HE is the “Greta Garbo of fashion”, a brilliant and reclusive genius who walked away from his own label when he became the most talked-about designer in the world.
Two new Paris exhibitions lift a little of the mystery that surrounds Martin Margiela, arguably the most influential designer of the last 30 years.
The Belgian blew away the sexed-up, money-obsessed extravagance of 1980s fashion by scandalously recutting secondhand clothes for the catwalk.
He turned a butcher’s apron into an evening gown, black leather gloves into a breathtaking corset dress and made a now iconic blouse from several pairs of white socks in his first Paris shows.
More revolutionary still, argue both exhibitions — which open this month in the French capital — he “challenged the system” by questioning if clothes should ever go out of fashion.
They simply could be deconstructed and rethought again and again, he said.
While the big luxury brands were outdoing each other in the decadence of their shows, Margiela staged his in an abandoned metro station, a Salvation Army hall, and most notoriously in 1989 on a piece of waste ground in one of Paris’ roughest districts.
Laughing local children pushed in beside critics in the front row and ran after his models down the bumpy “runway”, with some being lifted onto their shoulders.
‘I started to cry’
Raf Simons, the former Dior designer now leading Ralph Lauren, said that Margiela changed fashion forever that night in 17 joyous and shambolic minutes.
The “bleak fairyland” Margiela had created was “so angelic and alien”, Simons said, that “I started to cry”.
“I thought, ‘How stupid to be crying at a fashion show.’ Then I looked around, and half the audience was crying.”
This was a full-on rebellion against the “star system of the time which he really disliked,” said Alexandre Samson, director of the Palais Galliera exhibition, which opens Friday.
The 1980s body beautiful aesthetic also went out the window. Instead, Margiela cast his friends — the more odd and original the better — in his shows.
In the age of the supermodel, he covered his models’ faces to better see the clothes, and designed with an eye also for “women of a certain age”.
“He turned his back on the ways things were supposed to be done,” Samson told AFP.
And in the case of the clothes Margiela made from coat and dress linings, he literally turned fashion inside out.
But his biggest transgression was thumbing his nose at designer labels.
His own was simply a numbered square of white cotton.
Inventor of oversized
Margiela began his rise as an assistant to the extrovert French creator Jean Paul Gaultier, who told the documentary, “The Artist is Absent”, that he was the best he ever had. “I was not his teacher,” he said, “because he didn’t need one”.
As far back as 2000, when the trend was for skin-tight, Margiela had invented oversized, which nearly two decades later is still one of fashion’s most dominant looks.
His duvet coats, long striped blue shirts, Tabi shoes and thigh-high stiletto boots have all been references by fashion’s wunderkind of the moment Demna Gvasalia, whose collections for Vetements and Balenciaga often seem like Margiela tribute shows.
Samson said he “loved playing with scale”, blowing Barbie and Ken doll clothes up to human size.
Margiela’s former PR Patrick Scanlon argued that “his incredible apprenticeship” with Gaultier taught him to see “anonymity as an advantage”.
“There was no need to feed the (media) beast, it was a double-edged sword.”
While the Margiela show at the Museum of Decorative Arts, which opens on March 22, will concentrate on his five years at the luxury brand Hermes, the Galliera exhibition uses over 1,000 objects from his archives to illustrate his 20-year career.
Neither show, however, solves the mystery of why Margiela left the stage so suddenly in 2009 when he was at the height of his powers, wowing his fans with a coat made of wigs in his startling final show.
Simons believes he “had said what he had to say”.
“Basta! I find that admirable. That’s what more people should do,” he added.
Forever the control freak, Margiela has quietly guided both exhibitions from behind the scenes, taking top billing as “artistic director” from curator Samson for the Galliera show.
The enigmatic creator, who has not even been photographed since 1996, was lurking somewhere behind scenes when AFP visited the gallery as the final touches were being put to the show.
Asked if Margiela would ever return, Samson said, “You should ask him yourself, he’s here.”