It’s a hard world for poets: Martin Margiela.
Essay for Nasty Magazine.
If the presence or the absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole. Not everything that enters our orbit makes an impression on us, there are only some things we notice and register and this happens only after we had some feelings attached to them. And there are surely certain feelings set apart for Martin Margiela, the fashion-literate gentleman who demands a good sense of depth and intellect from his public. For him fashion was a verb, not a noun, a critical element that attested something about the individual, something that contributed in expressing actions and states of being. He counted the brain as part of the human figure and was light-years ahead of his time because of that.
Martin Margiela graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts being often described as the seventh member of the Antwerp Six. Besides founding the Maison that carries his name (owned by Renzo Rosso’s OTB since 2002) he was previously an assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier and Creative Director at Hermès. But Martin Margiela was and still is a phantom. Mr. Invisible did not ever come out to bow at the end of his shows, did not grant face to face interviews and did not allow to have his picture taken. Instead, he organized fashion shows in unconventional places like museums, metro stations or abandoned supermarkets and cast his models from the streets – long before Hedi Slimane did. Margiela has challenged the industry’s habits and gave new moral directions. His fashion utopia was formed by an archeology of references and historical elements recycled and ensembles to generate a completely new set of meanings. He was the a conceptual spirit who’s fashion was anti-fashion, who’s stores were anti-stores, and his plain white label an expression of anti-marketing. All in all, his carefully crafted garments were the most important aspect, the driving force of his whole mindset.
He was not aiming to dismantle the structure of the fashion system for the sake of it but rather to demonstrate that it is only thin air, that has already dismantled itself. And maybe this is why he is often referred to as “deconstructionist” even though he does not officially attest or adhere to or a formal alliance of this sort, furthermore he denies it. Jacques Derrida examines the structure of the Western thoughts in terms of binary oppositions, that are not true opposites in themselves as our way of thinking appreciates the ‘inherent’ superiority of one of the terms over the other. In a somewhat similar way, the brand Maison Martin Margiela, was thought to paradoxically exist independently of the affinity with the individual/group designing it, more as a reaction towards the garments and the strong philosophy behind them. He seems to have had a different perspective on fashion, opting for a low profile approach and a ‘meta-fashion’ aesthetic, in which the garments were supposed to speak for themselves. Hiding the models’ faces (be it Kate Moss, or other famous supermodels of the 90’s) -with hair, stockings, skin colored fabrics or masks- as a rejection of the celebrity culture of the time, was a distinctive element of the brand’s “anonymous” identity.
It was only in the late 19th century that masks started to be taken out of their ceremonial and ritualistic contexts and used as cultural artifacts or art objects. Their expressive powers and symbolism may vary a lot, should therefore be interpreted having their actual context and setting in mind.
In early forms of theatre and performance, the masks were considered to have spiritual powers, acting as an instrument of revelation that gave space for manifesting the sacred into the profane. One could bring a timeless past into the present by stepping out of the normal being (Exstase) towards a state of divinity (Enthoustase). When wearing both the costume and the mask, the performer was leaving aside his previous identity, turning into the interpreted character. The face is one of the most important parts of a human being, and, as it has been said, the eyes are a gate towards the human soul – therefore, by hiding them, as Margiela did, he was trying to make a statement with a lot of symbolic depth left for us to decode.
It was almost an iconoclastic approach to fashion as he was deliberately covering the model’s faces in the same way Orthodox believers used to erase the saints’ faces from the religious icons, as an attack on the established convictions or institutions. And Margiela did reject the constructed meanings in this sense, using the human face as a carta bianca, a tabula rasa on which he could recreate and give a new set of meanings to reflect upon. A mask can narrate a different story than a face does; there is a sense of power and mystery and an introspective value for both the wearer and his audience. On one hand, it is difficult for the public to integrate it in a specific context but it also gives them the imaginary experience of recreating a new identity, as models are on equal level of anonymity behind their masks: strong and mysterious due to their undisclosed traits, yet vulnerable to be consumed by the observer without being able to give a look back at the camera, at the photographer, at the public.
By this practice, Margiela seems to invite us to see ourselves from all the possible perspectives, to have a wider yet closer examination of the things that we normally take for granted and to analyze the strangeness that lies at the foundation of our normality. His aesthetic is based on a congruent relationship between surface and depth, raising a whole cult of invisibility through an “absence equals presence” type of approach. For him, style and substance are cohesive elements, you cannot separate one from the other, as the surface of things gives us enjoyment, yet the interior is the one that gives life. Margiela was coagulating these visionary ideas at a time when the idea of the invisible icon did not exist. Like many things in life, designing fashion is not for everyone, it should be for a restricted circle of literate people that know how to stretch our minds to new ideas and make us live them so deeply.
‘Our fashion was probably intellectual sometimes and we hope it was always intelligent. When one designs clothes, one is automatically a fashion designer, but sometimes this can or should simply be called clothing designer. Our benchmarks are more the evolution of our own creative expressions.”
photography / Marc Borthwick
words / Anca Macavei