At Virginia’s Tysons Galleria, the new Saint Laurent shop, designed by the label’s creative director, Hedi Slimane, is 2,400 square feet of subtly lit luxury. The racks are discreetly hung with barely a handful of garments, all celebrating a familiar — and excruciatingly expensive — rock-and-roll aesthetic for both men and women.
A few yards away sits a new, full-service Prada boutique that houses the men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections along with a full complement of handbags and shoes. The company’s delicate balance of provocative dowdiness and cultured glamour is fully realized. Designed by Italian architect Roberto Baciocchi, who is responsible for many Prada shops, the black facade is framed in polished steel and the interior walls are the brand’s signature, vaguely institutional, shade of pale green.
A few miles away at CityCenterDC, Burberry has filled its expansive glass vitrine with its fall collection — determinedly British, but deliciously louche. A stone’s throw from Burberry is the new Longchamp boutique, where the shelves are filled with the brand’s signature slouchy totes.
These shops all flung open their doors this summer, taking advantage of the area’s blossoming reputation for style, youthful vigor and disposable income. The stores are the customary glittering monuments of marble and glass on which designer logos are prominently featured. And in each case, the company’s reputation for exclusivity is made plain.
But amidst all the new businesses basking in the region’s enhanced fashion bona fides, there is one outlier. Maison Martin Margiela has brought its whimsical, inside-out, flummoxing version of classic tailoring to the nation’s capital.
Maison Margiela opened in Georgetown, but off the main drag. The brand’s name doesn’t appear on the building or even the labels of the clothes. The subterranean space is shrouded in white muslin, and accessories such as egg-shaped doorstops are housed in what might best be described as glass-walled refrigerators. The lighting is white, flat and unforgiving.
Maison Margiela is known within the global fashion industry for its avant-garde approach to design, so outré, so downright odd, that on regular occasions its runway shows have featured dresses without backs, jackets without sleeves and jumpsuits created to make the wearer look like a neutered Barbie doll.
Yet the company has also been extraordinarily influential — transforming unfinished hems and exposed seams into what is now commonplace and influencing the broader fashion landscape all the way down to mass brands such as Club Monaco and Zara.
The Paris-based company came to the District because of Relish, the women’s specialty store in Cady’s Alley that will soon be celebrating its 20th anniversary. The two businesses have had a decade-long relationship, during which the fashion house’s perception of Washington as a land of conservative suits and wrap dresses was shattered.
“The intelligent mix of brands and level of taste found in the assortment . . . at Relish perfectly complements the intellect of Maison Martin Margiela,” says . . . Says who?
If you are wondering who uttered these vaguely robotic words — one of several responses that arrived in answer to questions e-mailed to the Paris atelier, you have tumbled into the mythology, the philosophy, the schtick of the house. Maison Martin Margiela prides itself on anonymity and group-speak.
The brand was established in 1988 by an actual man from Belgium named Margiela, whose work opened Paris to an influx of Antwerp-trained couturiers, such as Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. Initially, Margiela presented his collection to press and buyers, gave interviews in person and sat for photographs. But in the 1990s, as the notion of the celebrity designer became a reality, he retreated from public view, shunning the role of spokesman and pushing the creative team forward in lieu of the individual. He stopped giving interviews, taking bows or allowing himself to be photographed.
The creative team began referring to itself as the “Maison” (or house) and speaking — or e-mailing — in a disembodied, collective voice. Claiming to have spotted the elusive Margiela became a fashion “Where’s Waldo?”
The team dresses in identical white jackets — a cross between an haute couture seamstress’s smock and a mad scientist’s lab coat.
“When I first started [buying from] the Maison, and everybody was wearing white coats, I said, ‘What am I doing here? This is not me,’ ” Relish founder Nancy Pearlstein says with a laugh. “But then I sat down and I started looking at the merchandise, and I liked it. And I thought either I need my own white coat, or I really do like it and [customers] are going to like it.’ ”
She dived in, buying the collection despite never having laid eyes on Margiela or knowing for certain that he even existed, but realizing that it ultimately didn’t matter.
The collection that retailers, including Pearlstein, typically stock — the commercial line — is rooted in classic tailoring with a certain amount of whimsy and a willingness to upend assumptions. Those kinds of clothes have always sold well in Washington.
The Maison raised the idea of a co-branded project almost a year ago. Today, the lower level of Relish is a Maison Martin Margiela pop-up shop, which will remain open for a year. The company had previous pop-ups in Dallas and Tokyo and has permanent stores in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
To create the ghostly space in Relish, the Maison dispatched workers, supplies and floor plans for an installation that includes the men’s and women’s collection, shoes, accessories and assorted curiosities — including the white rubber egg doorstops. The store’s original birch wood shelving and industrial walls are all wrapped and draped in white fabric or covered in wallpaper with trompe l’oeil depictions of French baroque interiors — grand fireplaces, elaborate doors, ornate mirrors. The entire floor has essentially been artfully mummified.
Pearlstein, however, selected the clothes. The easy-fitting checked trousers with a judiciously dropped crotch, the pale pink turtlenecks that softly drape around the body, the simple gray androgynous pullovers, fur jackets and black leather booties are a juiced up version of her usual interpretation of the brand’s aesthetic.
The shop will also have a historical exhibition of the Tabi shoe — a split-toe curiosity that has been part of the Maison’s identity since 1989. Calling to mind a horse’s hoof, the shoe was actually inspired by Japanese footwear. “Japan was a strong and original source of fashion interest and influence and Margiela chose the traditional men’s workwear Tabi shoe, reinventing it over the years as a women’s shoe,” reads an official e-mail.
The mysterious Mr. Margiela left the company in 2009, about seven years after it was purchased by Renzo Rosso, owner of Diesel, best known for its racy denim advertising. (Rosso also controls fashion labels Viktor & Rolf and Marni.) The Maison, however, continues as before. The business has revenue reportedly well over $100 million. And attempting to unmask the latest creative director remains an enduring sport.
The brand — both a critical and commercial success — has a “classic theme that goes through it,” Pearlstein says. “The whole weirdness of it goes away very quickly.”