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WWD Collections issue 04/13/2015

There’s definitely something about Martin.

Although fashion’s invisible man, Martin Margiela, made his final disappearing act back in 2009, the Belgian fashion maverick’s influence lives on, perpetuated by scores of alumni from the Paris-based house now scattered across the industry.

This story first appeared in the April 13, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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Several of these made a splash during the fall shows in Paris, with Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski making her debut as women’s ready-to-wear designer at Hermès, Sébastien Meunier steering the Ann Demeulemeester brand in a more sultry direction, and Demna Gvasalia bringing a jolt of underground fashion thrills with his Vetements show, staged in a notorious gay sex club.

“Probably the best education that these brilliant designers retain is to not think of fashion, but to think beyond that. There is something philosophical and sociological about what these talented Margiela graduates have to offer,” muses Paris-based headhunter Agnès Barret, who in 2006 founded her firm, Agent Secret, after working beside Margiela as his collection director, ultimately recruiting design directors for each of the lines demarcated by number on ghostly labels with their telltale white stitches.

“Martin was like an artist who provided the outline sketch and asked everyone to contribute their vision to make it a masterpiece—something which is undoubtedly a very rare quality among designers of his level,” Barret recalls. “He was a guide, very inspiring, very charismatic and clear. The designers were in harmony with him straight away, and very naturally.”

Paul Helbers, perhaps best known for his five-year stint as men’s designer at Louis Vuitton under then-artistic director Marc Jacobs, said his years at Margiela left a lasting imprint.

“For me it was a great school, very strict, serious in its approach—knowing that you won’t be designing a lot of things and then editing, but instead really thinking before you draw something,” he says.

Margiela dispensed with seasonal themes and inspirations, preferring his deputies to use clothes as the starting point—reworking them and adding a conceptual layer.

“You focus a lot on the clothes and how it’s made, and even the question, ‘Would I wear this?’” Helbers explains. “This commitment to strong research and creativity combined with a healthy dose of reality is a good springboard.”

Helbers recalls that Margiela’s heydays were in the pre-Insta era, when his shows were staged in subway stations or rundown buildings. “It was a time when things were more mystical. That contributed a lot to the force,” he says.

Currently creative director of the Milan-based leisure brand Callens, Helbers is preparing to launch a signature collection in early 2017, starting with men’s wear and accessories with an “industrialized artisanal approach.”

Meunier, who had been in charge of Margiela’s line 6 and men’s wear following Helber’s departure, described the house, located in a former school, as “very studious, very quiet and concentrated.

“Everything was about work, garment concepts and how to enjoy it,” he enthuses. “Classic garments were the basis of everything. They were a good support to give credibility to all the concepts we were working on. Our goal was to transform them in an unexpected way, and to change radically the perception of them.”

In Meunier’s view, “the way [Margiela] reversed many codes in such a personal way, no one can forget it.”

John Galliano is now creative director of Maison Margiela, and only a few employees, mainly in sales, remain from the founder’s time. “Everyone has grown and taken off on generally very successful paths,” says Barret, citing as an example David Tourniaire, now artistic director of footwear at Salvatore Ferragamo.

Meunier also points to Gregory Brooks, now in women’s rtw at Louis Vuitton; Filippo Grazioli, a women’s wear designer at Hermès under Vanhee-Cybulski; and Ingrid Guttormsen, a men’s wear designer at Alexander Wang.

Although he worked at Maison Margiela in the post-Martin period, Barret calls Gvasalia the founder’s “spiritual son,” offering a vision that “goes beyond the notion of fashion.”

Interviewed at his modest headquarters in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, appointed with a beat-up sofa and many white tables, Gvasalia says the focus on individual garments was drilled into him at Margiela, and is something he carries over into Vetements, one of eight finalists for the LVMH Prize. “We had to open up the garments and play with them to achieve the new result,” he explains, a tactic he now applies to hoodies, bomber jackets and military clothes, items that today’s generation can relate to.

“It’s also a certain idea of rebellion that today feels also relevant, and needed,” he says, lamenting that fashion has recently become “predictable, almost.”

Linda Loppa, dean of Polimoda in Florence known for her stint teaching at Antwerp’s famous Royal Academy, notes Margiela’s deconstruction of garments was a “wake-up call for a system in the Eighties that was becoming too frivolous or theatrical. The wake-up call Vetements is creating could be understood as, ‘Let’s go underground again!’ They did this with their latest show, and that’s the part I liked and appreciated.”

In Loppa’s view, being true to the Margiela legacy means “positioning as an outsider brand respecting all the rules of the fashion system….This is a typical Antwerp phenomenon,” she says, citing Dries Van Noten as an example. “Designers should learn this from a label such as Maison Margiela.”