Fashion Mystery

Martin Margiela, Unmasked

A new documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words attempts to coax fashion’s most elusive designer into the spotlight and untangle the man from the mystery

Martin Margiela, Unmasked
A still from the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words.Dogwoof

Notoriously and aggressively private during the two decades he was active, the Belgian fashion designer has never spoken to the media; he has only one, albeit grainy, photograph of himself released to date.

Unlike other fashion designers, he’s also never taken a bow at the end of his presentations. Nothing lured the man out of hiding, until now. In the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, which premiered at the Doc NYC film festival in November and travels to Berlin International FilmFestival in February, Margiela does as the title says.

Even though there isn’t a dramatic reveal of his face and identity, the mysterious man does give a personal recount of his work and sheds light on his life and the legacy of his brand. Even without his face appearing, the film manages to offer an intimate, finely drawn portrait of an artist and his singular sensibilities.

The doc comes from German director Reiner Holzemer, who simply felt it was time he filled in the gaps in our understanding of Margiela’s provocative work. Arguably the envy of every fashion journalist, Holzemer gained unprecedented access to the designer’s archives, including his sketchbooks and 110 of his most notable designs that span over 41 seasons.

Holzemer also got Margiela to talk about his childhood, his processes and his relentless forward-thinking methods. All this provided the film with personal touches for a more intimate reflection of the designer. Over 90 minutes, Margiela finally emerges. And here, we catalogue what we learnt about Margiela from Margiela.

In Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, we see a dress from Spring/Summer 2009 constructed out of plastic bags.
(Image: Dogwoof)

He Was Called To Fashion At Age Seven

It was the simplest of questions Holzemer put to Margiela — “When did you know you wanted to become a fashion designer?” — that yielded a first-rate foundation story. Sometime in the ’60s, a seven-year-old Margiela chanced upon a Courreges fashion show on Belgian TV. Captivated, he asked his mother what he was seeing, to which she replied, “It’s a fashion designer in Paris.”

Through this brush with fashion, he set out to become a fashion designer in Paris. The young Margiela began making his own sketches, sewing clothes for his dolls (including a tiny replica of a Yves Saint Laurent flannel blazer), before enrolling at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp at the age of 21. “To make the decision for his life at seven,” Holzemer tells me, “that’s really surprising.” The rest belongs to history.

His Anonymity Is No Gimmick

Any mystique or enigma that now surrounds Margiela is purely coincidental, but his anonymity was never meant as a marketing tactic. Why so mysterious then? Going incognito, according to him, was simply to put the focus on “the product I create, not the face I have”.

Fair enough, but as Margiela reveals, he is also fiercely media-shy. The overwhelming reviews (both good and bad) following his 1988 debut effectively drove him far and away from the limelight as a form of self-preservation. So averse is Margiela to publicity, Holzemer adds, that he had to make studious effort to avoid the word “interview” when speaking to Margiela. “‘Conversation’ was my word for whatever kind of talk we had together,” he says. His film exercises a similar vein of delicacy.

Sketches from Martin Margiela’s notebook.
(Image: Dogwoof)

It relies not on its star’s mien, but on his steady narration and gestures to tell his story instead, finessing Margiela’s point that identity goes beyond one’s face.

He Makes And Breaks Fashion

Most of what you’ll see of Margiela in Margiela are of the designer’s expressive hands making corset tops out of plastic sheeting and duct tape, or when he fashions sweaters out of military socks.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that even sans human face, these frames emphasise the sheer craft and imagination that go into every Margiela piece. “There’s a certain shyness with him, so it helps when he has something in his hands when he talks,” Holzemer informs.

His creations encapsulate a key tenet he picked up from French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, of working with what you have. “And if you don’t have it,” Margiela adds, “fake it or make it.”

This sets the tone for much of Margiela’s body of work. Vintage gowns, plastic bags and butcher’s aprons have been fodder for his deconstructive whims, producing artisanal wearables that push the limits of material, structure and what we recognise as fashion. It was upcycling before upcycling became a buzzword, and it is clear such fearless ingenuity remains the cornerstone of Margiela’s oeuvre.

“He really goes to the essence of things,” Holzemer says. “He really asks himself, what is a garment? He takes things apart and thinks in a way that has never been done before.”

The designer’s hands working with duct tape.
(Image: Dogwoof)

He’s A Man Out Of Season

Then again, all that innovation hasn’t always translated into immediate appeal. Margiela’s iconoclasm — which includes sourcing materials from second-hand stores, staging fashion shows in unconventional venues such as circus tents and on top of round tables, and meticulously handcrafting one-off pieces — may be awesome to behold, but within the context of a traditional long-term business model, it is hardly deemed accessible for most shoppers.

Holzemer points out: “He gets stuck in the details. We [as filmmakers] gave him the time he needed, but the industry does not. The industry has a timeline and a deadline, so you have to deliver.”

He reckons fashion’s exhausting cycle is what spurred Margiela’s exit from his own brand in 2009, a move that finally afforded the designer a sense of liberation.

“There are no seasons anymore,” he underlines in Margiela, a sentiment Holzemer backs up during this interview.

“There is a lot of ‘no’ with Martin,” says the director. “He needs to digest things.”

While the film has cautiously side-stepped the question of whether Margiela has left fashion behind, it hints that this elusive figure of fashion may one day return.

As the film comes to a close, the director plainly asks his subject if he’s said everything he’s wanted to say in fashion. At that, Margiela sighs, pauses, before delivering his renegade reply: “No.”

This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of A Magazine.