Master Class: Maison Margiela
Master Class: Maison Margiela
- Words Rocky Li
- Date April 18, 2016
Maison Margiela is one of the rare labels in fashion that has achieved both massive commercial success and enduring cultural relevancy, earning the reputation as one of the most secretive organizations in the industry. This is the direct legacy of its namesake founder who notoriously rejected the limelight, Martin Margiela. To this day, most outsiders do not even know what the designer looks like. Since his departure from the label in 2009, Margiela's legacy lives on through Maison Margiela's design approach, marketing techniques and brand philosophy.
We can really only scratch the surface of a label with as massive an influence as Maison Margiela so this should be considered a primer on some of the key aspects that define the ethos and history of the house, shedding light on the culture and history of the legendary maison.
For such a high-profile designer like Martin Margiela, relatively little is known about the man’s private life: He is notoriously press shy and there isn’t even a "proper" public photo of him. To char his history is however is a timeline that marks the major points in his design career.
Martin Margiela got his start by studying in the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, where he began making a name for himself amongst the faculty and his peers. A common misconception is that Margiela was a member of the famous "Antwerp Six", but he was actually already employed with Jean-Paul Gaultier by the time the de facto Beligian student group was displaying its designs in London.
His design career, post-university, is the stuff of legend. Prior to starting Maison Martin Margiela, he served as a design assistant for Gaultier from 1984 to 1987, with Maison Martin Margiela established in 1988 by Margiela himself and Belgian retailer Jenny Meirens. Initial collections featured only women’s ready-to-wear, with the first runway show taking place in Paris in 1989. From the outset, Margiela received critical acclaim, being awarded the inaugural National Association for the Development of the Fashion Arts Award, now commonly known as ANDAM.
Less than a decade later, in 1997, Margiela was appointed the artistic director of the Hermès women’s collections, holding his first show for its Fall/Winter 1998 collection.
Margiela’s menswear line was introduced in 1998, with the debut collection launching for Spring/Summer 1999.
In May 2006, Maison Martin Margiela showed its first haute couture collection under its "Artisanal" Line, a practice that continues to this day.
A major turning point for the brand came in 2006, when a majority stake in the company was acquired by Diesel founder/president Renzo Rosso through Rosso's Italian holding group, Only the Brave. This acquisition proved to be a defining moment in the label's history, as it would set the stage for Margiela's eventual departure from the company he founded, in 2009. Following Margiela's exit, it was announced that no designer would be appointed as an immediate replacement. Instead, the existing design team would take the reins and design the seasonal collections.
Since leaving the Maison, Martin Margiela, the man, has maintained his press silence and has shown absolutely no interest in returning to the world of fashion.
Maison Margiela pieces, as a general rule, lack any external branding elements. The only clearly branded feature is a removable tag, which features a sequence of printed numbers. One of the most frequently asked questions is what these numbers mean. Each circled number indicates what Maison Margiela line the piece belongs to. The numbering system is broken down as such:
1: The collection for women. "1 is the collection in which Maison Martin Margiela expresses its love for concept, design and process, for creativity and the avant-garde" [Est. 1988].
2: Fragrance, in association with L'Oreal's Luxury Products Division [Mar. 2008 announced, Jan. 2010 released].
4: A wardrobe for women, essentially basics.
6/mm6: Diffusion line including clothes, shoes and accessories [Est. Oct. 1997, rebranded mm6 in Jun. 2004].
8: Eyewear collection [Est. Oct. 2007 for Spring/Summer 2008].
10: The collection for men, equivalent of women's Line 1 [Est. Oct. 1998 for Spring/Summer 1999].
11: A collection of accessories for women and men; "bags, belts, small leather goods and a few items of jewelry" [Est. Jan. 2005].
12: Fine jewelry collection made in collaboration with the Damiani group [Est. Jul. 2008].
13: Objects and publications [Est. Oct. 1998].
14: A wardrobe for men, essentially basics, equivalent of women's Line 4 [Est. Jul. 2004 for Spring/Summer 2005].
15: Mail order [Est. April 1999].
22: A collection of shoes for women and men [Est. Fall/Winter 2005].
Sartorial: A capsule collection part of Line 14, identifiable with a gold embroidered cursive "Maison Martin Margiela" in the lining by the jacket pocket [Est. Fall/Winter 2008].
Replica: "Every season since 1994, Maison Martin Margiela has introduced a capsule collection within its men's and women's lines, including around thirty pieces of staple garments and accessories, called 'Replica.'"
To say that Martin Margiela was low-key in his approach would be an understatement. It's no wonder that many of the headlines and articles documenting Martin Margiela's enduring legacy almost always include the word "invisible."
Martin Margiela is a man that did not just avoid the spotlight, but outright refused it. This idea of anonymity served as the fundamental basis for Maison Martin Margiela's presentations, shows, collections and marketing. Unlike most interviews with designers where individual achievements were emphasized, Margiela always made use of collective terms like "we" and "us," and never "I" when discussing his work. This idea even extends to how Maison Martin Margiela employees themselves are dressed to this day, with each employee—from the design team to those working at Margiela retail outlets—wearing a plain white lab coat.
The label is quoted as saying: "We try to have people accept the fact that the work of the Maison Martin Margiela can exist independently of what the designer looks like-that our work is solely a proposition of wearing what it is we like to create, a presentation of a way in which we see things at a given moment…Everyone has a role within the team, but everyone also has a voice within that team…It is consistently stressed that the work is the collaboration of a team and not just about one single individual."
A familiar part of the Margiela line is a series of recurring "Replica" preexisting vintage garments, accessories and other articles that Maison Margiela finds and re-makes using materials and techniques that most closely resemble the original. They are lavishly reproduced and carry a second label explaining their original, function and period. These items represent the idea of timelessness in design and perhaps the most popular iteration within the line are the now iconic German Army Trainers that continue to appear seasonally in various colorways and styles.
Another footwear style that Margiela helped bring to the forefront of fashion is that of the now-signature Tabi boot. One of Margiela's first unique footwear designs, the maison's take on the traditional Japanese split-toe footwear began as early as 1988. Since then the brand's Tabi boot has come in and out of popularity, with limited production runs and unique seasonal releases making the silhouette a unique part of Maison Margiela's oeuvre. In late-2018 and early-2019, the Tabi boot shot back into relevancy, reemerging as a must-have for those in-the-know.
As the brand became successful in the mid 1990s, Martin Margiela retired completely from public view, at a time when the idea of the invisible designer found itself at odds the accelerated rise of celebrity culture. As other designers—or were required to become—famous; Margiela’s anonymity became louder than ever.
As stated above, many of Martin Margiela's hallmarks revolve around blending in, meaning a rejection of some of the traditional branding and marketing techniques employed by most fashion companies. What most people consider as a de facto logo—the four white stitches on the back of a white, numerical label— originally had, in fact, the opposite purpose: Stitches were meant to be cut off so the garment would be without a label and logo whatsoever.
The color white itself, now synonymous with the brand, was chosen for its anonymous nature because, conceptually, it can be seen as undefined. The maison says white is "neutral, the binary opposite of black, or a blank canvas."
A sense of invisibility has been incorporated into the DNA of the brand since the beginning. Patrick Scallon, Margiela's right hand man, once characterized the brand's marketing strategy as "absence equals presence" and "the cult of impersonality," indicating that it was a central component to the brand's identity. "As the brand became successful in the mid-1990s, Martin Margiela retired completely from public view, at a time when the idea of the invisible designer found itself at odds the accelerated rise of celebrity culture. As other designers became—or were required to become—famous; Margiela's anonymity became "louder than ever," Scallon once said.
The years following Martin Margiela's departure in 2009 marked a new period of commercialization for the label. Demna Gvasalia, who now heads up both the trendy label Vetements and established French fashion house Balenciaga, handled some design responsibilities at Margiela until 2012, a period that saw a massive expansion for the brand punctuated by the 2012 capsule collection released in collaboration with Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M.
In 2014, it was announced that the controversial designer John Galliano would take the reins as creative director for Maison Martin Margiela and, a year later, the brand officially dropped the "Martin” from it's name, rebranding as "Maison Margiela." Still, despite changes at the helm, Martin Margiela's core values have always stayed constant in the brand's DNA. Even with Galliano's penchant for the brash and flamboyant, the maison's commitment to craft, creative construction and mystery have not faded. Say what you will about Galliano's checkered past, but he is a nearly unparalleled couturier.
Martin Margiela's influence on both men's and women's fashion can't be overemphasized, setting such a strong precedent that the principles instilled from the label's inception will continue to guide it—and fashion at large—for decades to come.