10 things we learnt from margiela’s right hand woman

Jenny Meirens was the brains behind the business of Maison Martin Margiela. In a new interview with the New York Times, the fashion legend dishes on the cheapest fashion invite ever created, the lies they told the company lawyer, and the ‘hate calls...

by Charlotte Gush
07 February 2017, 8:52pm

Maison Martin Margiela, Spring/Summer 96. Foto: Marina Faust.

Maison Martin Margiela may now be headed up by superstar designer John Galliano, but it's history is one of the most mysterious in fashion. Founding designer Martin Margiela refused to give face-to-face interviews, was rarely photographed, declined to take a bow after shows and opted to mark his clothes with nameless white labels. A new New York Times interview with the business brains behind the Maison, fashion retail pioneer Jenny Meirens, reveals intriguing new details about a brand that never did branding, that rejected seating plans at shows, and the deliberately situated its atelier and events at out-of-the-way locations.

Of his partnership with Meirens, Martin Margiela says, "Even if she saw the world in black, I saw the world in white. … And besides our generation gap we intrigued, challenged and amazed each other. It became a full symbiosis. For a young fashion designer, the beginning is utterly important, so I remain grateful that Jenny managed it to structure my wildest dreams into a viable business". Here are 10 more things we learned from the feature...

1. Margiela created possibly the cheapest fashion invite ever
For the autumn/winter 89 show invite, rather than paying for fancy calligraphy and stylish paper like other houses, Jenny Meirens explains she placed a classified advert that included the date, time and address in a free newspaper. The Margiela team collected hundreds of copies, circled the ad in red and posted it out to the industry. "It was the cheapest invitation ever," Meirens tells the NYT.

2. They got 'hate calls' following their first-come, first-served fashion shows
"It's important that people understand the price of being Margiela," says Patrick Scallon, who headed up communications for Margiela 1993 - 2008. "We didn't advertise. The designer wasn't having lunch with editors to curry favor. Our offices were in the 18th Arrondissement, in a very nice place, but the area was not a comfortable or convenient destination for our visitors. At the shows, there was no seating plan. The hate calls we received the morning after were unbelievable."

3. Meirens pioneered street casting, and hates the idea that women need to be sexy
"Of course, it's easier to do fittings on professional models," Meirens says, "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". Speaking about her own aesthetic at pioneering Brussels store Crea, Meirens notes, "What I always hated was women who needed to look sexy. I think you're sexy or you're not. It's not because you show breasts or legs that you're sexy."

4. Meirens and Martin Margiela lied to their lawyer about the no-name white label
Meirens tells the NYT that her proudest achievement is the untreated white cotton nameless labels sewn with a stitch in each corner to Maison Margiela garments, and the "freedom of creative expression and the courage and conviction" that they represent. "I was certain we shouldn't -- we couldn't -- just come out with something that read Martin Margiela," says Meirens, who came up with the idea one evening in a bar in Mantova, Italy, in 1988. "Our lawyer couldn't believe it because, of course, you cannot protect a blank space," she adds. "We lied to him and said we were going to print it with Martin Margiela on the reverse side. But we never did."

5. The industry often hated Margiela shows, and didn't like him at Hermès either
"People look at Margiela now through rose-tinted glasses," says Patrick Scallon. "They forget that at the time they disliked Martin's work at Hermès. How dare someone so talented do something so commercial, so boring? They also often hated Margiela shows".

6. Meirens first met Margiela when she fought for his surgical scrub designs in a fashion competition
Meirens was a judge at the 1983 Golden Spindle Award competition in Belgium, where Margiela's entry was "inspired by surgeons' scrubs, the skirts were huge and the shoes beautiful, very strong, a masculine upper with a low, heavy heel," she says. "For me, it was the best," she adds, explaining that she had "quite a fight" with the other judges. Margiela didn't win -- Dirk Van Saene did -- but Meirens offered him space to sell his collection in her pioneering Brussels store, Crea.

7. Meirens' Margiela-stocked store turned a Brussels fish market into a fashion hub
Meirens opened her rule-breaking fashion boutique Crea in 1983 on Place St. Catherine in central Brussels, an area known for its fish markets. The store stocked brands including Comme Des Garçons and Margiela, and the clothes weren't organised by designer, but by colour instead. "Jenny definitely launched that neighborhood into what it is today, Brussels' most hyped designer area," Margiela tells the NYT, adding, "They owe her a statue".

8. Rei Kawakubo is a fan of Meirens
Almost as elusive as Martin Margiela himself, fellow designer Rei Kawakubo has high praise for Jenny Meirens. "Jenny is a strong person whose policy was to make her work about strong and new clothes," she tells the NYT in a rare quote.

9. And so is Raf Simons
Meirens also counts another modern icon of fashion design as a fan, and friend: Raf Simons, who met Meirens during his time at Jil Sander and regularly stayed at her house in Puglia, comments: "She's an extremely powerful personality, a self-made woman". On what Meirens brought to the business, Simons says, "The things that were coming out of Martin at the time were quite extreme. To connect the idea of that with, 'O.K., let's start a company,' makes Jenny quite a pioneer. ... I think she was really sticking her neck out, taking responsibility, taking care of things that normally other people would take care of, so Martin could be totally free."

10. Maison Margiela didn't use envelopes, they sewed up post instead
Communications head Patrick Scallon reveals that the Maison did not use envelopes to send post, sewing up their mail in white cotton pouches instead. "One day in the office I said to Martin that we had to send a thank-you gift," Scallon adds, "Martin went into the bin, took out a white plastic grocery bag and knotted it into an angel".

Read: On the last night of haute shows in Paris this season, Maison Margiela took the filter off couture.


Text Charlotte Gush

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