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A face to a name – when Suzy Menkes identified the Margiela designer

Suzy Menkes’ decision to reveal the identity of the designer behind Maison Martin Margiela at the couture shows thrilled and shocked the industry. But what does it mean to fashion?

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In a report from this season’s couture shows for UK Vogue, Suzy Menkes OBE revealed the identity of Maison Martin Margiela’s suspected head designer, Matthieu Blazy. In the eyes a house, whose retired founder declined all personal publicity and extended all credit to his team, it was no doubt a mischievous move on the part of Menkes, and one so daring that it made it as far as the Mail Online’s sidebar. (“Martin who?” six million readers thought.) The Maison eventually released a statement – presumably as a reaction to the tons of interview requests for Blazy they must have received in the wake of Menkes’ revelation – reminding press of its strict principles of anonymity, and essentially asking us to cut it out. “The Maison has not changed and MMM does not communicate on any individual member of its collective. Our work is done by a team and is credited only to this same collective,” they noted.

I wasn’t one of the people who requested an interview with Blazy, but I was curious about Menkes’ decision to state the unstatable, especially after a men’s show season in Paris where another Margiela rumour was making the rounds, in this case regarding a much-loved London designer who had reportedly joined the Maison’s menswear team. (Out of respect for the designer and Margiela’s rules, I won’t say whom.) Menkes revealed Blazy’s identity not to disrespect the Maison’s wishes, but because, as she wrote, “you can't keep such a talent under wraps.” (And, perhaps, because Menkes belongs to a generation of fashion writers, who remain faithful to the old-school virtues of journalism as opposed to us youngsters, who have been corrupted by the fashion system and the self-censorship it instils in you.)

We all know and love Margiela’s rules, but we also know that any team needs a leader, and leaders become idols. I created this column to discuss the phenomenon of fandom – in fashion and elsewhere – and nothing could describe fashion’s thirst for idols quite like the reaction to Menkes’ story. Despite his self-imposed anonymity, when Martin Margiela still headed up his own Maison, the industry had a name – if not a face – to worship there. When we went to his shows and loved it, we knew the man himself was backstage, even if he didn’t come out to take a bow, and that somehow made things alright. He wasn’t there but he was, kind of like Jesus. When Margiela left his company, the lack of a person to idolise started a slowly building avalanche of frustration – a need for someone for fans to direct their love at – which, five years on, finally resulted in Menkes’ story on Blazy.

When I told a friend about the rumoured involvement of the new menswear designer at Margiela last month, it was as if he instantly liked the spring/summer 15 men’s collection more. (It was very good, by the way. Ravy.) And that poses an interesting question: how much do we like fashion for who made it, and how much do we like it because we actually just like it? Maison Martin Margiela post- Margiela himself is an interesting case study. For the past couple of seasons, people have genuinely liked it (a lot) with no knowledge of who was behind it, but I’ll argue as far that certain parts of its fan base also liked it a little bit more because the strict anonymity of the designers and the somewhat socialist team principles have an intellectual aroma about it. Which, interestingly, isn’t a calculated move on the Maison’s part, but simply a tradition they continued because their original designer wasn’t into personal publicity.

It’s not just the fashion industry that desperately needs to put a face to a name, or rather, a name to a brand. If Banksy hadn’t signed his works of art and instead left them entirely anonymous, who knows if the artist would have become the phenomenon he is today. As his fame grew and rumours started circulating that he had a whole team of artists painting the town in his name, people already began distinguishing between real and fake Banksy. But isn’t there something to be said for keeping the mystery alive? When you work in fashion you inevitably have one or more designer friends, who’ve worked on the Margiela team at some point – after all, it’s a little hard to keep a long-term job secret – but sometimes you can’t help but feel like you’d almost rather not know. Under Margiela himself, the Maison kept its mystique because of his shyness, and when he left, the same mystique was channelled into the facelessness of the team. They kept people guessing.

I don’t disagree with Menkes’ decision to out Matthieu Blazy, and at the end of the day I’m sure he was pretty thrilled with her superlatives. (The rest of his team perhaps less so.) But in an industry obsessed with aiming credit at one head designer instead of the huge teams, who play vital parts in creating the collections we love, perhaps Maison Martin Margiela’s philosophy and principles make for a pretty healthy alternative. Fandom is the best thing in the world. In fashion it’s what elevates designers from craftsmen to rock stars, and the industry would be dull without its superstars. And yet the idolisation creates a dangerous balance between true admiration and affected admiration, the latter of which can easily result in the kind of fashion sheepishness we all hate: liking things because other people do. I’m happy we can put Blazy’s name and face to the Margiela brand, but I still hope the Maison will retain its clever mystique.