambiance—he really did something ground-breaking that day’. Accompanied by the staccato soundtrack of Tuxedomoon’s ‘In Heaven’, like a magician unveiling a box of tricks, Margiela finally revealed the first of the 59 looks on the runway.


Every model had hair tied at the nape of their neck in a loose bun, reminiscent of late eighteenth-century coiffure. Painted alabaster faces coupled with white eyeshadow and smudged and smeared lashes, the models floated through the decrepit surroundings like ghouls. “I’d been thinking about those times you have those accidents when doing make-up, like when you pull a sweater over your head and it smears mascara across your eyelids,” Grognard says. To add to the spontaneous nature of the show, she applied the makeup to a contrasting white base- “the clothes had a lot of white and plastic involved so I mixed in some roughness with the mascara because we liked it when it wasn't so perfect.” The idea of imperfection and ‘unfinished’ work appeared throughout this collection. The 14th look, a white ribbed tank top, was enlarged to XXL and worn as a dress encased in a nylon mesh t-shirt. This was the beginning of what was to come; Margiela continued to harbour his obsession for privacy through the constriction of clothes against the body.


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Martin Margiela SS 1990, look 14 an over-enlarged tank top encased in mesh. Photographer Ronald Stoops. 

Frédéric Sanchez, a sound artist and music producer, collaborated with Margiela from his debut show in 1988, up until the Hermès years. He tells me about the arresting atmosphere of the show; “it was a strange experience, very punk but so beautiful.” The soundtrack was a "collage of punk with poetic elements", with unconventional street recordings woven throughout. “I had a recording of this guy singing ‘Strangers in the Night’ but he was drumming on the trashcans” Sanchez says. He created the soundtrack using an amalgamation of different elements which he calls “techno-punk, with poetic editions from the street, and mixed with the 17th Century harpsichord.” Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Gavotte notes signalled the finale, with models donning white coats and throwing confetti overhead.


Margiela received much criticism from punishing press, Sanchez recalls. “Many people didn’t understand it at that time because it had never been done before. People felt it was very new, like fashion was turning the page from the 80s. The problem was, Paris was so important that a lot of people certainly became very angry that [Martin wasn't following traditional conventions of the fashion show].” The neighbourhood was from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, somewhere that would previously never have been considered to stage such a spectacle. Bliss Foster, a Margiela collector and archivist, tells me that “the photos from this are absolutely beautiful. All the press accused Martin of using black children as a prop - that's a real problem - but I don't think the facts of the story align with that.”


Collectively, children made over 500 invitations on corrugated cardboard, and came with accompanying friends and family

Despite negative comments from some quarters, this is undoubtedly my favourite Margiela show as it completely democratised the landscape of the fashion show. In fact, the children “had the time of their lives” according to Grognard. Collectively, they made over 500 invitations on corrugated cardboard written in pencil, and came with accompanying friends and family. There is something sweetly sincere about allowing children to be part of the creative process. “It was very joyful and fun because there was all the children and it was almost dreamlike. It reminded me of certain fantasy movies, there’s something very magical,” says Sanchez. Once again, this demonstrates Margiela’s appreciation for collaboration to achieve shared goals.


For me, this show encapsulates all that is lost and forgotten in the world right now. At present, shows with such soul, spirit and unfettered spontaneity seem unimaginable as Coronavirus continues its reckless rampage across the globe. It is impossible for anything remotely impulsive to happen. Despite not being visible himself, Margiela has formed connections with new and old audiences alike, whilst challenging the creative boundaries of the industry. His collection signalled the dawn of a new decade for him as a designer and the fashion sphere at large; he used his power, authority and influence to harness change for the future.

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Illustrations by a Liverpool Primary school local to the author. Felt tip drawings on card and graph paper, inspired by Martin Margiela's SS 1990 show invitations.

Read more on Martin Margiela here.