PRINT March 1995


RECYCLED STYLE? Antifashion provocation? High fashion’s answer to a grungy zeitgeist? These are a few of the dubious epithets that have greeted Martin Margiela’s clothes since his debut. Spring/Summer ’89 collection. Add to them the promiscuous moniker deconstruction and it is plain that not only have Margiela’s clothing disconcerted and shocked, they have also been misunderstood.

It was this latter designation that gained currency in the Anglo-American press as Margiela’s signature “unfinished” look made its way abroad from Belgium, and he, Ann Demeuleemester, and Dries van Noten came to be seen as a movement—all three studied at Antwerp’s Academie Royale des Beaux Arts. But despite this particular term’s pedigree—it was the catchall for the French invasion of American lit crit that made the notion of “the death of the Author” a campus commonplace in the U.S.—the cliché of the vanguard artist, the rebel provocateur, has prevailed in discussions of Margiela’s work. It is a model that marginalizes his designs as pure experimentation, satisfying those who prefer to see his clothes in museums rather than on the streets.

Margiela’s work reflects less a vanguardist will to rupture than a sustained concern with sartorial purity—a style ethic, exemplary and impersonal, that demystifies the aura of the designer and focuses attention back on the garment. (Margiela’s former insistence on blank labels inside his garments, like the black eye-bands that make his models anonymous in the following pages, suggest as much.) As for the clothes themselves: Margiela’s garments and the collections to which they belong constitute a kind of intimate genealogy that is the very core of his sartorial universe. This is why one can speak of a cut in the history of fashion, of a before and after Margiela, but not of a “new look.”

Margiela’s pointed refusal of the notion of the “latest line” fuels his work on every level. In Group V, for instance, he produces identical copies of garments of various periods. Simple square labels sewn into the pieces specify their provenance. Margiela presents this little “history of style,” a gauge of “the times” in fashion, as a history in the making rather than an exercise in microfads. Similarly, he refuses the artificial seasonal cycles to which the fashion world conforms—he does not pretend to reinvent himself every six months anymore than he pretends to break with the fashion of the past. Since his Winter ’94 collection, in which pieces from each of his previous collections were reproduced in a single color, gray, he has introduced items from preceding seasons into each new collection—referent garments that he adjusts and adapts, as in the men’s jacket that he retailored for a woman. A related impulse motivates a series of enlargements based on a doll’s wardrobe, which respect the cut and initial disproportions of the originals (Group III).

Finally, Margiela’s taste for unraveled hems, unfolded darts, visible cuts and patterns is perfectly in keeping with his excavation of the garment’s secret history. He’ll make pieces out of recut underclothes (Group II), or dresses out of the linings of elegant and simple dresses, a style ideal turned inside out (Group IV).

The five groups of clothing that make up Margiela’s Summer 1995 collection (seen here as a series of image pairs, each featuring the single garment or period referent next to this season’s silhouette) retrace the genealogy of a collection. At the same time, of course, they are the season’s collection—both this summer’s look and a little archaeology of fashion Michel Foucault might have appreciated, for it involves a questioning of the relationship of the clothes to a specific moment in fashion in order to extract what he called “an origin without origin, from which everything can be born.” What Margiela realizes in his clothes is precisely this “tear without chronology,” which, with Foucault again, we might hail as a “retreat into the future.”

Olivier Zahm regularly reviews exhibitions from Paris for Artforum.

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.