3 April 2017

Margiela's "Forgotten" Hermès Years

Margiela's time at Hermès crossed over with Tom Ford's sexually amplified Gucci, Alexander McQueen's introduction of the bumster, and John Galliano's scandal-ridden Dior. So why, when the latter designers at their respective houses are so widely referenced and celebrated industry-wide, has Margiela's work beyond his own brand been somewhat lost in fashion history? His career at the French house spanned from 1997 to 2003 and bizarrely enough, only a brief scattering of images and reviews can be found in the depths of the oceanic internet. It was of course pre-Instagram and before the documentation of anything and everything was the norm but the lack of evidence as to how he transformed the house synonymous with silk scarves into a deconstructed minimalist dream, lies deeper beneath the surface. At a time when drama and spectacle were at the forefront, Margiela’s Hermès was dubbed "underwhelming" and it's only now, twenty years later, that the magic of the Belgian designer’s methodology is being put back on the radar by Antwerp’s ModeMuseum.

The exhibition, titled “Margiela: The Hermès Years,” showcases the 12 seasons that Margiela designed for the house between 1997 and 2003, but the clothes on display (118 individual pieces) span the entirety of the designer’s career, from 1988 to 2008. Margiela’s tenure at Hermès is very much mythologized but seemingly only half-remembered. When the Belgian designer was approached by the late Jean-Louis Dumas to helm Hermès, the appointment seemed a curious one. It wasn't clear how the famed Parisian brand would evolve with Margiela's vision. Any worry was proven unjust; his unparalleled understanding of tailoring, fabric and the balance of feminine and masculine that was so admirably natural to him, allowed Hermès to absorb the artisanal elements that are typically Margiela, while maintaining its elegance and traditionalism.


Margiela didn't attend the press preview (classic Martin) so his intentions for the exhibition couldn't be discussed but it seems that his focus was to preserve his legacy and walk us through his design approach in the way that he wants us to see it. The year, Margiela — the man, not the house — turns the big 60. He was directly involved with the exhibition and its accompanying book, including the styling of the mannequins and the curation of particular exhibits. It was he who initially reached out to Pierre-Alexis Dumas regarding Hermès’s involvement in documenting the period just before the new millennium prompted widespread use of the Internet and smartphones to record every fashion event.


“Martin’s work, especially for Maison Martin Margiela, was often described as antifashion,” Kaat Debo, Museum Director at ModeMuseum says. “I think it was never antifashion. It was an alternative, it was punk but without the negativity of punk. I think if today you want to work on an alternative, you easily end up with Martin. You almost can’t escape him.” And she's right, you can't escape him. His own brand is referenced left, right and centre which simply makes it all the more mind-boggling that his Hermès collections are only now being more widely appreciated. 


Seeing a flat image of a Maison Margiela piece next to a flat image of a Margiela-era Hermès piece might find you struggling to spot that many similarities but these two seemingly opposing views of contemporary fashion are akin in their conceptual stance. Against the clinical white that's typically Margiela, the precise hue of Hermès orange makes orange feel like the new black and elements like layering, knitwear and linear detailing are the dots that lines of comparison are drawn from. They're still very different, don't get me wrong, but there are signature Margiela elements that are clear as day when the garments are brought together and styled by the Belgian himself.


For a man so press shy and unwilling to give interviews, the exhibition almost felt like Margiela's way to bring relevance to a period of his career that he perhaps feels has been lost in time. It's a reminder that although the industry can sometimes make you feels like you're running a marathon in Tabi boots that are a half size too small with trend-driven change, ever-shortening lead times and difficult to please people on your heels – change is inevitable. That said, we shouldn't let ourselves forget what brought fashion to where it is now so it was nice to have a little reminder from Debo and the MoMu team; “We can’t go back to the ’90s. It’s not nostalgia, because the world has changed. Fashion has a very short memory, and at times that’s very problematic. As a museum, we can give fashion its memory back.”


See my full gallery of images from the exhibition here.