Born in 1957, in the Belgian city of Genk and student at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp – the same famed institution has also spawned fashion design innovators such as Dries Van Noten, Raf Simons, Ann Demeulemeester – Martin Margiela is the founder of his eponymous and hugely influential label in the late-80s. He worked for more than 20 years, without ever revealing his identity, remaining anonymous even within his inner circle and creating a mystery behind his name.
Rather, he would promote his brand over himself, the community and family over his ego, so that in every press release or interview he would always answer saying “We” as a Maison and always sending telegraphs back instead of speaking.
“Anonymity for me was protection, I knew I had to protect myself and my collections”
Martin Margiela was never fixated on the traditional perceptions of beauty and he constantly showed that by championing diverse and unconventional looking individuals as models to his fashion shows.
Most of Margiela’s masterpieces were tailored in the 90s, where a minimal and clean aesthetic was shared among the majority of designers at that time after the opulence and research of details splurged of the previous decade.
Margiela was also one of the first designers to adopt a sustainable approach to design, reusing and modifying existing garments into new creations, by using things like old, discarded gloves or ties. Yet it was a rough approach to a new punk aesthetics, pushing the boundaries of design with reinventing and redefining of the male and female silhouette.
Another peculiarity for the brand is the labelling process. Each Margiela label displays a run of numbers from 0-23, corresponding to the collection it sits in.
He has been also credited as one of the pioneers of ‘deconstructed’ fashion, creating by leaving exposed hems and raw stitched seams clearly visible in some of his clothing, to celebrate imperfections.
Margiela today is mainly known by a host of fashion and fashionistas lovers for its original boots. The tabi boots have a particular split-toe design, and are associated almost exclusively with traditional wafuku Japanese clothing, since tabi socks are proper — and perhaps only — hosiery to wear with wooden sandals”.
The Tabi boots are a constant inspiration and timeless pieces, selling rough and animalistic aesthetics.
Recently, several arguments have been said about it, considering them as cultural appropriation of Japanese traditional clothing. They have been used by emerging designers, like Demna Gvasalia, who has frequently cited Margiela as a key source of inspiration. Gvasalia showed the Tabi-style boots for his A/W18 show for Vetements.
Whoever designer will ever succeed him in the Maison Margiela, nothing will take away the essence of the brand outside the box and beyond the conventions, that every time it is worn, it is always recognized by someone among us out there. And no one will ever know the true identity of Martin Margiela
Yet the opinions on this matter are very divergent: “Because I’m Japanese, I had known of the tabi shape for a long time, but Margiela’s Tabi boot was something different. It’s [taken] from something traditional, but he took the inspiration and twisted it in his own way.” Kota Gushiken, designer.
Nowadays it’s easy to find people in the streets wearing Tabi boots, but it wasn’t the same in the 1990s. Alexandre Samson, a close colleague of the designer, has said during an interview “Their provocative potential must not be underestimated.”
Besides the iconic boots, the Maison seemed to have been left as a memory of times gone by until a new designer, John Galliano, gave a face and image to a new Margiela.
Galliano has always put his heart and creativity into his works, transforming every dress into a show of art and imagination, as done for Maison Dior in the past.
For Maison Margiela, it was proof that Galliano could – and was willing to – make complex creations, transforming clean lines and shapes, rigour and the perennial effect of unfinished, into something abstract and dreamy. For his last S / S20 fashion show, he took a political stand portraiting an era of overconsumption, information overload, and decay, with this new age of anarchy reflected in the cut of the garments and the glitchy, abstracted images that many of them were emblazoned.