Contemporary New Zealand fashion was once defined by the "dark and intellectual" label given to it by the international press in 1999, after the "New Zealand Four" - Karen Walker, Nom*D, World and Zambesi - presented their collections at London Fashion Week to much acclaim. Nom*D and Zambesi in particular were very much in line with that vision, and at the time were compared to designers out of Antwerp, Belgium who had already begun to shake up the global style scene.
Belgium’s fashion forerunners were known for their penchant for recycling, raw seams, oversize cutting and a cerebral attitude. They offered a radical vision to face off the extravagant Eighties, and one of their biggest stars was the "invisible" designer, Martin Margiela. Sometimes called fashion's founding father of recycling and deconstruction, he was less of a personality and more of a “house”, and was famed for his dislike of being identified at a time when the Cult of Personality was huge.
Wednesday’s film, WE MARGIELA investigates the legacy of the house of Margiela and its relevance for fashion and authorship today. The unique innovations of the house, such as anonymity, re-usage, and replica versus copy, turn out to be concepts that are once again being explored today, and debated in the art and design worlds globally. At a time when recycling has become both a buzzword and an essential way of life, it is fascinating to see how Margiela did it merely as a matter of course.
For fashion freaks, the untold and intimate story of the enigmatic and singular fashion house is a compelling watch, even if many of those being interviewed aren’t hugely engaging as personalities. As the history of the house is told in parallel to the creative development and financial growth of Maison Martin Margiela, the film unravels notions of creativity, authorship, and financial return in a real examination of Art vs. Commerce.
I love how several of the interviews reveal the background to some of the most iconic images and designs of the house, which came into existence merely by coincidence and intuition, not preconceived concepts. The house lived for strong gut-feelings and took a deep pleasure in taking creative risks, although the financial constraints of being as punk rock about the whole thing as they often were eventually took its toll. As co-founder Jenny Meirens say: “When you want to please others and everyone, you will get nowhere. I think you have to diversify yourself from others. In the long run, it will give you the freedom not to answer to the system.”
It’s interesting to see how the ‘We’ of the title existed across one floor of the house, whilst the publicity-shy creative director stayed at the top.” The ‘We’ essentially allowed Margiela to function in a way that is almost unheard of for a significant name in fashion, never being interviewed or photographed, barely interested in the business side of things and supported by an inner circle of men and women who were as supremely talented as they were loyal. At the centre of the group was Meirens. She died in July last year but her presence is felt throughout the film, her voice integral to the narrative. Her voiceover is presented against a white screen - the use of white a statement for the house. The staff at the atelier wears the type of white chemises that are normally the preserve of seamstresses, and they are responsible for painting and re-painting their own desks white, meaning that no two ever look the same. “He uses fashion as a way to express himself,” Meirens says, “but he could just as easily be a conceptual artist, a great artist. Martin experienced things in a childlike way. To him, designing is so playful, so light, so… I thought that was exceptional. He would have been big anywhere, but different depending on where it was.”
The Maison was one of the earliest contemporary avant-garde fashion houses to succumb to the pressure of financial growth. After the selling of the house, the founders retired almost immediately from public life and employees were bereft. Meirens, whose commentary opens and closes the documentary says: “At the end, I was sick and tired. I was tired. I was 58 years old and I’d just lost my mum. I didn’t have the energy for another ten years. I think he’d lost sight, lost faith. I honestly think Martin didn’t see the results of all those efforts until we sold the company. Only then did he realise what his name was worth.” It’s a sad ending to a story that told of so much creativity and so much love for a group of visionaries whose passion for design took the house to such heights, although releases by the house of late point to some great things, and some of those employees are still there today.
It goes without saying that Martin Margiela himself is absent from the film. And that, perhaps, is just the way he likes it.
WE MARGIELA has its NZ TV Premiere on Wednesday 8 August 8.30pm on Rialto Channel.
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