As Maison Martin Margiela celebrated its 20th Anniversary, festivities were somewhat marred by the news that its elusive chief-designer was to step down. With little or no press coverage throughout his two decades of designing, the murky details surrounding Margiela’s departure, and his desire to maintain a strict anonymity heightened the anticipation of this celebratory touring retrospective.
Somerset House is fast becoming the site for avant-garde fashion exhibitions in the UK, and Maison Margiela does not disappoint. A white caravan wittily introduces an exhibition of the surreal and unexpected, parodying the 1990s overkill of inanimate everyday objects by the ‘YBA’s , underscoring Margiela’s forays into art, craft, design and fashion.
The exhibition is not merely a feast for the eyes; it offers an emotional rollercoaster that swings swiftly from disappointment to wonder. A sea of white and silver, a giant polystyrene hand holding a list of the designers 7 different lines, a silver collection of signature Japanese inspired ‘Tabi’ shoes, and rigid white displays of varied shoulder shapes (an interregnal part of the Margiela silhouette) set the foundations. There is nothing unexpected here. Similarly, as is the wont of recent fashion exhibitions, a 15ft screening of the s/s 2009 catwalk show accompanied by the heavy beat of Peaches ‘fuck the pain away’ adds movement and ‘edge’ to the static display. But this was no ‘copycat’ show.
What appeared to be an empty room elicited an Alice In Wonderland charm. In this minimal void, neutral tones starkly lit slick tailoring, whilst a white telephone box, true to Margiela’s surreal bent projected colour and pattern onto a 100% down ‘Duvet Coat’, which when attached with thin leather straps the detachable arms sprung into action with each changed projection.
Garments pinned flat to the wall demonstrated intricate cutting techniques, whilst displays wrapped with partially torn plastic elicited a childlike urge to rip through to the garment poking beneath. Such emotive interaction enables the spectator to become part of Margiela’s world, facilitating access to his innovative creative impulses. The constant theme of anonymity, the elusiveness of a slash of paint across a model’s face, a blindfold, a head hidden under a blonde afro, to the ‘Incognito’ sunglasses that bisect the face, all conceal the identity beneath. This theme continues when the ‘lost’ hours of production are revealed, given pride of place alongside the completed garments.
But this is not purely an artistic folly; this is a design business and references to the internal workings of the fashion industry and clear evidencing of the relationship between production and consumption, offer a refreshing perspective of what could merely be an exemplar of the designer as artist.
This is an exhibition of extremes; the expected fuse explosively with the unexpected, the hard graft with critical creativity, and the mundane with the surreal. There is something for everyone here and perhaps this is Margiela’s greatest legacy; to be all things to all people, a talent rare in the current fashion world.