​explore martin margiela’s time at the helm of hermès

Misunderstood at the time by press, Margiela’s work for Hermès is cast in a new light in a compact but insightful new exhibition at MoMu in Antwerp.

by Charlotte Gush
03 April 2017, 2:20pm

Maison Martin Margiela fall/winter 2000-2001, Photo: Marina Faust

Considered an honorary member of the Antwerp Six (he graduated the year before Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Walter van Beirendonck et al.), Martin Margiela spent the 80s and 90s establishing his reputation for avant-garde, deconstructed garments with inside-out tailoring and distressed fabrics. So, when he took the helm at Hermès in 1997, the press were expecting something very specific. "They thought he was going to deconstruct the Hermès icons; they hoped he was going to cut the Birkin in two!" laughs Karen Van Godtsenhoven, one of the curators of Margiela: The Hermès Years, which opened last week at ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp. When he instead presented elegant, fluid garments in a neutral palette of beige, camel, and taupe for his first Hermès collection (fall/winter 98), those wild expectations were left spectacularly unfulfilled.

Hermès fall/winter 2001-2002. Collarless jacket and pants in cashmere and silk, high-neck pullover in cashmere and silk, scarf "Losange" in silk crêpe, Le Monde d'Hermès, Photo: Ralph Mecke

Hermès, too, had taken a risk. On joining, Martin Margiela told them he would not be making printed scarves - the brand's most recognizable icon, alongside the handbags, at time when its prêt-a-porter offering was limited. It seems impossible now, considering the juggernaut that is Hermès, and Martin Margiela's legacy as one of the most influential design talents of all time, but Van Godtsenhoven relays that both the Maison and the man will tell you now that the work just wasn't appreciated at the time.

Margiela's work for Hermès was seen as the polar-opposite of his work at Maison Martin Margiela, but by displaying garments from the two archives side-by-side - brilliantly, with MMM garments against white walls, Hermès against orange - the MoMu exhibition seeks to explore the often hidden but frequent continuity. "The more research you do, the more you see that it's really one vision, of one person, with different executions," Van Godtsenhoven says. "At Margiela, he made [a point of] showing the artisanal work - the use of lining fabrics, the darts - the tricks of the trade are made visible. At Hermès, he had all the ateliers, the craftsmanship was extreme, and the tricks of the trade are used to make it invisible, so it's more like Japanese styles - very minimal lines," she explains, concluding, "The same master, the same elements, but just used in different ways."

Maison Martin Margiela spring/summer 1996, Photo: Marina Faust

The exhibition opens with a soundscape: the 1995 work Les Compliments by Marie-Hélène Vincent-Choukroun. For 14 minutes and 25 seconds, a man's voice gives compliments in French: "Tu es assurée. Tu es belle..." (You are assured. You are beautiful). MoMu director Kaat Debo explains that the research for the exhibition made plain Martin Margiela's "deep respect for women." Former models told her the designer asked them many questions about how garments worked for them. "He noticed, for example, that women don't button their jackets, they hold them," she says, noting that they were often designed with slits under the sleeves, so they could be worn alternately as capes. Similarly, 'Vareuse' tops have a deep-V so they can be shrugged off the shoulders and tied around the waist, avoiding the messed-up hair created by pulling sweaters up over the head.

Hermès fall/winter 1998-1999 Vareuse in double-faced cashmere, sleeveless high-neck pullover in cashmere, mid-length skirt in Shetland wool and boots in calfskin. 'Le vêtement comme manière de vivre,' Le Monde d'Hermès. Photo: John Midgley

By positioning incredibly chic full looks from Margiela's Hermès alongside MMM icons - Tabi boots, oversized wrap-front jeans, and a holey punk sweater knitted by Martin's mum - and using videos, archive catwalk footage, and press cuttings and casting boards to demonstrate the many ways the garments can be worn, the MoMu exhibition reveals the genius in Margiela's design details. It makes a convincing argument for the reappraisal of his work at Hermès, too.

"Margiela: The Hermès Years" is at MoMu Antwerp, March 31 to August 27, 2017.

Maison Martin Margiela fall/winter 1996-1997, Photo: Anders Erdström; Hermès. Photo: Studio des Fleurs

Maison Martin Margiela spring/summer 2009, Photo: Marina Faust

Maison Martin Margiela spring/summer 2009, Photo: Giovanni Giannoni; Hermès spring/summer 1999, Photo: Studio des Fleurs

Maison Martin Margiela fall/winter 1991-1992, Photo: Marina Faust; Hermès fall/winter 2002-2003 'Les Gestuelles,' Photo: Marina Faust


Text Charlotte Gush
Images courtesy MoMu Fashion Museum Antwerp

Maison Martin Margiela
Martin Margiela
modemuseum antwerp