Since the very public announcement that John Galliano would serve as creative director of Maison Martin Margiela early last year, I've been thinking of Mr. Margiela himself. We hear so little of the elusive Belgian designer that any mention of him, as distinct from news surrounding his namesake design house, is, in my opinion, quite noteworthy. Fashion fans know that despite helping to herald a place for Belgium in the hierarchy of high fashion, Martin Margiela is anything but well known. His label may be; its archive is one of the more commonly referenced. His name may be, as well (thanks, in part, to rappers). But Mr. Margiela, himself, is, as the New York Times described, "still the most elusive figure in fashion."
Prior to the 1980's, Antwerp was a particularly quiet city in terms of internationally acclaimed fashion. Much has obviously changed since then. While the city is still comparatively small (its current population is roughly only half a million), it is widely considered a breeding ground for otherworldly talent in the realm of fashion, thanks largely to the work of a few pioneers. There are the more famous ones, the Antwerp Six (Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee), Raf Simons, and Kris Van Assche. There are others, like Olivier Rizzo, Willy Vanderperre, and David Vandewal, who often go relatively under the radar in comparison but are nonetheless hugely influential. And then there is Mr. Margiela, now 57 years old. He graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1979. The Antwerp Six members, who were also students of Linda Loppa, followed a year later.
Thanks to his very much under the radar persona (think: refusing to give barely any interviews, staying backstage after showing (skipping the traditional finale bow), and managing to avoid photos for the most part), little is known about Margiela in comparison the majority of designers today (part of this is certainly due to the lack of media attention to emerging design talent in the 80's compared to today or even the 1990's when designers like Tom Ford, Gianni Versace, and Jean Paul Gaultier reigned supreme). As Eric Wilson wrote in an article for the New York Times in 2008, which included one of the very first photos of Mr. Margiela to ever be published: "An anomaly in an industry that places enormous value on the image and accessibility of its personalities, Mr. Margiela has maintained an astonishing elusiveness."
With this in mind, much has been written about Margiela and his design house; from his time spent at Gaultier's studio in the 1980's prior to the launch of his own label in 1989 and his design signatures (think: masks - yes, they predate the house's recent couture creations; deconstructionist techniques paired with masterful tailoring, "surrealist-utilitarianism," as Sarah Mower called it in 2006, writing for Style.com about the designer's ability to turn otherwise mundane objects, such as furniture for F/W 2006, into garments (more recently, for F/W 2012, this took the form of boleros created from baseball gloves and doorknobs that served as closures on jackets). Also heavily speculated in print: his alleged succession plan (which reportedly had fellow Belgian designer Raf Simons stepping in for him, an offer Simons declined) and his mysterious exit from his label on the heels of its acquisition by Only The Brave (aka OTB Group) in 2002.
No specific date (or month even) has been definitively offered in connection with his departure. In fact, not much at all - not surprisingly - has been offered in terms of an explanation. Rumors (and there are many of those surrounding Mr. Margiela) point to anytime between 2002 and sometime in 2009, and suggest that Margiela had a falling out with Renzo Rosso, President of OTB Group, potentially due to Margiela's disapproval of Rosso's marketing of the brand. (This is something then CEO of Margiela, Giovanni Pungetti, denied). WWD reported on the matter, claiming sources close to Margiela said that he had "poured creative energies into painting and wished to walk away from the fashion business.” Speculation as to Margiela's absence from the house intensified on the heels of the March 2009 Fall/Winter shows. Of the MMM collection, Cathy Horyn wrote for the New York Times: "Just about everything at the show tonight — the hokey starlight projections on the ceiling, the empty design techniques, the use of beautiful young models instead of older, interesting-looking chicks — said that Mr. Margiela is no longer involved in his label."
What we know for certain is this: In September 2008, when he was asked if Margiela was leaving the label, Rosso, said: “Never say never, but I cannot imagine. I love him.” That March, Pungetti said of Mr. Margiela: "He's still in position." Then, in October 2009, Rosso said in a statement: "Martin has not been there for a long time." That December, an official statement from Maison Martin Margiela confirmed this, reporting that Martin had left the house and that the current design team would take over artistic direction in lieu of hiring a new head designer. And an article in the New York Times on December 8, 2009 stated: "The avant-garde Belgian designer Martin Margiela has quietly left the fashion house he built — and he will not be replaced at the company, which has been majority owned by the Italian group Diesel since 2002."
Such elusiveness has become part of the Paris-based design house's DNA (so much so that critics have been keen to mention the apparent hypocrisy in the fanfare associated with Galliano's recent appointment announcement). Even without Mr. Margiela's physical presence, the house has maintained (or at least until recently tried very hard to maintain) its air of secrecy. In an interview with fashion journalist Filep Motwary in 2010, the collective “we” of Maison Martin Margiela put it this way: “We do not use any physical image of a designer to promote our work. What our designer looks like has, for us, little or nothing to do with our process.” In another interview, someone from the MMM team, told Interview magazine: "We prefer that people react to a garment through their taste and own personal style and not their impression of the individual or group who created it, as translated and hyped by the press. Unlike actors or singers, we do not need his physical form to express our work. The Maison Martin Margiela should exist independently of who he is, what he looks like, and any answer he, as an individual and member of a team, may have to any question not directly linked to the clothes."
This general tone of secrecy, which the fashion industry seemed to respect for quite some time, was broken with the recent outing of the house's head designer, Matthieu Blazy, this past July. Interesting, of course, were the flurry of emails from Margiela's public relations team that followed, pleading with media outlets to remove their articles on the matter. An excerpt from one such email reads: "In light of recent rumors regarding individual members of our design team, we ask you to remember that the long-standing communication policy of the Maison has not changed and that Maison Martin Margiela does not communicate on any individual member of its collective, as our work is done by a team and is credited only to this same collective […] This is our official spokespeople policy, and it remains our only comment on this subject." And subsequently thereafter came the appointment of John Galliano.
As creative strategists, Joe McShea and Lucian James, wrote in an op-ed for BOF earlier this year, "Maison Margiela has always known – like Apple – that the value of mystery can create millions of dollars worth of column inches, cult adoration, and free PR. Margiela has proven over the years that anonymity has deep power. Martin Margiela the man was the first to instil the cult of invisibility at the brand, beginning with himself. In the 1990s, as other designers chose – or were required to embrace – fame, Martin Margiela made a clear statement in the opposite direction." McShea and James seconded this notion in another article of theirs, writing: "An important part of the cult appeal of the brand is based on its erasure of individual identity, and the promotion of the creative collective team."
It seems that Mr. Margiela's insistence on maintaining elusivity was not merely for show, though. Wilson wrote in that same exposing article in 2008, that Margiela avoided the limelight in order to emphasize two key principles: That his "designs, as confounding as they may be, should speak for themselves; and, second, that the work he shows is inherently the product of a collaborative team, not one person."
So, just how appealing is the Margiela brand? It is certainly appealing in theory and to other designers, who consistently look to Margiela's work for inspiration. One example: the shoulder pads that turned up on the Marc Jacobs runway in September 2007, which promoted Suzy Menkes to write a rather scathing review, accusing Jacobs of relying too heavily on the work of Martin Margiela. But what about the bottom line? According to a December 2009 article in the New York Times, Maison Martin Margiela had an annual revenue predicted to be "€70 million, or about $105 million, for the current financial year from €15 million in 2002." A ten percent rise in revenue was subsequently reported for the house for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and in a September 2011 interview, Pungetti estimated “€75m in turnover."
Since Mr. Margiela's departure, the brand's revenue has likely only grown, considering an array of more mainstream, cash-friendly endeavors that the house has undertaken, such as the collaboration with H&M in 2012; the rebranding and subsequent push for the house's diffusion line, MM6; a collaboration with NYC-based retailer, Opening Ceremony; the introduction of a number of categories under the MMM name, including fragrances in association with L’Oreal, jewelry and other accessories, and home goods.
It is interesting to ponder what exactly Mr. Margiela, whose first name has very recently been dropped from the house's moniker, thinks of all of the recent changes, namely, the movement away from the collective design nature of the house, as Galliano has been thrust into the spotlight as the brand’s creative director. Martin Margiela reportedly spoke out, approving of Galliano's appointment, but we have heard nothing from him since. While most sources have questioned the commonalities between showman Galliano and his elusive predecessor, Cathy Horyn noted the similarity between the two, saying: "I think there is a connection between John and Margiela, actually. You know, Margiela in his prime was great at making a statement about clothes and what they did or didn’t do. He was good at staging a show and John is also great at staging a show, so there is a connection there."
It would certainly be interesting to reconcile the changes that appear to clash with the underlying ethos of the house with Mr. Margiela's thoughts, but we will likely have to wait a long time for such insight if we ever get it at all.