Housed within the purposefully fresh and whitewashed walls of the Embankment Galleries within Somerset House, the new home of London Fashion Week, is M.M.M.’s 20 year retrospective. For those familiar with Margiela’s work, it is no surprise this strays from the classic retrospective model; for the man of the House in question (whoever he is, wherever he is) is certainly no conventional designer. An enigmatic figure, whose identity has never been unveiled (he is now retired), he is amongst the finest and most influential designers in the world – for me, high up on a pedestal with the late McQueen, Rei Kawakubo and Hussein Chalayan – all true contemporary fashion auteurs, sartorial architects, conceptual designers and masters of design. This exhibition – designed by Bob Verhelst, once part of the exclusive M.M.M. – captures Margiela’s unique, distinctive aesthetic and vision, via the presentation of garments, installations, photography and film.
The Belgian designer’s fashion house name uniformly and alliteratively trips off the tongue. However it was crystal clear from his first pioneering fashion show in 1988 that Margiela’s avant-garde visualization would be marked by controversy and difference, literally changing the shape of fashion to come. Following graduation in ‘88 from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (with the legendary avant-garde fashion collective, the Antwerp Six), then an early stint with the wonderfully wacky Jean Paul Gaultier, Margiela’s radically new visual language was forming.
The “20” journey begins with a room, or rather a large expanse of white, offset with fairylights. Silver discs cover the floor like confetti, reinforcing the Maison’s consistent white and silver colour palette.
To the right stands a large 3-D Styrofoam portrait of the M.M.M collective. The designer who gives the house its name unsurprisingly does not feature; each figure is faceless, reduced to a white silhouette. Like an eery family portrait. One is struck by the overpoweringly stark snow-white walls, floor ceiling and objects within – this blank canvas essence is also a feature of M.M.M.’s offices, shops and showrooms. The exhibition guide states that white stands for “the strength of fragility and the fragility of the passage of time”. The coating of pieces (shoes, denim jackets etc.) with white paint, the wrapping of objects with cotton and the complementary use of silver sequins and disco balls are also running themes. Margiela would be the perfect creative director for P Diddy’s White Balls.
Beyond this tranquil white entrance, past the twinkling fairy lights, lies a deliciously contrasting and jarringly dark space, in which the Maison’s devilishly disturbing runway shows are projected onto the far wall. Peaches’ Fuck The Pain Away pounds and electroclashes loudly as pugnaciously-posed and provocative models stomp down the runway, hands on jutting hips, long limbs enveloped in nude body stockings under M’s marvelous structured designs, “faceless” faces entirely covered with hair. With this premise of disguise and hiding one’s face (a section of the exhibition is devoted to “Incognito”) I crown Margiela the King of Hangover Couture, perfect for those wishing to disappear (albeit not visually, visually you might cause a bit of a stir) from the world. His infamous wigs and covered faces, huge high hooded and duvet coats are the ideal attire for those with a delicate morning-after disposition.
Beneath the screen, in a spotlight holding centre stage, are a selection of the jackets (naturally, all in white) illustrating the exquisite tailoring and exaggerated silhouette for which the Maison is jaw-droppingly admired. Although the shoulder has recently been having a moment (reborn by Balmain), Margiela was manipulating this element to break through a new silhouette back in ’88, striking a bold juxtaposition against the power dressing of the 1980s. His vision and creation was a long shape with strikingly narrow shoulders – slim jacket with puffed sleeves, mounted high on the body’s upper frame. The next two decades saw further experimentation, shoulder lines widening, expanding upwards and even moving entirely to the front of the body. Please note these garments were not included in the exhibition.
In the 2008-2009 Autumn Winter collection, the shoulder reaches perfect hangover-comforting proportions. Said coveted black woollen sweater (with a very wide conical shaped, rolled neck that part hides the face) cannot be pictured for aforementioned reasons. Here is a very similar design:
Other designers’ interpretations of “the shoulder” for Spring/ Summer 2010:
From subtle-American football-inspired Alexander Wang:
To the absolutely ridiculous – Alexandre Herchcovitch (Spring 2010)
I digress… The Mezzanine Gallery – slathered in white, featuring characteristic trompe l’oeil features – exhibits and explores many further recurring elements within the Margiela lexicon. For example “Le Porté” (garments showing various shapes and structures, including my favourite conical sweater); “Destroy” (deconstruction and the reworking of existing materials, including a sweater made of military socks); and “Paint” (covering materials, garments, furniture, everything! with paint is prevalent, again tying in with neutral canvas concept - there is indeed a white telephone box in the centre of the space). Here we have shoes painted white from Spring-Summer 1990 (easy to recreate this look at home, kids). Further hangover/ Glastonbury-friendly clothing is evident in the Duvet Coat (A/W 1999-2000) – see below for similar.
“Incognito”, in my opinion, is the most interesting aspect of the oeuvre, especially poignant in light of Margiela’s total withdrawal (to the press’ displeasure). In fact, when the House utilizes real-life models in campaigns, the tendency is to black out the eyes, in another extension of the identity crisis thread. Indeed M. M. M.’s sunglasses are of the same ilk.
Yet another eccentricity is the Maison’s use of hair: the infamous wigs and the Wig Coat" from Spring 2009, made entirely from toupés.
CAPTION: 51 hours to create perhaps the most surreal and unpleasant piece of clothing I have ever seen. Note similarly, pony/ horse hair shoes are looking to be huge for this A/W.
As a retrospective “20” salutes the deviance of the Maison, explaining well the richly dense and complex codes within its sartorial history, influence and language. Margiela is most certainly a man I would like on my dinner party guest list. He could concoct outfits for the morning after. “20” comes highly recommended. 5 shiny silver stars.
by Rachel Warrilow, special fashion correspondent in London.