The news of an impending documentary centering on a famed fashion figure is not news (if you ask me), if for no reason other than the fact that they have become very commonplace over the past decade. The Martin Margiela biopic that is set to be released next year is a different story. While the Reiner Holzemer-directed film, entitled, Without Compromise, is not the first look at Mr. Margiela (at least two have preceded it), this take on the mysterious Belgian designer is different because he is actually collaborating on it.
“It’s the first time Margiela has agreed to be part of any film about his life or work,” Ana Vicente, head of sales, at London-based Dogwoof, which is distributing the film, told Variety. Ms. Vincente described Margiela’s participation as “extraordinary,” and she is right.
The inclusion of an active participant film credit for Margiela, 61, is a striking fact for anyone who knows almost anything about the man. Margiela is, after all, arguably just as well-known for his designs as his elusivity.
Hardly as well-known as some of the more public-facing fashion figures, his label certainly is; its archive is one of the more commonly referenced. One need not look any further than Demna Gvasalia's Vetements, which has notoriously repurposed Margiela’s design staples en masse and put on the Vetements runway.
But Mr. Margiela, himself, is, however, as the New York Times described, "still the most elusive figure in fashion." Over the course of his design career, Margiela, a graduate of the esteemed Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, notoriously only gave a few interviews, stayed backstage after showing (skipping the traditional finale bow), and managed to avoid photos for the most part). He was – and remains – a stark antithesis of the modern fashion director, who is opts to (or is encouraged to) be public-facing and Instagram-happy.
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 – commonly referred to simply as 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 appointment announcement).
There are countless questions that Holzemer’s film, which will make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival next month, can answer. Given that, "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,” as creative strategists, Joe McShea and Lucian James, so aptly put it in 2014, it is safe to assume that film-goers will not walk away with all of the answers.