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Maison Martin Margiela A/W96; Hermès A/W98Photography by Anders Erdström; Studio des Fleurs

Exploring the World of Margiela, the Hermès Years

Susannah Frankel explores why Margiela's unlikely appointment at Hermès made for one of the most successful collaborations in fashion history

Lead ImageMaison Martin Margiela A/W96; Hermès A/W98Photography by Anders Erdström; Studio des Fleurs

When, in April 1997, it was announced that Martin Margiela had been appointed creative director of Hermès, it came as a surprise. This, after all, was the era of the superstar designer: Tom Ford at Gucci, John Galliano at Givenchy and then at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Stella McCartney at Chloé... Margiela founded his fashion house in 1988 with Jenny Meirens, and everyone who cared about his work – and we were and still are many – knows that the designer eschewed the spotlight, having learned from his time working alongside Jean Paul Gaultier that being the face of a fashion house comes at a price: one he was reluctant to pay. Post-Eurotrash Gaultier was overlooked for the Dior job despite talent and an estimable pedigree. Margiela preferred his work to speak for itself. He and the loyal inner circle of creatives with which he surrounded himself guarded his anonymity fiercely.

Equally unpredictable – as far as first impressions go, at least – was the choice of a designer who was very much perceived as central to fashion’s avant-garde. Martin Margiela re-worked vintage finds – from leather butcher’s aprons to antique wedding dresses – based clothing around Stockman dummies, home furnishings and even Christmas tinsel. He turned more conventional fashion upside-down and inside-out – often literally – reversing seams and leaving edges to fray. He favoured everyday materials – paper, calico, cheap lining fabrics – and cast beautiful friends and acquaintances as opposed to professional models for his shows, which took place in far-flung places with no seating plan (or at times, even seats). The Maison Martin Margiela label, meanwhile – a blank, white cotton square – seemed to question the very notion of designer fashion as status driven. To the uninitiated, there was no way of knowing that a Maison Martin Margiela design was, in fact, ‘designer’.

Hermès, on the other hand, was among the oldest and grandest French status names of them all. Cheap fashion jokes ensued. Would Margiela whitewash the Kelly bag, for example? He loved white – or whites, in Margiela speak – painting leather, denim and more and celebrating the way the non-colour aged thus reflecting the passing of time.

In fact, Margiela’s appointment by then Hermès CEO, the late Jean-Louis Dumas, was among the most inspired in fashion history. Dumas recognised that, at the heart of it all, Margiela was an unrivalled technician. He also saw that at the centre of the Maison Martin Margiela universe, however extreme any tropes might be, was the woman wearing the clothes. His designs may have been groundbreaking but they considered the body inside them over and above anything else.

A new exhibition, Margiela, The Hermès Years, at MoMu in Antwerp, is nothing if not testimony to that. At a press conference held in that city on the eve of the opening, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Jean-Louis’ son and today artistic director at Hermès, told the story of his father’s meeting with Margiela. In place of the elaborate portfolios and moodboards that might have been expected, the designer gave Jean-Louis Dumas a sequence of words. They were as follows: “Comfort, quality, timelessness, everlasting, handmade, tradition, elegance in movement.” That Dumas was able to embrace such an abstract concept – and that Margiela thought in that way in the first place – is nothing short of visionary on both sides. Margiela wasn’t interested in scarf silks or bright colour, something that might have frightened a less pioneering employer given that both were Hermès signatures. Instead, and way ahead of his time, he was intent on the gradual building of a discreetly beautiful wardrobe for discerning women, of all ages, shapes and sizes, assuming, of course, that their budgets allowed. Pierre-Alexis prefers the adjective “costly” to “expensive”, he says with a smile.

“Comfort, quality, timelessness, everlasting, handmade, tradition, elegance in movement” – Martin Margiela

“I noticed for a number of seasons that Martin’s legacy is omnipresent,” says Kaat Debo, curator of this fine show and director of MoMu, for her part. This is something of an understatement. “There is this real nostalgia for his oeuvre and of course you see his ideas coming back in a lot of fashion houses. Fashion has a very short memory. This exhibition will give it its memory back.” It is true that Margiela is referenced more perhaps than any other designer just now. What’s more, Debo points out, much of the output in question took place before the digital era, making it more ripe for imitation still. “I think Margiela’s work for Maison Martin Margiela offers an alternative to a system which is under pressure. Martin’s work allows time, it is away from this constant obsession with youth and consumption. For Hermès he did something very similar but within the context of luxury, this was a slowly evolving wardrobe,” says Debo, in explanation of what might not unreasonably be described as fashion’s obsession with this still determinedly elusive man.

Such nostalgia is rose-tinted. Critics were not universally enamoured with Margiela’s shows for Hermès when they were originally shown. Then, as all too often now, they were anticipating the shock of the new and, in fact, that shock was there but only those willing to look closely identified that. At Hermès, The Margiela Years it can be seen in all its glory. It is extraordinary not least for the fact that any one piece could be taken off a mannequin and worn today without looking even remotely dated. Here is the “vareuse” an extremely deep V-neckline on a jacket, shirt or sweater that allowed a woman to shrug off a layer of clothing tying the arms around her waist in a single gesture should she so desire. Margiela refined it throughout his tenure at Hermès. There is the transformable trench coat (Spring/Summer 2003) and more outerwear with detachable lapels, collar and fastenings should madame prefer her clothing more minimal still. At Hermès, Margiela created jumpers knitted entirely in the round to avoid the discomfort of seams and designed a floor-length black cashmere gown which, along with a black strapless all-in-one, relieved the Hermès customer of the frills and furbelows of conventional eveningwear.

Far from taking the house of Hermès apart, Margiela introduced his own icons into its stable. His “double tour” watch strap was a suitably inspired update to the iconic Cape Cod watch, originally designed by Henri D’Origny in 1991. Consider, too, the Hermès button which, in Margiela’s hands, had six as opposed to four holes meaning once attached to a garment, the thread followed the lines of an (Hermès) “H”.

Alongside Margiela’s work during his tenure at Hermès, which lasted a total of 12 seasons, are designs from the Maison Martin Margiela archive (the former are shown against an Hermès orange background, the latter – of course – against white). The much emulated ‘cigarette’ shoulder, in this case from the Spring/Summer 1989 collection, is among the first garments visitors come across. Later, Spring/Summer 1990’s plastic vest – cut from a white plastic grocery bag – can be seen. Debo said that initially this particular piece appeared to be lost. Margiela, who collaborated with the museum throughout the curation process, offered to make her a new one. It was eventually located, however. A sweater knitted by his mother, deliberately misshapen and peppered with holes, shown for Autumn/Winter 1990, is equally witty and pretty. When it was ordered by more clients than expected, her friends set to knitting them too: no two were the same. And let’s not forget the Maison Martin Margiela split toe “tabi’ boot, here black but painted white again, the cracks created by wear or tear only adding to their resonance.

“You might think Martin Margiela is very different to Hermès but look more closely and you see two aspects of a single creative DNA” – Kaat Debo

“You might think Martin Margiela is very different to Hermès but look more closely and you see two aspects of a single creative DNA,” Debo explains. “At its basis is a deep respect for women, how women wear garments and how their garments function in life.” Anyone lucky enough to have attended Martin Margiela’s shows – both for his own house and for Hermès – will know that is very definitely the case. And it’s a small wonder that women the world over continue to love this designer and to honour his legacy for that.

Margiela, The Hermès Years is at MoMu, Antwerp, until August 27, 2017.