Maison Martin Margiela: the alliteratively named designer steeped in renown for the reconstruction of clothing both literally and symbolically, needs little introduction. His concept-driven oeuvre speaks for itself, and intentionally so, as he was notoriously cloaked with invisibility for much of his career: an antithesis to the vanity of continual reinvention so prevalent in contemporary fashion. Despite Margiela’s long-standing association with intellectually motivated design, his work with Hermès between 1997 and 2003, the iconic luxury brand reputed for its timeless aesthetic and leather-clad sumptuousness, served as evidence of his ability to turn his hand to both the classic and the beautiful. The legacy of the designer’s time at the renowned French house is clearly evidenced today in the remarkable elegance of Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski's Hermès womenswear, but equally in other cult brands with a penchant for the achingly chic, like The Row.
It seems entirely natural then that Antwerp’s fashion museum MoMu has chosen 2017 to highlight Martin Margiela’s Hermès heritage by showcasing the life he injected into 12 collections produced during his slightly unusual (but wholly successful) appointment by Jean-Louis Dumas. His little-known work with the brand is notoriously difficult to access online, belonging to a pre-Instagram era, so the museum’s Director, Kaat Debo, felt it a particularly pressing moment to share the exquisite material found in the archives. “Margiela’s name and legacy seem very relevant today,” she explains. “He’s an inspiration for many designers and brands, often in a very literal way... and so we’d like to share all the great material we found in the archives at Hermès and Maison Martin Margiela.” In honour of this rousing announcement, we take a look back at some of the museum’s retrospectives highlighting the city of Antwerp’s position as a pivotal hub for pioneering design.
Backstage: Selection 1, 2002
MoMu’s maiden exhibition served as a juxtaposition between the past and present, composed of historical and contemporary clothing and fashion objects housed in the museum’s extensive collection. Focusing on the notion of a “repository”, the treasure chamber of every museum, works were not presented in a chronological way – which at that time was perceived as innovative and surprising. The purpose of this was to allow viewers to discover the modernity of some of the historic pieces, and the historic references in some of the contemporary designs, in a playful way. The show was structured into thematic groups, including rooms exploring topics such as ‘lace’, ‘red’, and ‘man/woman’ – a model which curatorially carried through to many of the museum’s future exhibits.
“We wanted to present our own collection, but in a less conventional way,” Kaat Debo says of the first ever show’s D.I.Y.-inspired aesthetic. “The exhibition design was made out of cardboard boxes, referring to the storage of the former museum building, where the collection was kept in cardboard boxes. To be frank, it was also the cheapest solution, as we had very little budget at the time.”
Maison Martin Margiela ‘20’, 2008
September 2008 rang in 20 years since the Maison’s commencement, and fittingly, MoMu paid curatorial homage to this fashion milestone. Closely examining the tropes investigated in the work of Martin Margiela both artistically and commercially, this particular exhibition rejected the retrospective format, with rooms named thematically instead, surveying topics such as ‘assemblage’, ‘tailoring/shoulders’, ‘paint’ and – of course – ‘tabi’, alongside displays of the exquisitely executed Artisanal collections.
The show simultaneously examined the brand’s communications policies, exemplified in a three-dimensional Styrofoam group portrait of the entire Parisian Maison Martin Margiela team – excluding the elusive man himself. The scenography for the exhibit was designed by Bob Verhelst, who formed part of the fashion house’s creative force during the early years. Verhelst was also responsible for incorporating the signature Margiela cotton labels (printed with figures ranging from 0 to 23 and affixed to garments with four white stitches) into the design concept; for each label, a number is enclosed in a circle indicating the fashion line to which each item of clothing, shoe, accessory, book or object belongs, with the show’s title 20, hinting at a new, albeit fictitious, line of exhibitions.
Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream The World Awake, 2011
The Antwerp Six – a band of Belgium’s most influential and avant-garde fashion designers besides Margiela – all received their diplomas from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp during the 1980s. The original troupe included Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Walter Van Beirendonck; Van Beirendonck standing apart from the others as a maverick, renowned for his zany and colourful aesthetic which was heavily influenced by contemporary art and pop culture. Despite much of his work possessing a modicum of ‘tongue-in-cheek’, Van Beirendonck also meditated upon ethnography, spiritualism and cyber technology; as exemplified in his label W< (Wild & Lethal Trash), where the first ever dream of interactive technology integrated into fashion communications became a reality with the designer’s Autumn/Winter 1995 and Spring/Summer 1996 presentations.
MoMu’s 2011 show was the first ever retrospective of Walter’s archive, featuring a body of work spanning 30 years; from his graduate collection through to photographic work with Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio and Dazed & Confused’s Robbie Spencer. As Debo explains, the ultimate aim for the exhibition was to reveal a catalogue of Beirendonck themes: “the richness of his work, the research behind his collections, his political and environmental activism, his exquisite tailoring, and how he questions beauty ideals.”
Happy Birthday Dear Academie: 50 Years of The Antwerp Fashion Department, 2013
Without any degree of uncertainty, the four-year fashion programme at Antwerp’s Royal Academy has been proclaimed as one of the most illustrious worldwide, and a site for learning that has steered the course of fashion history through a celebration of experimentation, freedom and eccentricity. Founded in 1963 under the leadership of Mary Prijot – a scholar who pushed for a progressive and comprehensive department of fashion – students of The Antwerp Six showed their 1981 graduate collection in the school’s cafeteria. Things have radically changed since, with the Antwerp undergraduate show becoming a firmed up date in the global fashion calendar.
Since the notorious alma mater of the aforementioned Antwerp Six and Martin Margiela, the school has also nurtured the talents of Peter Pilotto, Kris Van Assche and Veronique Branquinho; all showed work in the 50th anniversary 2013 exhibit at MoMu, wishing a Happy Birthday to the dear academie. This sat alongside the 2006 graduate work of the now revered Demna Gvasalia, who went on to lead design teams for Margiela, before becoming one of the stand-out rising talents of 2016 through his work with Vetements and recent collections for Balenciaga, in which the influence of Antwerp is palpable throughout.
Margiela: The Hermès Years will be at MoMu Antwerp from March 31 until August 27 2017.