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Martin Margiela did himself a favor: He anticipated fashion’s future — and its failures

The designer at work in the film "Martin Margiela: In His Own Words," directed by Reiner Holzemer. (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

From the beginning of his career, Martin Margiela was ahead of the fashion pack. He was an innovator. He was a riddle. He could have been famous; he chose to be legendary.

Even those who have never heard his name have nonetheless felt his influence on their wardrobes thanks to his pioneering interest in oversized silhouettes, deconstruction and upcycling. He was fascinated with the construction of clothes as well as the values society places on them.

Margiela was an iconoclast who captured the imagination of the fashion industry. And when it became apparent that the business was eager to devour him in a feeding frenzy of personality and performance, he disappeared. He didn’t stop designing, he simply became invisible.

Margiela ceased doing interviews. He refused to be photographed. He no longer greeted guests backstage with obligatory kisses and hugs. He decided to let his clothes speak for him and when his clothes were confounding, he was content to let audiences wrestle with the conundrums all on their own.

Even when he decided to leave the company he had founded because of differences with its new investor, he did so without taking a bow at the end of his final show in 2008.

His story is detailed in a new documentary, “Martin Margiela: In His Own Words” by filmmaker Reiner Holzemer. The film debuted at the Doc NYC film festival in 2019 and is now available for streaming.

Margiela rose to fame on the cusp of the era of designer as celebrity and decided he would not perform; he would not be a product. While his example might be extreme, it informs an industry trying to right itself after a period of excess and bloat. There are lessons in Margiela’s exit, most notably on how the fashion industry could become a healthier place in which to create and do business if it concentrated on selling creativity rather than buzz, glorious clothes not disposable ones.

Margiela was born in Belgium in 1957 and came to Paris in the late 1980s, the first in a wave of influential young designers that included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. After interning with the French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, he soon launched his own house, Maison Martin Margiela, and in very short order began to have an outsize impact on fashion.

“I knew I had taste,” Margiela says in the film, “but I didn’t know that was becoming a style.”

At a time when designer collections were unveiled in elegant locations centered around the Louvre, Margiela was enamored with grittier destinations such as the Salvation Army. While other designers were casting their shows with classically beautiful runway swans, Margiela was plucking oddballs from the street to walk in his shows. And when the slender high heel was the definition of a feminine shoe, his footwear took inspiration from the traditional Japanese split-toed tabi.

His staff dressed in the white work coats that were traditional in haute couture houses. With little money, the showroom was decorated with thrift store furniture, which was covered in white muslin. Everything else was painted white — including the phone. His work was a combination of artistic improvisation and low-budget invention.

Holzemer’s film is a straightforward look at a designer whose simple but consequential decision spoke volumes about what fashion was on its way to becoming — and, most notably, what it was losing.

“Anonymity was a kind of protection for me as a person,” Margiela says. And he continues to protect his privacy by not revealing his face in the film. While viewers hear Margiela’s voice, all they see of the man are his hands.

At his fashion house, as well as when he served as Hermès creative director, Margiela forced people to judge him solely by his work. He refused to be part of the celebrity economy in which fame is often mistaken for talent.

Of course, Margiela whipped up his own fuss when he first disappeared from public view. His very absence ginned up media attention. But eventually, it became evident that his decision was not a stunt. He’d bought himself peace, but he’d also tasked himself with a significant challenge: “Your collections must be very strong because it’s difficult to make a name if they can’t put a face on it,” he says.

The role of celebrity in the life of designers today is relentless. For some, it’s the very foundation on which they stand. At a brand such as Rihanna’s Fenty, her renown is the label’s DNA. For other companies, such as Christian Siriano, fame was the battering ram that gained them entrance into the business; their expertise allowed them to carve out a place for the long term. For a designer like Tom Ford, fame is a golden aura that shines warmly on the work.

Like every industry, fashion needs its personalities and its outsize characters in order to engage the public. These dynamic people help their brands speak more powerfully, more intimately to a consumer. But Margiela also knew that fashion is an industry that can’t resist excess. If a little fame is good, a lot of it must be even better. If production efficiencies are beneficial, then warp-speed production must be ideal. If shoppers delight in having expanded choices, giving them limitless ones will make them ecstatic.

Fashion shows are now 12-hour live streams. Or movies starring mermaids. Or mailed to you in a box.

“There was something very unpleasant going on for quite a while in the fashion system,” Margiela says. “For me, it started when [the collection] had to go on the Internet the same day as the show. I like the energy that comes with a surprise. And the energy was lost.”

Fashion is putting less focus on surprising and engaging customers and more energy into just getting them to buy as much stuff as they can, as often as possible. “I felt more and more sad,” Margiela says. And the consumers didn’t appear to be any happier.

Today, Margiela’s creative focus is on visual arts. But when asked in the film if he has said all that he would like to in the world of fashion, his answer is a simple, “No.” Perhaps he will return — stealthily.

The Margiela brand continues. It’s still owned by Renzo Rosso’s OTB Group, the same company with whom Margiela the man parted ways. It has been renamed Maison Margiela and is now led by designer John Galliano, who continues to experiment with many of the notions that its founder conceived. Galliano took on the position after a very public scandal in which he ranted anti-Semitic comments at fellow diners in a Paris bistro. Galliano was fired from Dior, where he was creative director. He went to rehab. And when he returned to the fashion industry, he found a home at Maison Margiela.

The staff still wears white coats. The silhouettes are oversized. And in the tradition of the house, the designer does not take bows.