Maison Martin Margiela is no more. The once formidable and coveted brand has forfeited its sense of mystery in favor of commercial accessibility. With John Galliano at its helm now, will the new Maison Margiela regain its high-fashion dream?
"When Margiela started, it was a new proposition. It was ice cool. The four stitches were a smoke signal to the initiated." This is what Richard Gray, executive fashion director of "The Sunday Times Style," told us. It’s a sentiment echoed throughout Yoox’s mini documentary, "The Artist Is Absent." If you’ve not seen it, it’s a handy reminder of what made Margiela a covetable label in the first place. His use of deconstruction, mixed with an expert's hand at cutting and tailoring, made Margiela one of the most popular designers during his heyday. The other important component of Martin Margiela was his utter aversion to the commercial methods of the time, something which is surprising given what the collection is today. "The Artist Is Absent" talks about Margiela in the hushed, revered tones you’d expect of a documentary that’s able to finagle Raf Simons into some screen time (which looks like it was shot around the same time as "Dior and I"). But, most importantly, it talks of Margiela as a brand that no longer exists without his input. So what made Margiela change from the avant-grade, anti commercial label it once was to the collection of pleasantly nice stuff it is today?
There’s two periods of Margiela: before the OTB acquisition and after it. Let’s call them BOTB and AOTB for short. BOTB was when Margiela was known for all the reasons stated in the prior paragraph. Gray notes that "It was changed to Maison Margiela, but it should've been changed to Martin Margiela as that's why people bought into it." His anonymity was an added quirk, as was his treatments to models that ensured you paid attention to the clothes.
There’s influential designers in terms of influencing the public; then there’s influential designers in terms of influencing the designers who influence the public. Margiela was the latter. This was such an accepted fact that when "T" magazine profiled him in 2008, the publication showed five other brands -- Marc Jacobs, Junya Watanabe, Prada, Hermès and AF Vandevorst -- and showed the exact outfits where they’d copied Margiela. For a newspaper such as the "New York Times," known for the finickiest of corrections, to point this out meant that it must’ve been absolutely undeniable. This is how influential Margiela was. How did we get from there to a collection of plain jumpers and army trainers?
The first changing point was the acquisition, which happened in 2002 when Renzo Rosso’s OTB group bought Margiela. This was when fears for the future first kicked in. "At first, when he left, everyone was worried about it. But it had the same spirit for a while, because it was the same design team," says Gray. And, for a while, everything was the same. Then it went from "a collection to just shopping. Season after season it was the same trainers, the same jumper, the same shirt." Margiela officially left the company in 2009 but Rosso said that Margiela hadn’t been involved with the seasonal collections for a long time, saying that “he has a strong team and does not work on the collection, just special projects” to the "International Herald Tribune."
But, as Oki-Ni buyer Christopher Fisher notes, the evolution from collection to shopping was natural. "The journey the brand has taken, from cult status expressing the avant-garde to stepping, more recently, into the prominence of the wider conscious is the natural journey of any burgeoning fashion house." For a certain type of brand, this may be true. If you’re a brand that relies on clothing instead of fragrances and accessories to pay the bills, then there will inevitably be some dulling of the sharper edges. But, even so, it was a drastic change for Margiela the brand. As Gray says, it had the "meh factor" after a while, "even the outré pieces didn't have the same spirit behind them."
But, even if the spirit changed, it was definitely selling. As Dean Martinez, assistant designer menswear buyer at Selfridges notes, “We buy into core styles like the elbow patches and classic shirting and tailoring. This drop has made up 89% of our Spring/Summer 2015 sales to date.” And for Fisher, who notes that "there has been an unmistakable evolution" since the OTB acquisition, this doesn’t necessarily mean a negative. He points out that the foundation of Margiela was built on "non-seasonality and retrospection. It’s always been present. [It’s] something which rings true with the past collections." But, even though it was selling, there’s no denying that the brand lost something. Can it gain it back?
It’s tempting to wonder what Margiela would’ve been like under Raf Simons, who was approached by Margiela to take over the brand just before Margiela left. Another stellar choice would’ve been Haider Ackermann, who also turned it down. But it’s intriguing to see what Galliano does with Margiela menswear, especially as he’s known for specializing in womenswear, with his menswear left as an afterthought. Christopher Fisher points out that the "decision to bring fresh eyes to the house and move forward can only be seen as positive progression." Gray echoes these thoughts, noting that Galliano’s arrival has made people actually look forward to a Margiela collection "which hasn't happened for a while. When they did the womenswear with the crazy make-up I thought, thank god. A reason to get excited again."