[  I found someone who is worthy of the Jedi master Mace Windu. I am not qualified to analyze and deconstruct Margiela … I am terrified of my own shallow knowledge. This is more of a fan girl making a scrapbook for my own sake. This post is my first draft. I will keep adding to it as I learn more. Please feel free to point out to any flaws in the words I write here. ]

Margiela

One can tweak some colors and details to make a new garment from an existing design … and be called a designer without any real innovation. And the words ‘a designer’s designer’ is used in reference when we talk about Miuccia Prada, Alexander McQueen, …. Margiela occupies a stratum of his own in this category. Every designer I admire – Jil Sander, Calvin Klein, Lemaire, Raf Simons, Phoebe Philo, ….  cite Margiela as their influence. Minimalism in fashion owes a great debt to him. To start off, some words from the insiders:

Martin Margiela has always been incredibly discreet. I went to his shows, but from his whole generation, the generation of the Antwerp Six, he is the only one I have never met. I sometimes saw his name in the guestbooks for our exhibitions, at the Anish Kapoor exhibition for example, but we never actually saw him. I still often wear some of his designs, including the ‘leftovers’ sweater made of pieces of blue jeans, because I find it beautiful and comfortable. I also have his duvet coat. I consider Hermes a prestige brand, but I would never purchase a Kelly bag or pieces with Hermes logo. That is why Mariela’s collection for Hermes were not a shock to me, because the one thing I loved about Hermes was the pure design. I understood that Hermes naturally had two kinds of customers: there were those who loved Margiela’s quality, as well as customers who fell for the things that you recognize ….

 – May Vervoordt.

In 1980s, fashion was at its most affluent and extravagant – bold, brash, and shouting to be noticed. Only a still small voice of calm was speaking a different language. Instead of excess, there was distressed cloth. The orgy of opulence was here replaced by clothes that were deliberately deconstructed with visible darts, frayed hems and shoes with split toes.

– Suzy Menkes

He is a rare combination of the methodical approach of an engineer or science professor with the emotional sense of a poet. His clothes were not predefined by social status, like today’s clothes often are. His openness and democratic spirit towards all ages, ethnicities, bodies and types, are what I call the Margiela revolution.

-Olivier Zahm.

More than anything, he feared trends, marketing and the risk of following others into the abyss of banality.

-Pierre-Alexis Dumas

Hermes by Martin Margiela represented the perfect match in fashion for me. I strongly believe that tailoring is a key element in judging a garment, a designer or a collection. In Hermes’ case, tailoring is the central element in creating a coat, a jacket or a shirt. Personally, I see Martin Margiela as a tailor, because he knows how to mount a sleeve, design the right proportions of a collar, and decide the position of the pocket or redefine its functions. Coats become jacket and jackets are worn over coats; pockets intertwine with coats, forming additional or separate layers. I like this invisible creativity that you discover purely by wearing the garments, forgetting seasons or trends.

For me, luxury mens having clothes in your wardrobe that you can change by adding layers to them. It means you can buy one piece a year, but it will be an extraordinary one that you know you will appreciate every time you wear it. So today the word ‘luxury’ has become quite an impossible concept or definition : if it is linked to the price tag, some people will feel that is a good enough reason to buy it, because ‘expensive’ must be an identifier of luxury; but maybe luxury also means buying less. When Martin Margiela was designing for Hermes, we could expect exquisitely made pieces in beautiful fabrics with an eye for detail, even down to the attachment of the buttons. Fashion and consuming fashion used to be a much slower activity. Today we have to have it now, and buy it immediately after the show. Haute couture is also produced fast and is ready in only a few weeks. Prototyping in fashion has become a short process as well  and that is what was behind the richness of the collections designed by martin. The word ‘collection’ didn’t actually fit the work; to me it was more a composition of times.

When I entered the first floor in the Hermes store of Rue Du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris, in search of the first Martin Margiela collection, my heart was pounding. I could hardly breathe. The beauty of it was in the simplicity and the humility of the pieces handing there. The soft color palette, from beige and camel to grey, was not my palette as I always wear black. Nevertheless, I bought the camel cashmere sweater with the deep v neck. The feel for it, the color, the shape – it all represented beauty and style !

To describe the Hermes collection designed by Martin is as difficult as describing four grey canvases by Gerhard Richter hanging in a gallery space. When an artist or a designer expresses the essential vision of his or her work, it should give the viewer a reaction of pure emotion. I’ve never got too close to the feeling that art and fashion can express nothingness as when I saw and touched the Hermes collection that day.

Searching for the fundamental reason why one works in fashion is an intense process, and today especially, it is a lonely one, as designers are trapped in the superficiality of consumer society. So, if you finally find your own incarnation of that v-neck sweater – one that fits your body and mind – buy it, wear it and love it forever.

Today’s fashion is based on collage, and it has become impossible to speak of aesthetics. We are overwhelmed by styles, by designers who come and go and have huge responsibilities in very fashion houses. They look at the archives and try to understand a language of other times, another expression of beauty or social context. Martin worked with the craftsmen or Hermes. He appreciated their time and dedication to fashion. He collaborated with their technicians to achieve perfection. I  feel that is the reason why Martin Margiela for Hermes still looks modern today.

I miss Martin Margiela’s creativity in fashion everyday. I cannot find garments that fit my body that reflect me or inspire me. I tend to look again to Yohji Ymammoto because I feel that the body is central. Now most collections are designed for young girls. I attended a lot of shows recently in Paris and I felt disappointed by the composition of the silhouette. Hermes by Marin was designed for a mature woman : modern, active, standing for certain values in life, and between the lines we could read the message that fashion is not ephemeral. His models on the catwalk represented a natural elegance, based on tradition; they felt comfortable presenting those unique items of craftsmanship and style.

– Linda Loppa.

Some of my fav garments made by him

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I saw this exact jacket in ‘the’ vintage shop in LA. I stalk a few on eBay but they are too expensive for me. It’s been a dream to own that black jacket someday … some day ! 

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I ran home and googled him after the store visit. Reading about this show gave me goosebumps. This is who Margiela is, to me. 

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Sweater sets and wrap cardigans

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Vareuse

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 Re-worked vintage garments

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Hermes scarf re-worked into a top.

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He introduced the print-free scarf into the line up

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Garments with multiple functions and purposes.

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Why can’t more scarves be cut like capes with a pocket? The little details!

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 A trench coat that can be worn 3 ways.

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Usage of aged materials to create texture. And the amount of gray clothing in his collections !

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His interpretation of trench with a hood.

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Photo Journalism of the legendary Bill Cunningham.

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I would wear everything shown in these photos

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A sweater as a scarf

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A wrap shirt with a collar

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This jacket again. This jacket! This jacket!

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His Replica line that makes versions from vintage finds that he deems perfect.

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 He would make an exact replica. And another version that he improved over the original. This is pure engineering!

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The aesthetic of course ! 

what makes Margiela ?

Fashion’s shift towards a more low profile, lo-fi authenticity that is deeply rooted in the purposefully anti-establishment mindset that Margiela pioneered.

His absence from public and media appearances makes a statement. In the age of self-promotion and logo mania, he wanted his work to speak for himself. His reply to questions when interviewed would start with “we”. He made sure to provide homage to the entire team. He wanted to keep the focus on the clothing.

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He refused to sign his own designs with a label bearing a logo, an extreme form of rebellion. His company lawyers wouldn’t allow it for the sake of the business. Margiela was reticent but ultimately agreed, on one condition: Four white stitches, visible only on the outside of unlined garments, would be added. “Our lawyer couldn’t believe it because, of course, you cannot protect a blank space. We lied to him and said we were going to print it with Martin Margiela on the reverse side. But we never did.”, reveals Meirens.

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The faces of the models he used for his shows – they were not top models. They were friends and women from street castings. They would veil their faces, cover them with makeup, add hair pieces that would shield the face, tie black bands to cover the eyes – a strategy of making anonymous anything that might distract attention from the creations themselves. “But I don’t like the idea that women need to be perfect. I prefer a woman on the street who can express something. I prefer a strong woman to a beautiful woman …”, revealed Meirens in an interview.

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When Jean-Louis Dumas asked him about his definition of luxury, Margiela responded “sum of quality, comfort and timelessness.” As he saw it, a timeless pieces of clothing could indeed be expensive, and if the quality and finishing were at their best, this would automatically result in great comfort. He was determined that his pieces be consistently utilitarian and practical, and he wanted no superfluous accessories.

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With his each collection for Hermes, he wasn’t interested in putting out startling pieces. he has a vision of a slowly evolving wardrobe, instead of a completely new idea for every new season, preferably each more spectacular than the one before.

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He revolutionized the shows in his own way. He subtracted the Hermes scarf and accessories like belts and handbags that are the sought after items and status symbols.

He invited journalists to the Hermes showroom to give them a personal presentation explaining each piece in terms of its innovation and craftsmanship.

His innovations

Fashion is a craft, a technical know-how and not an art. Each world shares an expression through creativity, through very divergent media and processes. Any play between the haute and the humble aside, he was a masterful technician. The Margiela shoulder in particular — either strong, high and narrow or extremely broad — has been studied ad infinitum.

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He made chubby coats out of silver Christmas tinsel and sheath dresses out of gold plastic rings. Then there were the gently frayed hems, the reversed seams, the reinventing of vintage finds from leather butchers’ aprons to antique wedding dresses — the turning of clothes literally upside down and inside out.

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At Maison Margiela, he had no experience with cashmere, because it was too expensive. Once he moved to Hermes, using their know-how and resources, he developed ‘memory yarn’ to hold the shape of knitwear. Certain qualities in the fabrics that he had previously used, such as flannel, shetland or camel wool, were no longer appropriate because they were perceived as cheap and un-luxurious. he consequently developed threads and yards in cashmere that has the same appearance as flannel, shetland or camel wool.

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Circular knitting used in producing cashmere lining for gloves as successfully adapted the technique to use in making sweaters and pullover, so that they were more comfortable and ‘fitted like gloves’.

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The team at Maison Martin Margiela, now under the helm of John Galliano, always wore and still wear a Margiela reworking of the blouses blanches, white coats sported by models between fittings and, in the shorter form, the petites mains who staff the Paris ateliers. Margiela’s headquarters were painted white from floor to ceiling with furniture sought out in thrift shops and shrouded in white cotton. He enjoyed the way white aged and the fact of time passing expressed by any discolorations. It was also cost-effective. True to the make-do-and-mend mind-set shared by Margiela and Meirens, it lent a certain distinction and clarity to the environment. One day in the office they had to send a thank-you gift. Martin went into the bin, took out a white plastic grocery bag and knotted it into an angel.

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Faces were also often veiled, focusing the attention entirely on the clothes.

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Margiela put a lot of emphasis on movement, on the motion of fabric and leather as it wraps or surrounds the body.

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A day time jacket, for example could become evening wear : pull up the collar of a day jacket to uncover the other side of tuxedo evening stain. Open up the side zipper of a dress which then becomes a tunic over pants. Roll up the sleeve of a pullover over a long glove.

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There are coats and jackets with no buttons that you can hold closed with both arms, an intimate gesture that M not only found beautiful, but that he observed women make. There are many hidden pockets in coats and under coats, allowing you to keep your hands and your body in a certain nonchalant, yet elegant pose.

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The vareuse is a garment with an extremely low v neck inspired by classic Mariners pea jackets.  He made several forms : as a poplin blouse, structured vest, as a tunic in leather. The different variations can be combined, for example, a vareuse blouse worn under a vareuse pullover or vareuse vest.  In a design with no darts, technically tailoring the deep v neck so that it does not open up at breast level was by no means a self evident achievement. he introduced vareuse with Martin Margiela as a dress and a tunic, but he has not yet been successful in perfecting the cut. the vareuse as a short jacket or sweater was now completely thought through in the context of active woman. To take it off, she no longer had to pull it over hear head: allow the pea jacket with a purging v neckline to slide and then tie it around he waist. No more ruffled hair.

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The anti-pluie is a light rain coat in a transparent voile weave, with tailoring inspired by the kimono. Its made form water repellent wrinkle free polyester. The coat is designed to be an evening coat owing to its elegance.

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During countless fittings, he bombarded his models with questions. He not only wanted to know if the garments were comfortable an felt good, he asked them to walk, turn, take the garment off, sit down, put hands in the pockets, … He observed women in all phases of life and understood how a woman’s body changed as she grew older. His designs took into consideration these changes. One example is the trikini – a bikini with 3 parts. A bottom and two bangs that could be worn in various ways. The middle band could be used to cover the belly, so from a distance the piece looks like a one pieces bathing suit. The bottom and the middle could be rolled up so that the wearer determined how much skin she wanted to expose.

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He turned the production process inside out by putting seams, darts, zippers, shoulder pads or lining on the outside of the garment. In this way, the craft of dressmaking is shown off on the outside, something that, in those days was unheard of.

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In 1994, Maison Margiela introduced a line under the name Replica. There are exact reproduction of second-hand garments from different styles and periods. The pieces bear a separate label on which, in addition to ‘Replica : Reproduction of found garments of varying sources and periods’, information is given about where the originals were found, their date of production and the original function of the clothing. These are pieces which the maison believed cannot be improved. By reproducing them as exactly as possible, Margiela was not presenting himself as a creator or author, but was paying homage to the anonymous profession skills that underlay these vintage pieces. he moreover produced them in different sizes, offering something that vintage could not.

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Numerous coats and jackets were made without a lining. Thanks to superb finishing on the inside, they could be worn either side out. He instructed a finished called double de meme. These are pieces that are lined with the same fabric, so stitching and seams are no longer visible. The inside is identical to the outside, so they too can be revered. He figured out this technique with cashmere and leather for Hemes. And in linen and cotton for Maison Margiela.

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He designed pieces that could be transformed into multiple ways. He designed a trench coat in 2003 with collar, mud flaps and sleeves which can all be removed. The coat can be worn as a dress with sleeves removed. The sleeves can be worn as a kind of cape with some adjustment. He gave a similar treatment to classics such as the caban, blouson and duffel coat so that they can be stripped down to a more minimalist version. Women can decide which version suits their style.

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His love for vintage materials, which have stood the test of time and often owe their beauty to the patina that time has given them, appeared in his collection by his reworking these items into new pieces. he allowed and emphasized the aging of materials in some of his designs.  Long before the terms slow fashion and sustainability appeared on the fashion circuit, his work imbibed the essence of it.

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At Hermes, he made no concession to the constant pressure for new collection. he would release a retrospective collection after a few years. This collection would not include a single new design, but a compilation of the strongest pieces from his previous collections, and now all entirely in grey.

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When he was appointed to Hermes, he informed Jean that he would not use color or print in any of his collection. But work with tones – chalk, mastic, twine, taupe, alabaster, bronze, stone and slate, burnt black. He had a vision for Hermes woman and her wardrobe.

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At every turn, Margiela railed against the fashion system. For its fall 1989 show, Meirens placed a classified ad including the time, date and address of the show in a free newspaper. Once published, the Margiela team picked up hundreds of copies, ringed the relevant text in red and mailed it out. “It was the cheapest invitation ever,” Meirens says. On another occasion, buyers and press received an unremarkable white card with a phone number, which they called only to reach a voicemail telling them when and where to attend the show.

& Me

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This post is my answer to anyone who might ask ‘ why are designer clothes so expensive?  The innovation. Our patronage goes into R&D and the vision. For failed experiments. For art. I don’t know why designers who don’t create anything new command the high prices – perhaps for the convenience and ease of finding garments that are sweatshop free and are of a high quality ? Perhaps it’s for someone like me who is happy with the simplest navy blue shirt dresses that have stopped evolving in design? Either way, its a wonderful time to be a fashion lover. There is a revival of vintage. Simplicity in clothing has never been this fashionable ! You can be a successful CEO and wear a gray t-shirt with jeans. You can be that wealthy guy in a suit and red tie – and be the least respected clown. In the current climate, you can be a proud outfit repeater. I can say ‘its second-hand/vintage’ with absolute pride when asked about my garments. There is a discussion on sustainability and slow fashion is a movement that I am proud to be a part of. I have access to the philosophy and works of designers I admire but cant afford. Since I cant live in Margiela garments, I live in books on him.

It’s great when someone comes along and put some substance into the thought process of slow fashion. His work at Hermes was a story of riches to rags. He took the social prestige out of a certain way of dressing – that artificial styled woman who dresses like Claire Underwood would have been the idea of power dressing. Comme des Garcon’s refusal to conform to that tailored fit … Peter Lindbergh’s photographs that showed women instead of clothes … Stieglitz’s photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe … Yohji’s clothes that covered a woman while adding allure … Lemaire’s work that is evolving … Margaret Howell’s garments that I dream of collecting … All these fragments somehow come together. There is so much inspiration that exists out there for me.


A timeline of MMM history. Books I love: 1, 2, 3