Byline: Robert Murphy

PARIS — If fashion had a secret agent man, he could be Martin Margiela.
The enigmatic Belgian designer is recognizable to few, refuses to be photographed, never grants face-to-face interviews and has met the public on only a handful of occasions.
He leads a phantom-like existence in an age of celebrity designers. He’s also a study in contradictions — respected as an iconoclast, yet also responsible for the luxurious bourgeois designs of the Hermes women’s ready-to-wear. Collections for his own house, most recently featuring wildly oversize silhouettes, are often labeled as difficult sells, yet retailers say they move consistently well.
The designer’s ways may be mysterious and idiosyncratic, but Jenny Meirens, president of the Maison Martin Margiela, does not consider the house odd.
“I think we function very normally,” she said in her first interview about the business she has headed since its founding in 1988. “We have been growing the business for a long time, carving out our territory in the market and now we are moving forward.”
Meirens said the house has shifted into a new mode of growth. Over the last three years, revenues have more than tripled to more than $17 million, she said, largely spurred by the introduction of men’s wear and the expansion into less expensive sportswear.
Last fall, the house opened its first freestanding boutique in Tokyo. Fitting Margiela’s aesthetic, the 945-square-foot shop has a conceptual bent. Built in 1945, the building was once a house and has been painted entirely white. Shoes are displayed in the kitchen and a closet has become a fitting room.
Transforming Margiela’s avant-garde ideas into a multimillion-dollar enterprise has been a slow process, according to Meirens, who, prior to joining the house, owned a designer shop, Crea, in Brussels.
“When I joined the house, I wanted to be where we are today after five years,” she said. “Certainly, it took a bit longer than initially planned, but there were several unexpected roadblocks.”
These included the cancellation of Margiela’s first and second collection due to the sudden bankruptcy of the factory producing the clothes. That scenario was repeated in 1993, when another factory working with the house also went out of business.
“Considering the circumstances, it’s amazing that we survived,” said Meirens.
But Meirens said she has never been in a rush to strike gold. Rather, she’s known all along that building the Margiela brand would require time.
“Our product is difficult, which means it takes time to build up a client base,” she said. “And having a retail background, I realized that we had to build the brand and be patient. I knew that distribution was part of image and constructing the right kind of distribution takes time.”
Meirens said the next step is to open a network of stores.
“There aren’t many other avenues of growth to follow now,” she said. “At retail, we are already in most of the doors we want to be in, so that avenue of development is limited. We have realized that own-label shops will be necessary for further growth.”
Margiela products are sold in 250 doors worldwide, including Barneys New York, Maxfield, Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel in the U.S. and Maria Luisa and L’Eclaireur in Paris. Meirens said the firm’s priority will be a Paris flagship, although a time frame for the opening has yet to be determined. London, New York and Berlin are also target cities, she said.
“We didn’t have much when we started,” said Meirens. “Our house is wholly owned by myself and Martin. Only two years ago did we feel we had reached a point where we could extend ourselves into new realms. Prior to that, we were slaving away just to maintain the status quo.”
Underscoring the extent of the house’s growth, just a few years ago Margiela operated with only seven full-time employees. Today, more than 50 people work in house. To accommodate the extra staff, Margiela decamped from a gritty warehouse in the 18th arrondissement to a more spacious 18th-century mansion with gilded paneling and parquet floors. Last year, the house also appointed a general manager, Didier Bolze, to oversee production and commercial matters.
The roots of Margiela’s current growth spurt can be traced to 1998. That year the house devised a numbering system, from zero to 23, to identify Margiela’s current and future product lines. At present, for example, zero demarcates “artisanal” or handmade clothes, 10 stands for men’s wear, 1 for the top women’s collection, 6 for less-expensive women’s garments and 22 for women’s shoes.
“We came up with the number system as a way to diversify the collection without putting any pejorative title on any one product line,” said Meirens. “It gives us a lot of flexibility for development and actually was the first conscious move to push the company into new territory.”
Armand Hadida, owner and buyer of Paris’s L’Eclaireur, said, “The addition of the 6 line was very important. It filled a gap in the designer market because it was very interesting from a design standpoint, but also more reasonably priced.”
Hadida said the men’s line has also been a “phenomenal success.”
“I don’t think the people at Margiela even thought it could be this successful,” Hadida said. “I mean, as soon as it hits the shelves it has been sold.”
Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manger at Barneys New York, said Margiela’s collection has been a “consistent” performer for many years.
“He has really great items and pants that fit well,” she said.
But Collinson noted that few women gravitate to Margiela’s label-less, conceptual designs on impulse. Rather, there’s a cult following of customers who relate to his experiments with proportion and ideas about clothing.
“It definitely has a customer who’s interested in him as a designer,” she said. “It’s more about ‘I’m buying this pair of pants because they intrigue me.”‘
Hadida calls Margiela a “designer’s designer.”
“In this age of marketing, in which image has become more important than design for a lot of houses, someone like Margiela is rare,” Hadida said. “His designs are pure, they are a representation of his sensibility and aesthetic. They are personal.”
“I’ve been the business person from the start,” said Meirens. “Martin is not someone who can take care of those matters. He is really a creative person and now his time is split, almost equally, between his own house and Hermes.”
Margiela was hired by the Paris house in 1997 to design its women’s rtw. Unlike his own collections, which experiment with proportion and often have a vintage feel, his work for Hermes has been defined by its constraint and emphasis on luxury of the quietest kind.
Jean-Louis Dumas, chairman of Hermes, said Margiela has upheld the house’s tradition of innovation.
“It has been a joy for me to see how deeply he has understood our identity since the first collection,” he said. “He has researched a harmonious balance between the tradition for quality that is the Hermes reality and a view on the future with modernity, sensitivity and the needs of the Hermes customer foremost on his mind. With him, we propose clothing that we believe in, not only for us as the designer and producer but, more importantly, for the wearer, the Hermes customer, who can play with the garments and make them her own.”
Hermes reported this week that sales for 2000 leapt 25 percent to $1.1 billion, based on current exchange rates from the euro. Women’s rtw, designed by Margiela, increased 35 percent for the year.
Meirens acknowledged that Margiela’s association with Hermes has heightened his media profile and image.
“A lot of people who had put us on the fringes of fashion realized that there was more depth to the house than maybe they had initially thought,” she said. “There was an Hermes effect, but it hasn’t changed Martin’s outlook or aesthetic for his own line.”
Meirens deflected questions about Margiela, preferring to talk about the designer’s aesthetic rather than the man.
“A designer like Martin can only design what he likes,” she said. “There has never been talk about marketing, but rather atmosphere. He does aspire to design for very different women of very different age groups. He wants to speak to intelligent women who can appreciate the emotion he puts into his clothes.”
Pressed to explain Margiela’s decision to remain so intensely private, Meirens said: “Certainly, there is a price to pay as a company for Martin remaining unseen. He is totally aware of this. Maybe that is the reason our development has been so slow. It has closed a lot of doors because the fashion industry is based on personal relationships.”
But there is also a positive side, said Meirens.
“By not spending time on the press, it also creates a creates a certain respect for the product,” she said. “It says that you are serious about what you do.”
Asked if Margiela would ever consider disavowing his life of secrecy, Meirens said: “For Martin, I think it was foremost a personal decision, not a professional one.” She suggested that Margiela is highly uncomfortable talking about himself, as well as being intensely shy.
“In the end, Martin thinks it’s the clothes that matter,” she said. “But if the time, place and person were ever right, I think Martin would consider doing an interview.”
Of course, that time has yet to come. Margiela declined to be interviewed for this article.

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