Margiela’s Moment

Margiela’s Moment

A thorough retrospective shines new light on the brilliant, reclusive designer.

A thorough retrospective shines new light on the brilliant, reclusive designer.

Text: Alice Cavanagh

Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela is a rarity in the fickle world of fashion: his work is still revered for what it represented in his time, and yet, it remains strikingly relevant today. An iconoclast who came to define intelligent, avant-garde fashion for two decades, Margiela bowed out of the industry nearly 10 years ago. Now, his legacy remains more potent than ever. This is evident both on the streets—references to his oeuvre can be traced in countless contemporary brands, from Vetements to Céline—and of late, in the somewhat more sacred setting of fashion museums.

Following last year’s enlightening exhibition “Margiela: The Hermès Years,” at the ModeMuseum in Antwerp, this March will see another Margiela retrospective at the Palais Galliera in Paris. Focused on his eponymous line, it will be the first Margiela retrospective to ever take place in the fashion capital. The museum’s former director Olivier Saillard initiated the project with Margiela himself, who is the exhibit’s artistic director, and together, they pulled more than 100 looks to feature from the museum’s considerable archives. All of Margiela’s greatest hits will be on show, including the tattoo T-shirt from his first-ever collection, and that famous coat constructed with blond wigs from his final 2009 collection. Fun fact: the iconic split-toe Tabi boots have been there since day one.

While his work is the star of the exhibit, the retired designer, who turns 61 this year, will no doubt maintain his distance. He remains as mysterious today as he did throughout his 20-plus-year career. To most, he is faceless—he chose white lab coats as a uniform for his team, to democratize the design process—and certainly voiceless, as he only ever answered interviews via fax.

Margiela emerged at a time when fashion was at its most decadent (hello, 1980s). His grungy collections boasted big ideas that challenged the status quo, as did his off-beat fashion shows, which were held everywhere from inside circus tents to empty schoolyards in the outer suburbs of Paris. If you speak to any industry insiders about these early days, their eyes will mist over with a kind of nostalgia for better times, when things were looser and braver, and anything was possible.

In this sense, the exhibition was also born from a desire to question the current fashion system, which most would concede is in disarray. “By staying outside the fashion system, Margiela found a way to stay true to himself. More than anyone, he dared to get to the bottom of his ideas,” says curator Alexandre Samson, who worked with Saillard on the exhibit before taking over. “Nowadays, while fashion may suffer from both cognitive overload and related amnesia, the exhibition is a chance to make things clear and to prove to the next generation of designers that another system is possible."

Margiela / Galliera 1989-2009 is now open through July 15, 2018 at Palais Galliera in Paris. 

TOP MADE OF UPSIDE-DOWN WIGS, FALL/WINTER 2005-2006
Credits: Photography: © Julien Vidal / Galliera / Roger-Viollet; © Julien Vidal / Galliera / Roger-Viollet; © Stéphane Piera / Galliera / Roger-Viollet; © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet; © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet

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