20 things you need to know about martin margiela

To celebrate a new documentary about the most mysterious fashion designer ever, here’s the lowdown on the Belgian genius fanboyed by everyone from Kanye West to Raf Simons.

by James Anderson
07 November 2019, 6:00am

Rumours have circulated over the past few years of a feature length documentary being made about and actually featuring the fantastically-aloof Martin Margiela. The Belgian designer memorably retired from fashion by quitting his own company, Maison Martin Margiela, at the peak of his success in 2009. Now completed, Martin Margiela: In His Own Words will be screened at the Doc NYC film festival in early November. Directed by Reiner Holzemer, who previously made the 2017 documentary Dries, the film sees Martin Margiela for the first time ever discussing some of the 41 ground-breaking collections created during his time at the Maison, as well as revealing his private drawings, notes and other behind-the-scenes gems.

Although Maison Margiela continues to go from strength to strength since Martin’s departure, there's still a hunger among fashion fans for morsels of info about its founder. Throughout the twenty years from when he launched his eponymous and hugely influential label in the late-80s, right up until his departure (and even since then), Martin has succeeded in being artfully-anonymous, inscrutable and apparently invisible to those beyond his inner circle.

Those of us unable to casually nip to New York to catch the debut screening of Martin Margiela: In His Own Words will have to hope it soon appears on Netflix. In the meantime, i-D brings you a round-up of what we do already know about our favourite Fashion Mystery Man.

1. Martin Margiela was born in 1957, in the Belgian city of Genk. After completing a Foundation art course, he went on to study fashion at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, between 1977 and 1980. The same famed institution has also spawned fashion design innovators such as Dries Van Noten, Raf Simons, Walter Van Beirendonck, Bernhard Willhelm and Ann Demeulemeester, among others.

2. Martin Margiela got his first taste of fashion when he was a kid and saw a TV show featuring the massively-influential-in-the-1960s designers Andre Courreges and Paco Rabanne. In probably his only ever documented interview, from his post-graduation years in the early-80s and long before he was famous, he recalled this telly-based epiphany to Sphere magazine: “As soon as I saw their designs I thought, ‘How wonderful, people are doing the sort of thing I want to do.'

3. Martin Margiela loved rummaging about at flea markets when he was a teenager and was good at putting second-hand clothes together to create a cheap-but-stylish look. This love of old, pre-worn clothes would later resurface in his work when he was a fully-fledged designer.

4. Martin Margiela would chat endlessly about clothes and style during his teens with his similarly fashion-obsessed bezzy mate, Inge Grognard. Inge would years later become the make-up artist for all of his shows.

5. Martin Margiela was never fixated on the traditional notions of beauty - even from a young age he adored women with big noses, for example. And he consistently championed diverse and unconventional-looking individuals to be models at his shows.

6. Martin Margiela bagged a job as a design assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris, in 1985, remaining there until 1987. Then, he set up Maison Martin Margiela, in 1988, with the help of his mate and business partner Jenny Meirens.

7. Martin Margiela never indulged the media with any face-to-face or telephone interviews. He and his team preferred to respond as a collective to journalists’ questions (‘We’ rather than ‘I’). Their answers were typed up and sent via the trusty MMM fax machine, and later email.

8. Martin Margiela was the subject of many-a-bizarre rumour during his design reign, all of which were prompted by his anonymity. Some fashion biz insiders claimed to have met him and reported he looked just like Jesus. Others were convinced that Margiela’s genial in-house PR, named Patrick, was actually Martin himself. More extreme theories included a belief – expressed at the time by Vogue – that he was in fact a woman. The daftest rumour was that he didn’t really exist at all!

9. Martin Margiela avoided using fancy venues and obvious locations for the Maison’s shows and presentations (a stance subsequently adopted by various other designers). Instead, the fashion pack would have to nervously trek to decidedly unglamorous areas of Paris to check out the latest MMM collections in venues including a kids’ playground, a semi-derelict warehouse, a disused tube train, the staircase of a dropping-to-bits house and even a double decker bus, packed full of models and ‘accessorised’ by a Belgian brass band, which performed the soundtrack.

10. Martin Margiela, although busy with his own label, also took on the role of Creative Director of womenswear at revered French house Hermès in 1998. This meeting of minds ultimately proved to be a very successful hook-up, despite initial doubts by certain snooty fashion critics and ageing Hermès customers, who thought Martin’s own work was way too weird.

11. Martin Margiela has been a major source of inspiration to lots of other well-known designers. Marc Jacobs once enthused to Women’s Wear Daily, “Anybody who's aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced by Margiela." Nicholas Ghesquiere, the Creative Director at Louis Vuitton, is also a major appreciator of Mr M. And the late Alexander McQueen once raved about him during an interview with The Independent: "Of course I like Martin Margiela. I'm wearing him now. His clothes are special because of the attention to detail. He thinks about everything, the cuff of a jacket, the construction of an armhole, the height of a shoulder.”

12. Martin Margiela was so inspiring to a young Raf Simons that he switched his career aspirations from being a furniture designer to pursuing fashion design, instead. This abrupt about-turn happened after Simons saw Margiela’s slightly haphazard but hugely influential Spring-Summer 1990 show, staged in a children’s playground on the outskirts of Paris. Raf later recalled this event: “Three girls came out. It was a split second – I knew I wanted to do fashion.” Simons subsequently paid tribute to Margiela’s Autumn-Winter 1997 collection by referencing aspects of it within his own Autumn/Winter 2016 men’s collection.

13. Martin Margiela was clearly also a big influence upon Demna Gvasalia. Gvasalia used to work on the design team at Maison Martin Margiela back in the day, and prior to that studied fashion at the same college as Martin. Similar to Maison Martin Margiela, Vetements routinely utilised gritty, offbeat places to show their new collections in Paris, modelled by an array of non-typical models and quirky characters. And Vetements’ A/W 18 collection explicitly paid tribute to the work of Martin the Maestro, featuring jackets worn inside-out, deliberately creased clothes and even cloven-toed boots that were an obvious nod to the iconic Margiela ‘Tabi’ design.

14. Martin Margiela also ranks Kanye West among his famous fans. The rapper/designer namechecked Margiela in his 2011 track Ni**as in Paris and, a few years later, the Maison created stage-wear and masks for his 2013 Yeezus tour. In 2016 Kanye suddenly filled his Instagram with 99 archive images from Maison Martin Margiela. He also made no secret of channelling inspiration from Martin’s back catalogue (as well as other influential designers’ work) in his own Yeezy collections, telling Style.com: “You see Raf Simons right there, you see Helmut, you see Margiela… you see Katharine Hamnett. It’s blatantly right there.”

15. Martin Margiela was rumoured to have often sat in the audience at his own shows – partially disguised by wearing a humdrum baseball cap and a not-very-exciting beige jumper!

16. Martin Margiela was one of the first designers to adopt a sustainable approach to fashion design, re-using and modifying existing garments into new creations. He and his team produced amazing hand-sewn Artisanal collections, which were made from things like old, discarded gloves or ties. He is also credited with pioneering ‘deconstructed’ fashion, by leaving exposed hems and raw stitched seams clearly visible in some of his clothing, to celebrate imperfection and grunge-y glam.

17. Martin Margiela also liked using cheap and sometimes-jokey materials within the designs created at Maison Martin Margiela, whether it was coats made from wigs or scarves constructed out of Christmas tinsel.

18. Martin Margiela was good at turning trash-into-treasure in other ways, too. One of his team once reminded him that he needed to send a thank you gift to a top fashion editor. He promptly fished out an old plastic carrier bag from the bin and deftly fashioned it into the shape of an angel… perfect pressie?

19. Martin Margiela is not a fan of social media and has cited its increasingly popularity as one of the factors in him deciding to quit fashion. Having been honoured for his ‘entire career’ at the 2018 Belgian Fashion Awards, he issued a statement which explained his retirement a decade previously: “I felt that I could not cope any more with the worldwide increasing pressure and the overgrowing demands of trade. I also regretted the overdose of information carried by social media, destroying the ‘thrill of wait’ and cancelling every effect of surprise, so fundamental for me.”

20. Martin Margiela is rumoured to have spent much of the time since his retirement from fashion enjoying holidays in far-flung locations such as Brazil and keeping himself busy by creating collages and other artworks.

    Martin Margiela: In His Own Words debuts at the Doc NYC film festival on 8 November. More information www.docnyc.net

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martin margiela in his own words