Fashion

In 1997, Hermès announced the appointment of Martin Margiela as their new creative director for women’s ready-to-wear. This came at a time when fashion was dominated by the cult of personality and major houses were tapping into the biggest names in the industry: Tom Ford injected sex and status into Gucci, John Galliano modernised Dior and Alexander McQueen lent some of his dark rebellion to Givenchy. It was about big names and spectacular shows, but with luxury heritage house Hermès, avant-garde Belgian Margiela exacted a curve ball. They had expected Margiela to do something extreme and attack the icons of house, but of course he didn’t,” says Kaat Debo, director of the Antwerp Fashion Museum MoMu, where a major new exhibition is exploring Margiela’s six year tenure at the French luxury house. 

Margiela’s appointment at Hermès was perceived as a controversial move. Though the designer was well-known, he had established himself as an unconventional talent who challenged traditional fashion tropes – a distinct departure from the classic sophistication of the Hermès language. Since founding his eponymous label, he never gave a single interview and avoided public events. Shrouded in mystery, Margiela’s “anonymity” made a clear statement about celebrity culture while inadvertently affording him cult status.

So with Hermès, the expectation was that he would tear up the rule book and start from scratch. But always the contrarian, he went subtler than that. It was about quiet explorations of the luxury principles that define the house. And as Kaat Debo explains below, this work became one of the most radical – if quiet – chapters in fashion in the late 20th century.

“That era was pre-digital; certainly pre-social media and pre-Instagram, so the work itself isn’t really present online and a lot of the younger generations are not aware of that period. And I think as a museum, it is one of our tasks to research the past and make history visible again.”

Nazanin Shahnavaz: Why has the museum decided to focus on this period of Margiela’s career?
Kaat Debo: A number of years ago we had a Maison Martin Margiela exhibition celebrating the anniversary of the house. But, it focused only on the house and not Margiela’s work for Hermès or his ready-to-wear and I felt it was time to focus on that. In a time when the system is under a lot of pressure and there are lots of changes going on, people are sort of being nostalgic about Margiela and his methods, how over twenty years ago he was questioning the system. There’s a need for his ideas and concepts right now, that’s why people continue to reference him and take inspiration from his work.

Nazanin: Why do you think the Hermès period is somewhat unknown?
Kaat: Margiela’s work with Hermès was created in an era at the end of the 90s and beginning of the 2000s. That era was pre-digital; certainly pre-social media and pre-Instagram, so the work itself isn’t really present online and a lot of the younger generations are not aware of that period. And I think as a museum, it is one of our tasks to research the past and make history visible again. That was a big challenge for us when putting together this exhibition and book.

Maison Martin Margiela A/W 1996-1997. Photo by Marina Faust

“On closer inspection the concepts behind both of these brands are very similar and precursors of “slow fashion” before the term even existed.”

Nazanin: Do you think the questions that he was asking have changed in terms of the questions being asked now?
Kaat: Well, I think if you look for alternative models, you end up with Margiela and his work for Hermès. They are two very different worlds and two very different collections, but on closer inspection the concepts behind both of these brands are very similar and precursors of “slow fashion” before the term even existed. At Maiosn Martin Margiela, it was explored through more conceptual avenues, for example Martin introduced the past into his collections through very vintage materials. Whereas with Hermès, “slow fashion” was related to the idea of developing a slowly evolving wardrobe, each season would present a very limited number of new items that women could invest in and did not bring this relentless cycle of new ideas, prints, themes and products.

Nazanin: How did he realise that?
Kaat: In a number of different ways; he introduced a discreet colour scheme, there were no bright colours and no busy prints, which was very unlike Hermès. Martin wanted a tonal colour scheme of different shades of brown, beige, grey and black and that remained the colour scheme for his twelve collections at the house, except for the last two where he introduced orange and red. This made the clothes interchangeable as though they were all part of one big collection. He also created “transformable” garments, which you could wear in a number of different ways. For example, you could remove the sleeves of a trench coat and wear it as a sleeveless dress, then you could reassemble the sleeves and wear them as a cape. Many of the garments could be worn in two or three different ways, creating a dynamic wardrobe with longevity. Knowing that of course, he was designing for a very specific segment and niche of luxury fashion. But within that niche he created a very intelligent concept, which was slow fashion and in that way it was not that different from his work at Maison Martin Margiela.

Hermès SS 2003 Trenchcoat in cotton gabardine, sleeveless pullover in cashmere and silk, pants in wool, ankle boots in leather, headscarf ‘Losange’ in silk crêpe. Photo: Stany Dederen

They had expected Margiela to do something extreme and attack the icons of house, but of course he didn’t.”

Nazanin: How did people respond to his work at Hermès?
Kaat: There were mixed reactions, at the time some of the press really didn’t get the collection and in that sense they were a bit disappointed. They had expected Margiela to do something extreme and attack the icons of house, but of course he didn’t. Prior to his appointment, he had done a collection with vintage silk scarves as wrap skirts and people thought he was going to bring some of that Margiela deconstruction to Hermès. Also, Martin knew that it would be difficult to present the collections to the press during fashion week. He was well aware that editors would be attending several shows a day – very spectacular shows – the 90s was the era of John Galliano, Dior, Alexander McQueen doing extraordinary shows and Martin countered that with very pure garments, which were designed for the wearer rather than the spectator, which at the time was a very different concept.

Nazanin: What did his shows involve?
Kaat: So Martin asked Hermès if he could do a small presentation to a small group of journalists in a showroom, there his team would explain the collection and the journalists could touch and observe the garments up close. Hermès felt it was too extreme and offered to compromise with a show in the flagship store in Paris. There was a single front row, but it was still a show and journalists weren’t really able to appreciate all of the innovative technical details.

Maison Martin Margiela SS 2009

“All the garments went into production and were sold, that’s very important to consider because you have so many designers making big statements on the catwalk and putting on amazing shows but is it fashion? For Martin, it always remained fashion and not art, he wanted women to wear his clothes.”

Nazanin: It seems like Margiela was tackling some very contemporary issues. Were other designers having similar conversations?
Kaat: Not in the way that Martin did, what he did was very conceptual and avant-garde but it was not just a statement on the catwalk. All the garments went into production and were sold, that’s very important to consider because you have so many designer’s making big statements on the catwalk and putting on amazing shows but is it fashion? For Martin, it always remained fashion and not art, he wanted women to wear his clothes. With Hermès his approach was subtler, and of course he had other means and great craftsman, an amazing atelier working with leather and cashmere, so he could really focus on the design and his garments were designed for the comfort of women.

Nazanin: In what way?
Kaat: Women were central in his designs; he wasn’t designing for an ideal body type, he wanted his collections to be worn by all women. He did a lot of street casting and his shows featured models from 25 up to 65-years-old, which is amazing, he was designing garments that could be worn by a woman in her twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. Not that many designers design with the needs of a woman in mind, Margiela was very respectful to women, he was a great observer and observed how women wear garments, how they walk, how they dress themselves, what they liked about their bodies, how their bodies change over the years.

Nazanin: At the time, do you think Margiela’s appointment was perceived as quite a controversial move?
Kaat: Of course appointing Margiela was a risk, but he was a well known name and Jean-Louis Dumas understood his love for tailoring, craftsmanship and he always stressed that Martin almost knew the brand better than they did themselves. Jean-Louis Dumas really thought that it was important to innovate the brand, to attract new ideas, innovations, he always said, “We don’t need a revolution, we need an evolution.”

Maison Martin Margiela A/W 2000-2001

Margiela: The Hermès Years is at MoMu Antwerp until 27th August.