Backstage at Margiela - Behind the Masks
Maison Margiela has always avoided the cult of personality. Founder, Belgian designer Martin Margiela has never agreed to a face to face interview or to being photographed, and was once nicknamed “the invisible man of fashion.” Since he left in 2009, the Maison’s collections have been designed by a creative team that relies on the innovation of the clothes rather than drawing attention to themselves to promote the Maison. As Maison Margiela presented its first full runway presentation in six years, it offered a small peak behind its usual closed doors.
July 4, Espace Commines, Paris 3rd
The former 19th century industrial warehouse is already all set up, ready to welcome journalists and buyers that will come in two hours’ time to view the first full Margiela runway presentation since 2006 of its artisanal collection. Under a beautiful glass roof that lets the late afternoon Parisian sun shine through to the bright white space, small white cubes have been set out along a complex grid on which the invited guests can sit and watch the presentation, each with a large program detailing the 15 looks. Several people wearing white laboratory coats are milling around, finalising the preparations for the guests, but the atmosphere appears relaxed.
Yet behind the runway backdrop, there is hive of activity, only reinforced by the smallness of the four rooms, which are all rather sparsely decorated. In the largest room, the Margiela’s new artisanal collection is hanging, still under transparent plastic wraps, with a sheet of A4-sized paper pinned on each of them detailing the model and all the accessories she should wear. In another room, some models are trying one of the collection’s key accessories, colourful bejewelled masks that give the models faces the anonymity so closely associated with the Maison, while in the third room, a seamstress is ironing a long cut of silk which is to be tied around a crystal Edwardian doorknob to become a backless evening dress worn over black lace trousers.
Since its founding in 1988, Maison Martin Margiela has collected new and used clothes, accessories and objects from around the world and one of the cornerstones of its creative expression has been to resurrect these pieces, recasting them in a new way that preserves the mark of time.
For this collection, the Maison has built an anachronistic silhouette by opposing clothing fabrics and objects originating from the turn of the 20th century with more contemporary shapes, volumes and raw materials. A sleeveless tailored jacket inspired by a 1905 tailcoat found in the South of France is cut in Calico (raw cotton) with a large Edwardian crystal doorknob sourced in New York now forming a brooch to close the jacket. A smoking jacket made from several pieces of Edwardian lace from Chantilly, Bruges and Calais, will be worn over black lace trousers, while in another piece, a mass of embroidery whose designs are attributed to Paul Poiret and the master passmentier Prevost were used in a patchwork design adding a dramatic touch to an open-backed blouse, and antique costume jewellery from the Opera de Paris’s early 20th Century supplier Le Blanc-Granget has been assembled on a velvet covered leather bib that shall be worn to cover the modesty of a bare torso.
Most of the clothes will be kept on their hangers until the last minute so for now the models wearing their own clothes teamed with Tabi mini-boots with chunky colourful heels so often favoured by the Maison. Tabi are traditional Japanese ankle-length socks with a separation between the big toe and other toes, and they have been regularly used by the Maison to symbolize its universality and respect of tradition as well as fashion-forward tendencies. The Tabi boots are one of the many “codes” of the Maison that the creative team is perpetuating, along with the signature white pick stitches used instead of a label.
Behind the runway backdrop, the event manager is starting to line up the models who are wearing their masks, ready to do the first walk-through rehearsal. One of the models remarks that the jewels are getting into her mouth while others are a little nervous about the limited vision which is a greater concern for them as the runway presentation has been choreographed as an elaborate meandering walk with the models crossing behind each other to the heavy drum beat of the music. “Don’t stop, continue to walk… a bit faster… keep the rhythm,” the manager shouts moments later while keeping an eye on a video monitor showing what’s happening on the runway during the rehearsal. Meanwhile, a Margiela designer is discussing the fitting of the masks with the hairdresser, suggesting that the tight bun needs to be lowered on some of the girls’ heads to make it easier to fit the mask. Just as the models finish their walk-through, a late-comer arrives from the Didit Hediprasetyo show across town, still wearing haunting pale blue coloured lenses. A mask is quickly put on her and she’s given a walk-through with another two models who had not fully mastered the walk pattern on their earlier practice.
Models are getting ready for the full-dress rehearsal in front of the entire Maison Margiela team — about 70 people — many of whom will not be able to see the later show. Strict instructions are given on not posting any photos or tweeting until the 7.30pm show is over; all the people try to cool themselves with their programmes or other makeshift fans as the glass-roof is making the room particularly hot.
The sparkly face masks, each with a different colour of crystals, are a bold statement that complements the eclectic collection of reconstructed trousers, blouses and tuxedo jackets. In addition to the Edwardian doorknobs on some items, Maison Margiela is also using vintage leather baseball gloves in a bolero worn over a Prevost embroidered blouse and a sleeveless jacket, and the sail from a windsurfer has been tailored and used elsewhere to produce the volume of a 1910s-style overcoat.
Once the defile is finished, the models get undressed and the waiting begins again. The fans installed in the small backrooms where the models have been told to remain barely keep them cool as they discuss more mundane issues affecting them outside of the gilded world they are preparing to dazzle, while some munch on apples and cereal bars all the while resisting the urge to sneak out for a puff on a cigarette. The Margiela team is still putting some final touches on the garments, tweaking a sleeve, cutting a leather strap from the bolero jacket; “Looks too much like a cowboy fringe,” mutters someone, scissors in hand.
The guests start to arrive and settle in for the much anticipated show that is also the closing show for this couture week. By 7.40, the models are asked to first put on their clothes and a few minutes later, the full dressing is complete. As the masks are put on one last time, the models start lining up quickly so the design team can double check every detail, though it turns out that it will be another 20 minutes before the show actually starts as everyone has to wait for a VIP guest, a noted journalist, to arrive.
A few minutes after the delayed start, and it is all over. Maison Margiela’s first runway presentation has taken place without a hitch, unveiling 15 intriguing looks that continue the Maison’s inventiveness while also respecting tradition.