Martin Margiela is back and talking. Thirty years after he first mystified and enthralled fashion with his nonconformist brilliance, and 11 years after he walked away from the industry following his 20th anniversary runway show, the designer is the subject of Reiner Holzemer’s documentary film “Martin Margiela: In His Own Words,” which premieres tonight at the DOC NYC Film Festival. The director’s previous works include films on William Eggleston, Juergen Teller and, most recently, the 2017 “Dries” (as in Van Noten).
Margiela is widely considered one of modern fashion’s most important designers, his influence continuing today in all sorts of arenas — deconstruction, streetwear, repurposed vintage, down-off-the-pedestal haute couture, alternative show venues. Anyone with a casual interest in the edgier aspects of fashion’s recent past should find plenty of interest in the documentary; serious fashion-history obsessives will be all aflutter to hear firsthand the designer’s perspective on his career. Margiela’s conversation volleys between esoteric musings and pragmatic dissection of craft and problem-solving; from the start, he distinguished himself as both renegade creator and skilled artisan. He was also a designer who for two decades navigated the uneasy terrain of a challenging industry, and he offers a brief, stinging assessment of why he ultimately rejected it.
Margiela famously did not speak to the press. Ever. Nor did he want to be seen, or create an outside fashion “persona.” He avoided cameras and never took bows at his shows. He was literally the mystery man behind the curtain, a prolific creator who spoke through his creative output. Frustrating as heck to a journalist covering his work, yet one couldn’t help but respect him (if grudgingly) for the constancy of his position. He never wavered.
Until now — though his cooperation with Holzemer carried a caveat. While Margiela speaks in the film, he never appears in it, at least not full-frontal-facial; his conversation is in voiceover, with ample footage of his hands at work at creative tasks — suspending a Champagne cork from a ribbon for a pendant necklace; detailing shoes with chalk outlines. That he would not face the camera was a condition on which the designer and the director agreed, a “compromise” Holzemer calls it.
Working on “Dries” awakened Holzemer to the power of fashion, and he started to consider other potential subjects. At the same time, in 2017, he happened upon the Margiela Hermès exhibition in Antwerp, Belgium, his interest piqued by the timelessness of the clothes. He then became aware that the Palais Galliera in Paris was planning a Margiela exhibit curated by Alexandre Samson under the watch of then-director Olivier Saillard and with Margiela’s direct involvement. Holzemer set out through multiple contacts to get in touch with the designer, who ultimately said yes to a documentary.
“His idea was most simply to have the exhibition recorded — that was his wish,” Holzemer said in a conversation this week. “But my idea was, once we are in touch with him, once we worked with him, I think I could ask for more — if he likes us, if we are sympathetic to him. And step by step, very slowly, I convinced him for a kind of portrait. And then we started shooting and didn’t stop, more or less, until it was finished.”
Margiela’s first words in the film explain the self-imposed anonymity: “I don’t like the idea of being a celebrity. Anonymity’s very important to me, and it balances me that I am like everybody else. I always wanted to have my name linked to the product created, not to the face I have.”
The film offers an intriguing portrait of a man who, over the course of a 20-year career, managed to stay an enigma to almost the entire industry. But what’s likely to get the most attention are his opinions about the fashion system — Margiela’s not a fan — and about a major personality in the industry today, Renzo Rosso, whose OTB Group bought a controlling stake in the Margiela business in 2002.
Margiela states his discomfort with the fashion system outright. Toward the end of his career, he was feeling refreshed creatively, and ready to branch out in new directions. Yet, he laments, “Even with the new direction — there was a lot of new and fresh energy — there was something very unpleasant going on for quite a while in the fashion system. For me it started when we had to go on the Internet on the same day the show was shown.”
He continues, “I felt a little bit lost. So I felt more and more sad in a certain way, and I felt like, OK, this is the start of a moment where there are different needs in the fashion world and I’m not sure I can feed them.”
Several years prior, he and his friend, cofounder and partner Jenny Meirens had realized that they needed outside funding to grow the company. Rosso, Margiela notes, “made a very convincing business plan, and the decision was taken.” He adds that Meirens had by then become “less and less motivated, because she was having no time anymore for her own creative input,” and left the company. (The film doesn’t dwell on their relationship, but apparently, at the time of her death earlier this year, they hadn’t been in contact for some time.)
Margiela doesn’t criticize Rosso directly. Instead, Holzemer uses the observations of others to establish the tension. Cathy Horyn, the only journalist interviewed for the documentary, notes that, despite all good intentions often investment situations prove fraught, “and then you think, ‘this is a bad match. This is not going to work out.’”
Nina Nitsche, Margiela’s first assistant, who would assume the role of creative director until John Galliano’s arrival, spells it out. “It all started when Renzo bought the fashion house and we started working with, it was called brand management, a marketing department, which had some collection plans that needed to be analyzed, needed to be filled out, etc.” she says. “A whole new vocabulary was introduced. This included things like sexy, chic, modern, etc. For us, we would say, ‘Margiela women are intriguing.’ Instead of sexy, we’d say ‘mysterious.’ They’re more covered up, but perhaps more sexy, in a broader sense of the word.”
The change weighed heavily on Margiela. “At the end, I became in a certain way an artistic director in my own company. And that bothered me,” he recalls ruefully. “Because I’m a designer. I’m really a fashion designer. And a fashion designer who creates, and I’m not just a creative director who directs his assistants.”
Margiela’s exit was an odd one, even within the mercurial world of fashion. Nitsche recalls that one day, in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary show, he asked her to lunch, and she knew immediately that he was going to leave. Margiela implies that the rest of the staff had no clue, and that he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to say goodbye. (This even though show notes left on the seats read, “Twenty years, forty shows, hundreds of garments, what’s left?” a detail not in the film.)
“I still regret that I had to leave the night of the last show without telling anybody because the new owner wanted to avoid a huge shock,” Margiela says. “But I never could say goodbye to my team, and that is in a certain way very painful. Because I appreciate a lot of these people. They gave really everything they could, and yeah, it’s not my way of saying goodbye.”
How exactly Margiela left for good without his staff knowing it isn’t explained. “They were not told for more than a year that he left,” Holzemer said, based on information from Margiela and Nitsche that’s not in the film. “They told the staff that he took a sabbatical, he might come back…[Rosso] did not want to create any rumors or negative press.” Asked if he approached Rosso for his side (which we’ll likely hear soon), Holzemer said he did not. “This would be a different story. The exclusivity of having Martin talking about his career, that was the most precious thing.”
At the same time, Holzemer noted that the Margiela-Rosso relationship worked for a while. “You could say Martin could not have worked after 2002 or ’03 until 2009 if he would not have had Renzo as an investor, because they simply would have gone bankrupt because they were never able to make a living out of the company,” he said.
The exit story comes near the end of the 90-minute film, the climax of an arc that starts and ends with that last show and ends with the Galliera exhibit. In between, the film provides an intriguing linear look at the designer’s fashion trajectory through his shows. While Margiela’s own commentary is central, Holzemer also interviewed a number of people in addition to Horyn and Nitsche including, among others, Carine Roitfeld, Carla Sozzani, Lidewij Edelkoort, Pierre Rougier and Sandrine Dumas, the daughter of Jean-Louis Dumas, who signed Margiela for Hermès.
They discuss topics from the cultural climate that led to Margiela’s arrival in fashion to the visual impact of his headquarters in which everything was painted or draped in white. He himself comments on the famous blank label with four stitches that became a fashion-insider badge of honor, and the white coats worn by his entire staff. The were inspired not by clinical lab coats, but by the robes models wore in photos he’d seen of fittings at the major high fashion houses.
There are also glimpses of his childhood. Margiela’s father was a hairdresser, and the young Martin would spend time in the salon where he became fascinated with what happens to the hair that gets swept off the floor. (Cue imagery of Margiela’s hair shirts). Yet he had no interest in following his father’s path. He was determined to be a fashion designer from about the age of seven, when he saw footage of a Courrèges fashion show and was mesmerized. He calls his grandmother, a dressmaker, “the most important person in my life.” We learn that he had Barbie dolls, whose clothes would years later inspire a full collection, and that his mother, Léa Bouchet, with whom he remains close, kept the many projects he worked on when he was young. As a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, he and friends made fake invitations to sneak into a show of their idol at the time, Jean Paul Gaultier, for whom he would later work and who would become a friend. Gaultier appears in the film. He calls Margiela “extraordinarily brave.”
Margiela notes the impact that the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp had on his work, particularly a weekly assignment in costume history for which students had to create a silhouette inspired by a specific historical look, and another that called for students to design a garment from basic kitchen items. He chose tea towels and made a jacket. Later in his career he would translate that concept to create a sweater out of military socks and a waistcoat from broken plates.
Highlighted collections include Margiela’s first, the theme of which was, “a surrealistic eye in the ateliers of couture.” It featured long lengths and a small-ish, highly impactful shoulder pad. “To me, in the silhouette the two most important details are the shoulder and the shoe. Everything else, I fill up,” he says. For spring 1996, he photographed vintage clothes flat and printed the pictures onto his clothes. He went into the following spring intent on doing a collection based on the principles of haute couture. But as he got underway with his “studies,” he found the pieces stuffy-looking, like “old-fashioned haute couture drapery.” His solution: to base the collection on the studies themselves, an essential element of which was the classic Stockman dress form on which couturiers build dresses. That austere, structured form anchored the collection.
Also noted: Margiela’s highly anticipated debut collection for Hermès, a study in classicism that many in the audience thought veered toward dull. (It did.) Horyn recalls sitting next to Amy Spindler, the late New York Times fashion critic, and that they both found its understatement “annoying.” Margiela thought differently, noting that luxury “is the perfect balance between quality and comfort.”
For all his extreme experimentation and dissonance, Margiela was and remains a connoisseur of traditional fashion. He may have twisted, deconstructed and rocked it to its core, but he did so with great respect for its tenets and crafts. When Didier Grumbach invited him to show his Artisanal collection during couture week, he recalls, “it came as a huge recognition…wow.”
In fact, while he always shunned the limelight personally, he appreciates professional recognition, and was particularly moved when the Galliera show attained instant must-see status. “I was immensely pleased,” he says. “Because it’s the biggest recognition you can have. Because in fashion everything goes quick and you are very quickly famous and very quickly forgotten…I was not expecting this, but it’s a very pleasant surprise.”
Today, Margiela sculpts and paints. He loves the solitude, and the fact that there are no mandated seasons; his creative schedule is now his own. He refused Holzemer access to that part of his life. “I said it would be a nice ending for the movie if we could see you doing something with your hands, whatever it is,” the director recalls. “But he is very strict about it and he wants to separate things. Maybe there might be some pieces that might be exhibited somewhere in the near future, but I don’t have any details about that. For the movie he said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to show that.’”
Holzemer came away from the project believing that Margiela is content with his life today. “He is so happy,” he says. “I really think he is an artist. He does painting, sculpture, different art things, and he does it in his own rhythm. That is very important to him.”
Still, the happy artist remains a consummate provocateur. Holzemer’s voice is heard once, at the end of the film, when he asks the designer if he said everything in fashion that he had to say. Margiela’s one-word answer: “No.”